The Ancient Mayan civilization essay

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TheAncient Mayan civilization

Thepopularity of the Maya people in the modern world is attributed tothe civilization that occurred between 2000 BC and 1697 AD. The termMaya Civilization is used to describe the economic, social, andpolitical progress that was achieved by the ancient Mayans (Wikipedia1). During this period, the Maya civilization became more complex,expanded its geographical coverage, and resulted in the constructionof larger commercial centers. Although Maya civilization is known asthe most popular type of Mesoamerican civilization because of thehieroglyphic type of writing, there are other types of developmentthat allowed the Mayans to advance their empire. For example, thepeople of Maya achieved a significant development in art,mathematics, architecture, astronomical, and the establishment of aunique calendar system. The information about the Mayan Empire hasbeen made available by anthropologists, paleontologists, andhistorians. Although the Maya civilization was characterized by manyachievements (such as architectural development and the establishmentof large cities), it is evident that the establishment of language,mathematics, and an accurate calendar system were the most importantaspects of Maya’s progress.

Historyof Maya civilization

Mayacivilization occurred in three major periods, during which differenttypes of social, economic, religious, and political achievements weremade. The first period, pre-classic, started around 2600 BC, butsettlements were established in Soconusco in 1800 BC (Wikipedia 1).During this period, the Maya people who lived along the Pacific coaststarted cultivating different types of crop, including maize, squash,beans, and chili pepper. This implies that agriculture is among thefirst components of the economic progress that were pursued duringMaya Civilization. However, most of the members of the Mayancommunity led a sedentary life, while others engaged in theproduction of clay figurines and pottery. Kaminaljuyu became the mostimportant center during the pre-classic period.

Secondly,the classic phase of civilization occurred between 250 and 900 AD.Most of the development projects that form part of Maya civilizationwere either completed or started during this period. Some of the keyaspects of the civilization that were achieved during the classicperiod include the development of the Long Count calendar,urbanization, and the construction of large scale infrastructure(Wikipedia 1). Maya’s political system has been equated to theleadership systems of Classical Greece and Renaissance Italy.Calakmul and Tikal became the largest and the principle cities duringthe classic era. The political leadership was clearly defined, withthe king being the head of the empire.

Thethird period, post-classic, occurred between 950 and 1539 AD. Duringthis period, the largest proportion of the Maya population wasconcentrated near the sources of water, which resulted in collapsingof the most of the cities established during the classic period.Civilization shifted to Maya Highlands and northern lowlands(Wikipedia 1). These changes marked the beginning of the decline ofMaya civilization.


Mayacivilization occurred in a wide territory that included the northernpart of Central America and the southern regions of Mexico.Civilization covered the whole of the Yucatan Peninsula and themodern Guatemala. Some aspect of the civilization also reached ElSalvador and Honduras (Wikipedia 1). Most of the regions where Mayacivilization occurred were characterized by vast plain and a fewmountains, hills, and low coastline. For example, the Peten regionconsisted of a low lying plain of limestone and a section of a denseforest. In essence, the Maya territory expanded with time to a timewhen it covered at least a third of the entire Mesoamerica. However,Maya were involved in dynamic interactions with their neighboringcultures. They were able to preserve the cities (such as Kaminaljuyuand Tikal) as the territory’s loci, in spite of the geographicaldiversity that the empire achieved with time.

Thedevelopment of Maya calendar system

Thecalendar system used by the Maya community was developed during thepre-classic period. This system, also known as the long-count, helpedMaya people keep track of the time. The system used units that variedin length, starting from one day to millions of years (Montejo 141).This calendar system was complicated because it was used to recordsolar as well as lunar cycles, the movements of planets, and eclipsesat the same time. The accuracy with which the calendar systempredicted seasons and times made it unique and superior compared toother systems used in the old world. However, other communities couldnot adopt the Maya calendar because it was tied to Maya rituals andreligious practices.

Thebasic unit of the Maya calendar was the day, which implies that othersignificant period and the seasons were comprised of a specificnumber of days. For example, the Long-Count system has three cyclesthat interlock with each other. These cycles include the 260-day,365-cycle, and the 52-year cycle (Gonzalez 86). The Maya people hadmanaged to apply their intelligence during the civilization period tolink the cycles with their rituals and beliefs. For example, the260-day cycle was founded on the gestation period of human beings.This cycle was used to mark the foundation of Maya ceremony andprophecy. The 365-day cycle was used to mark a dangerous time inwhich the barriers between the supernatural and the mortal realms arebroken. The Long-Count calendar system is still used to-date, but themajority of the Maya people have adopted the Short-Count calendar,which is an abbreviated version of the old system of the calendar.

