The Maya is mostly associated with an unfulfilled doomsday prophecy on December 21, 2012, or with giant abandoned pyramids standing in the middle of the jungle. While in a way it is correct to associate the ancient Maya civilization with these things, their influence on contemporary civilization is much more than these associations can contain.
Over the course of their long history the Maya have reached many incredible achievements:
The Maya were far from being ignorant infidels, as the Spanish conquerors thought about them, and without an input of their incredible civilization, our world heritage would be incomplete. We invite you to look at 25 amazing things which make the Maya civilization so precious and unique among other ancient civilizations.
Although historians find it difficult to say when Maya developed their first civilization, they agree that Mayans were one of the six cradles of civilization. These cradles of civilization are Mesoamerica (where Maya originated from), China, Indus Valley, Norte Chico, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. All of them emerged independently and developed in their unique way.
Historians divide Mayan history into three periods: pre-classic (2000 BC - 250 AD), classic (250 - 900 AD) and post-classic (950-1539 AD). The classic period is when Mayan civilization reached its peak in many spheres including urban development and large-scale constructions.
During the Golden Period, or the Classic Period, the Maya Empire had grown to 40 cities, including Palenque, Bonampak, Tikal, Calakmul, Uaxactún, Río Be, Copán and Dos Pilas. Their cities expanded haphazardly, outward and upward. Very little planning went into the building and cities' layout.
There were 5,000 to 50,000 people living in each city and the overall population of Maya reached 2,000,000. Considering it was an ancient civilization, this scale is difficult to imagine.
Around the 600 AD, the Maya excelled at hieroglyph writing, mathematics, agriculture, calendar-making, pottery, medicine, and architecture.
The most popular Mayan pyramid that you see on the postcards and pictures is Chichen Itza, which was once privately owned until the government purchased it. In fact, there are many more Mayan pyramids and cities and the new ones are still being discovered by archaeologists today. This decade a new ancient Mayan pyramid was discovered at Toniná in Mexico, Laguinita and Tamchen, two ancient Mayan cities, were discovered in 2014 and in the beginning of 2018 scientists also discovered a Mayan city hidden under Guatemalan Jungle.
Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli comments:
"I am a firm believer that there are hundreds of Maya sites still to be discovered, and they're all over the place."
Pyramid La Danta is located in the Mayan city of Mirador, which was one of the biggest and most magnificent cities built in pre-Columbian America. The city was erected around three pyramids, one of which is La Danta. Not only this pyramid is higher than Khufu, the tallest of the Great Egyptian Pyramids, but it also one of the largest pyramids in the world. It measures 72 meters tall and rises above the forest in its majestic greatness.
However, in contrast with the Great Egyptian Pyramids, which are easy to access, La Danta is surrounded by thick forest and you need to hire an experienced guide to get there.
Mayan civilization is famous for numerous achievements, which we will discuss in due course, but probably their most celebrated and renowned achievements are in astronomy. They were able to calculate the cycle of Venus, the lunar month and the solar year with unprecedented precision. They also developed complex and sophisticated calendar which used three different dating systems. Even in those ancient times, Mayans understood that the land was a mirror of the sky
Although their achievements in astronomy were spectacular, just like many ancient civilizations Mayans believed that the moon, the sun, and the stars were gods which moved across the sky.
As we have already mentioned, Mayans used three different dating systems. They had a Tzolk’in, or a 260-day sacred calendar, which was used to plan elite ceremonies, Haab', or a 365-day solar calendar (like a modern Gregorian calendar), and the Long Count calendar (for 2,880,000 days or 5125 years) which had no date for 21st December 2012. The former measured creation cycles and according to the Maya, the fourth creation cycle ended on December 21, 2012, giving the beginning to the fifth creation cycle. The world doesn't end on the 31 of December, every year does it? Same goes to this Mayan cycle which is much longer than our solar year.
This misunderstanding caused a lot of confusion and spawned many doomsday theories stating that the world will end on this date. Others thought that this date signifies a new age of peace, enhanced understanding, and higher consciousness.
