Pyramids and temples were aligned astronomically to the orbits of the sun and moon. Some pyramids have temples on top. Mayan priests used the temples in ritual ceremonies and sacrifices. Many have elaborate carvings and glyphs on their sides.
Some of the Mayan pyramids are huge, soaring up two hundred feet like that at El Mirador. The royal family of each Mayan polity lived in the palace, often large, elaborate buildings with many stories. Palaces, in these cases, were also administrative centers where government officials regulated trade and tribute. Most Mayan cities feature ceremonial platforms of limestone, about 12 feet high, where religious rituals and public ceremonies were held.
Highly decorated with carvings and glyphs, these platforms might hold altars or statues. Ball courts are a common feature of Mayan cities, some with only one, some with many.
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The basic style is the same, but they varied greatly in size. As noted in the article on the Mayan ball game, it could be played simply for fun and athletics but it also had a deep religious and ceremonial aspect as well. Scholars now think that the winners of a ceremonial ball game were the ones sacrificed, not the losers as had been assumed. Mayan stelae monuments appear all over Mayan areas, usually in the great cities. Tall, elaborately carved stone pillars or shafts usually relate the lineage and heroic deeds of kings, often paired with round altars on top of ceremonial platforms.
The earliest stela dated by the long count calendar appeared in Tikal. While most readers are aware of the more famous collapse of the Classic era, an earlier Mayan collapse preceded it during the Late or Terminal Pre-Classic era.
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The reasons for the earlier collapse remain as murky as those for the later, but both emptied out great Mayan cities and resulted no doubt in much death and destruction. Neither, however, ended Mayan civilization, as millions of Mayans remain in their historical homelands even today. What caused these societal collapses?
There are many theories, but archeological proof for one single cause is lacking. We know, from looking at the downfall of past civilizations such as Rome, that a combination of causes is far more likely than one distinct cause. Scholars today look at the many factors that could lead to the collapse of a vigorous society, both external and internal. Scholars cite environmental degradation as a likely component: soil erosion, decreasing fertility of the soil, volcanic eruption, deforestation and drought were all elements of the ecological disaster for the Mayans.
A population that exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment always leads to ecological destruction.
Other scholars look at societal pressures: decreasing natural resources that led to increased competition and endemic warfare over the same shrinking fertile lands. Political strife, the people losing faith in their leaders, elite competition, malnutrition and disease combined with massive environmental problems led to a drastic decline of Mayan populations in the Pre-Classic from A. Mayan scholars put forth a variety of theories regarding the Mayan collapses including endemic warfare, foreign invasion, epidemic diseases, disruption of trade routes, climate change, systemic ecological collapse and long-lasting sustained drought.
All of these and more may have contributed to massive declines in population and the abandonment of major Mayan cities. What is more remarkable is that the Mayan have survived it all, still retaining their culture and beliefs on the same land their ancestors held.
While most Mayan today are Catholic, many retain elements of their culture and beliefs, even visiting their great cities of old. The great cities of the southern lowlands were abandoned and the remaining Mayans took their civilization to the northern Yucatan where they settled. Gradually, they built new cities.
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Other already settled Mayan cities expanded. Mayan life and society continued with a change of emphasis from the deep religiosity of the Classic period to a more secular society focused on economic growth and prosperity. This culture continued until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. The Mayans of the Yucatan, however, had some difficult challenges to overcome, namely switching from a rainforest environment to the much drier climate of the Yucatan.
The Yucatan Mayans managed to switch their reliance on surface reservoirs of water to the use of groundwater resources such as the subterranean basins and sinkholes known as cenotes. Cenote Sagrada remains a sacred well within the grounds of Chichen-Itza. Arid on the surface, the Yucatan holds its water underground, which allowed the Mayans to flourish. While in general the Mayans of the Post-Classic period moved away from the religious domination of the priesthood and divine rule of kings, they became more attentive to the rain gods, due to the aridity of the Yucatan.
Carvings of Chac, the Mayan rain god, cover the buildings of Post-Classic era cities, especially Uxmal.
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The Mayans came under the influence of the Toltecs, a people that moved into the area from Mexico after the fall of Teotihuacan. Sculptures and architectural style reflects this influence as does the Mayans sacrificing to the Toltec rain god, Tlaloc along with Chac. Scholars have yet to discover the exact political and social relationship of the Mayans and Toltecs, but both cultures influenced the other.
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After the decline of Chichen-Itza, its rival city Mayapan become dominant. The Mayans might have taken their name from this great Post-Classic city. Maritime trade around the Yucatan grew during the later years of the Post-Classic, from to the coming of the Spanish. The Spanish began their conquest of the Mayans in , but it took them years to finish the process.
Each Mayan city-state had to be conquered separately as there was no central Mayan government. As the Yucatan was poor in precious metals, the region was far less attractive to the Spanish than central Mexico. The Spanish finally won against the last Mayan city in the Peten in In the meantime, European diseases and enslavement demolished the Mayans and ended the Post-Classic era of Mayan civilization. In early Mayan studies, archeologists assumed that women were subordinate to men in Mayan society.
Men were kings and rulers of the city-state, and men were rulers in their homes. During the Classical era, certain women held power as rulers in their cities, either as regent for an underage son or as widow of a ruler who died without an heir. Women also served as oracular priestesses at various sacred sites. Women worked in the Mayan economy, in agriculture and especially in the textile industry.
While most Mayan women led traditional lives of caring for their households, others held far more power. While women in general were not involved in Mayan politics, occasionally circumstances would place a woman in the role of ruler. During the Classical era, women gained in political power as politics shifted and became more complex. Five noble women during this time became ruling queens of their city-states.
Although women were not usually considered part of the religious hierarchy, recent studies reveal that many women were priestesses at pilgrimage sites in the Post-Classical era in the Yucatan. Caves and cenotes—a natural pit containing groundwater—were sacred places to the Mayans where they would offer sacrifices. They were popular pilgrimage sites drawing elite Mayans as well as commoners, especially on the islands off the coast of the Yucatan. These sites were often dedicated to the moon goddess or to Ix Chel, the goddess of fertility, midwifery and medicine. Priestesses there guided pilgrims along the pilgrimage trail.
They also served as diviners or fortune tellers for visitors. Women worked in agricultural roles as farmers and herders. They also produced all the textiles of the Mayan economy, for both local markets and trade networks. As spinners, weavers and dyers, women produced basic cloth for their families, but also produced elaborate textiles as works of art. While most food products were consumed locally, some were traded widely such as cacao and vanilla beans.
In some Mayan areas, women raised deer herds, ensuring a sufficient deer population to feed the population. Maya culture shared many characteristics with other Mesoamerican cultures such as the Olmec, Zapotec or Aztec, but retained some features purely Mayan. The Maya, for example, had the only writing system that represented the spoken language of the Mayans.
While other Mesoamericans also had a form of pictographic writing, the Maya had the only fully developed writing system. In fact, many aspects of Maya culture were more refined or perfected forms of art and architecture or the complex calendar shared among all Mesoamerican cultures. Because of extensive trading networks, all Mesoamerican cultures influenced the others. This area includes the northern lowlands, central lowlands and southern highlands. These areas include rainforests, savannas, semi-arid highland plateaus, semi-alpine peaks and swampy low areas. Such an array of landscapes is host to a rich diversity of wildlife and plants; Maya culture adapted creatively to this diverse natural world.
The Maya religion centers on the cyclical nature of time, in constant birth, death and rebirth. Maya rituals follow both terrestrial and celestial cycles, which Maya priests were expert at reading. Maya civilization depended on maize or corn and the Maya maize god was of central importance.
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