Thedevelopment of mathematical techniques

Thepeople of Maya used the base 20 system to solve computationalproblems, which was also common among other Mesoamerican communities.The Maya adopted the mathematical system in the late pre-classicalperiod (Wikipedia 1). The Maya people shared the mathematical systemwith other people, but they were able to add the symbol for zero.This marked the beginning of the explicit use of the zero in theworld. Initially, the Maya people used the zero as the place holderto indicate the absence of calendar count. The Maya people thenintegrated the value of zero in their hieroglyphic text, where itcould be used in computation. A dot represented one, bar representedfive, while a shell symbol was used to represent zero. These symbolscould be combined to write other numerals up to number nineteen. Thismathematical framework was quite systematic and advanced. This isconfirmed by the fact that it was possible to use it to determine thepresent value of different numerals depending on their position(Wikipedia 1). Large numbers were written using the same symbols, butwith multiples of twenty. The ability of the Maya people to develop asystem that could allow them to record numbers in multiples of twentygave them an opportunity to work with extremely huge numbers. Thismathematical system made a significant contribution towards thedevelopment of other aspects of the Maya civilization.


TheMaya people communicated using one language referred to as the dubbleproto-Mayan before the onset of civilization. Vocabulary associatedwith this language originated from northern and western Guatemala.The Pro-Mayan language diverged later to form several other languagesthat are used by different Mayan families to-date (Coe 46). Thisdivergence occurred during the pre-classic period. During thepre-Columbian period, the languages used by different familiesdiverged further to form about thirty more languages that survivedto-date. However, ch’olan is the language that has been identifiedin most of the Mayan text that were written during the civilizationperiod. The successful development of languages was followed by thewriting and literacy skills. Although there were several Mesoamericawriting systems developed before the civilization era, the writingsystem that the Maya people established during the civilizationperiod was the most sophisticated in the region.

However,the Mayan writing system borrowed a lot from writing system developedby the ancient Egyptians. This system was based on the use ofphonetic signs that represented syllables. The development of asophisticated language resulted in the establishment of the Mayascript, which was put in different objects, including ceramics, stonemonuments, and pieces of paper that were processed from the barks(Coe 46). The hieroglyphic script is considered as the most popularevidence of the successful development of the Maya language and thewriting system. The Maya people used the glyph block as the mostbasic unit and it represented a phrase or a word. The hieroglyphicscript was formed by the combination of many glyph blocks that wereseparated with a space. These blocks were arranged in patterns thatformed phrases and comprehensive sentences. The hieroglyphic scriptcould be arranged in different forms, but the general patternfollowed the double column pattern was the most common pattern. Anindividual block could be made up of several elements, includingaffixes and the main signs. It is estimated that the Maya people hadan intellectual capacity that allowed them to speak and writephonetically (Coe 26). This confirms the sophisticated nature of theMaya language as well as the writing system.

Literatureof the ancient Mayan civilization

Thesuccessful development of a comprehensive writing system gave theMaya people the opportunity to document their literature. The termliterature is used to refer to all products that played some roles inthe process of advancing literacy during the civilization period. Forexample, the Mayan literature could be considered in the context oftime, religion, and astronomy. The Maya people kept track of time byobserving celestial bodies. This has been confirmed by the fact thatmost of the pre-Colombian literature done by the Maya people dealtwith astronomical information (Wikipedia 1). This information wasmainly used to describe different rituals and explain the passage oftime. The Mayan literature also focused on matters of history,legacy, and power. Most of the literature that focused on the threefactors was curved into different monumental structures, such astemples and altars (Tedlock 62). Literature that was prepared for thepurposes of documenting history and power could be differentiatedfrom other forms by the unique nature of its themes. The key themesincluded victory, dedication of monuments, heritage, and marriagebetween different royal heritages.