21 December 2012 passed and no apocalypse happened. As for the era of peace and tranquility, judging from the events happening today it's not going to happen anytime soon, but let's still hope for a better future and, more importantly, work to create it.
Cacao's chemical signatures which were found in Maya ceramic vessels in Guatemala date back to 600 BC. Try to imagine the taste of natural Mayan chocolate made 2600 years ago. Actually, it wasn't a chocolate that's produced today and not just because it was all natural. Maya people mixed cacao with chili peppers, honey, cornmeal, water, and other ingredients to make a spicy drink which tasted like nothing we know.
Historians suggest that drinking cacao was a crucial part of rituals and celebrations. But what's even more fascinating, a new study reveals that chocolate was used as a currency at the height of Mayan development. Anthropologist and Maya expert at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, David Freidel, who wasn't involved in this study says, “Chocolate a very prestigious food, and it was almost certainly a currency.”
Mayans had one of the most advanced writing systems in the history of ancient civilizations. Their writing systems became popular in the media because it was very difficult to decipher them and they remained a mystery for centuries. Glyphs used by Mayans are unique and they figuratively represent different unusual creatures. Just imagine, they had more than 1,000 glyphs!
The earliest Mayan inscriptions date back to the 3rd century BC in San Bartolo, Guatemala. Along with glyphs, the Maya writing system included logograms. European explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries suggested that Mayan glyphs looked similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs, however, they weren't anyhow related.
Deciphering Mayan writing system was a long and daunting process which lasted for several centuries. This process was made famous by the book “Breaking the Maya Code” written by Michael Coe. The book was turned into a documentary in 2008.
Since the 16th century, all attempts to decipher the code led into dead-ends because they were based on false assumptions. Progress started in the 1950s when Yuri Knorozov, a Russian linguist, applied a syllabic approach to Mayan writings. But the real breakthrough happened when Tatiana Proskouriakoff, a Siberia-born American without any academical training, took the deciphering of Mayan glyphs to a whole new level, basing on the work of Yuri Knorozov. She realized that writings on Mayan buildings were dealing with birth, accession and death dates of Mayan emperors. It led to the identification of names of Mayan emperors, dates of their births and deaths and to further deciphering of Mayan writings.
Just like Aztecs, Mayans weren't using steel or iron. But why didn't they use iron or steel if they were such an advanced civilization, you may ask? The answer is quite simple. As J. Douglas Kenyon points out in his book "Forbidden History: Prehistoric Technologies, Extraterrestrial Intervention, and the Suppressed Origins of Civilization", they didn't use iron, because the nearest mines were 1,500 miles away. Considering that they didn't have automobiles, this distance was huge. However, they used jade tools which were harder than steel and didn't have to worry about the fragility of their weapons.
Imagine that you have to somehow put a ball into this stone hoop which hangs high above the ground without using your hands. You would also need to wear equipment to protect your arms, knees, and ribs from injuries and confront dozens of muscular men who stand in your way. And if your team wins your captain is sacrificed, which he will take as a great honor. This game is known as pitz and it was more a ritual reflecting the struggle of light and darkness rather than a game. It's still played in modern times and is called "Ulama", but of course no sacrifices are made.
This 'pitz' game surely sounds crazy to the modern man, but at the same time, it reveals the radical difference in an attitude to life and death which ancient civilizations had and which we now have. That's a serious matter to ponder on.
There has been speculation that skulls and heads were used to play pitz game. However, it is much more likely that Mayans used rubber balls similar to those which are used to play soccer in modern times.
Researchers discovered that Mayans knew how to produce different grades of rubber, long before rubber was popularized by Charles Goodyear in the 19th century. Along with other Mesoamerican cultures, including Aztec and Olmec, Maya made rubber using natural latex—a sap-like, milky fluid found in some plants. The latex was harvested from rubber trees and mixed with juice from morning glory vines, which solidified latex.