Inaddition, part of the Maya literature was fictive and mythical innature. Although Maya people were able to document part of their mythin pictorial traditions, most of it was passed on orally, whichimplies that some myths may have been lost. The extensive use ofpoetic language made the mythical and legendary stories moreappealing, even in the contemporary aesthetic sense. Some mythsincluded the aspects of actual historical events, which made itpossible to determine the time when they were narrated. However, thecombination of myths and actual events made it difficult todistinguish between history and myth in the Mayan culture. Mesoamericans, including the Maya people, did not distinguish betweenlinguistic and pictorial literature. Part of the Mayan literature wasdocumented in pictorial, also known as ideographic writing (Wikipedia1). The ideographic writing involved the use of signs to write apassage. These signs could be read by people in different languages.Linguistic literature, on the other hand, was documented using wordsand sounds of language. This allowed the readers to get the accuratemeaning of the text presented in a specific language. The lack ofdistinction between pictorial and linguistic literature has made itdifficult for the modern scholars to determine whether inscriptionmade by Maya people should be considered as descriptive drawings orspoken language.

Althoughmost of poetic language was used in writing of myths, there are wellorganized poems that can be traced back to the civilization period.The actual authors of these poems are still disputed, but theirorigin and the time of composition can be traced by using thehistorical events on which they were based on and political leadersmentioned in them (Wikipedia 1). Most of the poems written by Mayapeople were recited orally, which resulted in their disappearancewith time. However, some of them have been documented and preservedin the book known as the Song of Dztbalche. The Mayan poetry wasbased on different themes, including resistance to some politicalactions taken by leaders (Estrada 92). Some poems were written andrecited to educate children, while others provoked the audience inorder to make them reflect on things that happened in their world.

TheMayan philosophy

Thekey ideologies the guided Maya focused on order, time, and rituals.The religious ideologies developed by the Mayan philosopher werebased on the idea of accommodating people in the universe. Mayapeople believed that the cosmos was changing and a suitable set ofphilosophies could ensure that all people are accommodated in thecycles of the universe at all times. For example, Maya people wereadvised not to take things personally, since the actions taken byother people were not meant for them. People took actions to reflecttheir own thoughts, which implies that the only alternative thatcould help people live in peace was to remain immune to the actionsas well as the opinions of others. The ideologies derived from theMayan philosophy were put forward to help people reflect on theirlives and discern ways that could help them become whole (Estrada95).

Additionally,Maya philosophers developed ideologies that could help the communityenhance its interrelationships and ethics. Maya believed in the ideaof social justice, which could be advanced by popularizing differentideologies that could guide people in respecting the right of others(Estrada 98). Philosophy was used to help people understand theirroles in the society and the key values that the community expectedthem to uphold.


Mayacivilization was characterized by progress made in different aspectsthat affected the lives of the Mesoamericans. Some of the key areasthat were affected by this civilization include politics, religion,literature, philosophy, economics, calendar system, language, andmathematics among others. The evolution of Maya language into othersmall languages increased diversity within the territory. However,the establishment of the mathematical as well as the writing systemshelped the Maya document and preserves their history and share theirritual practices from one generation to another. For example, thecomprehensive writing system allowed Maya to document many poems andmyths that have remained popular to-date. However, most of the myths,poems, and stories that communicated much about Maya culture,rituals, and historical events were shared orally, which resulted intheir disappearance with time. Moreover, Maya civilization has beenconsidered as the most superior one in Mesoamerica. This can beconfirmed by the fact that Maya were able to develop a calendarsystem that could be used to predict the occurrence of the differentseasons with a high level of accuracy. The key achievements made inlanguage and mathematics helped the Maya advance the empire’sarchitectural infrastructure. This made it easy for the empire toexpand geographically. The geographical expansion is attested by theexistence of well organized cities, especially during the classicperiod.


Coe,D. Breakingthe Maya code.New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, Inc, 1992. Print.

Estrada,V. Contemporary expressions of Maya indigenous knowledge: Politicsand poetry in Ixim Ulew. VivianJimenez Estrada19.1 (2016): 86-103.

Gonzalez,G. B’aktunMayan visions of 2012 and beyond.Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2010. Print.

Montejo,D. MayaIntellectual renaissance.Austin: University of Texas Press, n.d. Print.

Tedlock,D. 2000years of Mayan literature.Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. Web.

Wikipedia.Mesoamericanliterature.Wikipedia. May 6. 2016. Web. 2 June 2016.