Sorry Charles, you wasn't the first.
During the pre-classic Mayan era, people of this ancient civilization used jaguar's bones, teeth and claws as well as stones and feathers to create jewelry. During the later stages of development, the Maya started to create jewelry out of copper, bronze, silver, gold, and jade. Among the listed jade and gold were their favorite, but jade was valued even higher than gold. The Maya considered it sacred and regarded it as a symbol of eternal love.
Due to the importance of religion in the Mayan civilization, jade beads often contained various religious themes. In addition to being favorite material to make jewelry, jade was also used by Mayans to make gifts, offerings to gods, as the main object of trade, as a trading currency and even as a treatment for kidney disease. Men and women wore almost the same jewelry, with the exception of nose ornaments and nose plugs which were only worn by men with high social status.
Jewelry and clothes weren't enough to satisfy the aesthetics of Mayan people so they modified their bodily features. They drilled holes in their front teeth and inlaid them with hematite, pyrite, turquoise and of course jade. This practice wasn't exclusive and people from all social classes did it. However, there were specific designs only for higher classes.
Another thing was a big nose. In contrast with today's standard, it was considered a peak of beauty, so Mayans with smaller noses were forced to wear prosthetic noses in order not to be considered ugly. Mayans believed that the more modifications and the more extreme they were, the higher the status an individual had.
They also loved piercing, tattoos and making their children cross-eyed. Surprised? Let's take a look at why.
Just like having a big nose, being cross-eyed was considered a characteristic of nobility. For this reason in some Mayan families objects were dangled in front of a newborn’s eyes, until they became permanently crossed. Being crossed-eyed also meant that you were favored by Kinich Ahau, Mayan sun god, who was also cross-eyed.
Another bizarre thing, which they did to their children was to press babies' foreheads to deform their skulls into an elongated shape. It was an especially popular process among upper-class children.
So if you were a cross-eyed Chumbawamba with a flattened forehead and drilled teeth inlaid with jade, you would easily become respected in the ancient Mayan community.
Mayans practiced human sacrifice for medical and religious reasons. What's more surprising is that they still practice blood sacrifice today, but instead of human blood they use the blood of chickens.
The core of Mayan religious practice was the worship of deceased ancestors, who were believed to be the intermediaries between powerful deities and the living. Human life and human blood were the most precious offering to Gods, for this reason, the most important rituals ended with human sacrifice. High-status prisoners of war were usually sacrificed, while lower class prisoners were kept for labor.
Sauna-like structures were found in Maya village in El Salvador and in Tikal in Guatemala. They built saunas, or as they called them zumpul-ché, out of adobe or stone for ritual cleansing and health purposes. Sweat houses were visited by the sick ones, by mothers who had recently conceived a child and even by the kings because it made them refreshed and focused.
Like in modern saunas, in the ancient sweat baths, water was poured onto hot rocks in the room to create steam which sweated out the impurities.
Medicine was a combination of body, mind, science, religion, and ritual for Maya. Shamans were doctors and they practiced sorcery to heal people, foresee events and summon the rain. Doctors used herbal remedies that could be snorted, smoked, swallowed, rubbed on the skin and even injected into the rectum. It is also known that shamans reduced fractures and sutured wounds with human hair.
Without a doubt, Mayans were great dental surgeons because they performed teeth drilling and created prostheses from different materials. Mayan people also used hallucinogenic drugs such as morning glory, peyote and certain mushrooms for rituals and as painkillers. Enemas were used for rapid absorption of the substance if quick action was necessary.
Mayan medicine is still practiced today and is sometimes combined with modern healing methods.
Sumerians used zero before Mayans, but still, it would be fair enough to say that Mayans were one of the first civilizations to use zero. They were certainly the first to use zero as a placeholder because Sumerians used a slanted double wedge to denote the absence of the number. The idea to use zero as a number came from India, namely from the man named Aryabhatta, whose work helped to shape the modern-day decimal system.
Mayan numerology included symbols for numbers from zero to twenty. They considered numbers 9 and 13 magical and thought that they were especially important.
The list of things which the Maya did first also includes tattoos. It was a very popular thing among both men and women to cover one's body with a tattoo, many of which had quite elaborate designs. Interestingly, men would usually wait until they were married, before they could tattoo their faces, arms, legs, and backs.
In contrast with men, women would get tattoos which were smaller in size and they didn't tattoo their breasts and faces. Mayan tattoos mostly depicted spiritual symbols as well as symbols of power animals and gods. Tattoos also designated specialized skills, religious power and social status of a person. Needless to say, the process of making a tattoo in an ancient Mayan settlement was much more painful than it is today and people often got sick.
8th and 9th centuries marked the beginning of Mayan civilization decline. Their cities with populations of over 70,000 in the southern lowlands became abandoned. There are many theories which try to explain why it happened. Non-ecological theories of Maya decline include peasant revolt, foreign invasion, overpopulation and destruction of the main trade routes.
There is also evidence that Maya over-hunted megafauna and exhausted the agricultural potential, but still, scientists can't come to a definitive conclusion about why Mayan civilization went into decline. Most probably, it was the combination of several fatal factors.
Mayan civilization went into decline much earlier than it first encountered the Spanish. Their first major contact happened in 1511 after the Spanish ship wrecked near Jamaica, on the coast of Yucatán.
10 survivors of the shipwreck were seized by Halach Uinik, the Maya lord, and they were held as slaves and sacrificed. Many expeditions followed this incident marking a two-century war between Mayans and the Spanish Empire. Even though Mayans didn't have horses, gunpowder, functional wheel, steel and iron they fought Spanish furiously and it wasn't until 1697, that the last Maya city, Nojpetén, was conquered.
In addition to the lack of technology, Mayans suffered from the Old World diseases which Spanish people brought to the continent.
Unfortunately, people in the Middle Ages didn't think about saving the world heritage and they certainly had no idea what tolerance was. For this reason, the Spanish viewed Maya as those who needed to be forcefully converted. No wonder that they destroyed almost all Mayan texts. Short-sighted Spanish bishop Diego de Landa ordered to burn thousands of Maya cult images and books on July 12, 1562.
Luckily for us, three Mayan books survived both wear of time and Spanish conquest. They are known as Paris Codex, Dresden Codex, and Madrid Codex and are held in respective cities. These books played a key role in deciphering Maya writing system.
There is a special word huech, used in Belize and Guatemala and applied to those who loot Mayan archaeological sites. We will leave this word untranslated, but you probably understand what it means.
Unfortunately, dozens of illegally excavated Mayan artifacts find their way to antiquities market and looters activity not only steals the attributes of ancient culture from us but also destroy archaeological sites in the process. For instance, in 2014, a pyramid was cut in half at the Maya city of Xultún in Guatemala because of the looters. It indicates that Mayan cities and artifacts require better protection.
Even though the ancient Maya civilization perished, the people of May didn't disappear and they live among us today. Most of them live in their ancestral homelands. For instance in Guatemala, Maya people make up a majority of the population.
In addition to Guatemala, the largest populations of contemporary Maya live in the Mexican states of Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Chiapas, and Campeche as well as in the Central American countries of Belize and the western parts of portions of El Salvador & Honduras. There is an estimated 7 million Maya population living in and around the Yucatan Peninsula.
And they still keep many of the old traditions of their ancestors like the burning of copal incense, blood sacrifice (they use chicken blood now), prayer, offerings to gods, feasting, dancing, and ritual drinking.
Let's work to keep Mayan artifacts safe, traditions alive (except for blood sacrifice) and contemporary Mayan people respected.
References: Ancient Pages, National Geographic, The Guardian, Quartz, Life Tickler, Sciencemag, Nature, Mayan Archaeologist, National Geographic 2, Ancient History.com, National Geographic 3, Mental Floss