Maya and Aztec

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations

Pre-Maya Civilizations

Category: Maya

maya drawingBy the 1840’s most historians and archaeologists believed that the Mayan Civilization could not have been built by an indigenous cul­ture. Originally, archaeologists believed that the Mayan civilization must have built by people who were descendants of Egypt. Most of this theory was based on the fact that they both had pyramids. No one believed that an advanced civilization could be constructed in completely inhospitable environments without some type of help. It was not until John Lloyd Stephens wrote his book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, that people began to be­lieve that the ruins had no direct connection to European, African, or Asian influence. Stated quite simply Stephens said that like the plants and roots of the soil, the civilizations were indigenous. He said that, ‘The pyramidal form is one which suggests itself to human intelligence in every country as the simplest and surest mode of erecting a high structure upon a solid foundation” In addition, he noted that the pyramids in Egypt were uniform in design and used solely for burial purposes, by contrast those In the Americas varied greatly in appearance and they were used primarily to support.

Archaeologists and historians now agree that the first people entered the Americas from Asia by way of the Bering Strait. They did this during a period called the Pleistocene or Ice Age. We know that they roamed the New World at least 10.000 years ago. However, many believe it to have been much earlier. They wore animal skin clothing, hunted with flint-tipped spears, used crude stone tools, and they knew how to start a fire. They lived in caves and under rock overhangs. They hunted animals that are now largely extinct. These included camels, mastadons, and bison. By 8000 B.C., after much over-hunting had taken place, the Mayans began hunting smaller animals and gathering seeds, roots, and nuts. Then by 2000B.C. they were cultivating such crops as corn, squash, beans chili peppers, and pumpkins. We have no idea of who the original ancestors of the Maya really were or where they origi­nated.

At its height, the Maya realm encompassed approximately 125.000 square miles. It included Guatemala, the west­ern half of El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, and parts of southern Mexico. The entire area is a tropical zone that has two distinct environments, highlands and lowlands. They displayed amazing abilities in astronomy, mathematics, architecture, sculpture, and painting. Historians are not certain how or when the Mayans acquired hieroglyphic writ­ing and calendrics. However, it is believed that they began with the Olmec civilization. The Olmecs are considered the Mother Culture of all Mesoamerica. In Tres Zapotes stela have been excavated with the Long Count date equivalent to 31 B.C. This is the oldest dated object ever found in Central America or Mexico Olmec craftsmen are known for their sculptures of colossal human heads, some that weighed up to eighteen tons. They Maya attained their point of highest development in the tropical jungle lowlands of the Peten region of Guatemala. Here, in the city of Tikal, the Maya flourished from 250 AD to 900 B.C. This area was rich in food and building materials. How­ever, it was a very inhospitable environment. They didn’t have a dependable water supply, nor did they have any metal to make tools, and to make things worse clearing the jungle and controlling the weeds was next to impos­sible. Yet this is where they chose to build a city of 50.000 people, complete with temples, pyramids, extensive housing, and huge ceremonial centers. Just why Tikal suddenly collapsed is still a mystery. What we do know is that in the span of a hundred years, from 800 AD to 900 AD all of the populous cities of Central America became deserted. Teotihuacan, the most powerful city in Mexico collapsed before 700A.D. Then Monte Alban the center of the Zapotecs collapsed around 900 AD. At the same time, Upheaval erupted in the Toltec capital of Tula.

Simply stated, these areas could no longer sustain its huge population. Still others state that it was probably the constant raiding by nomadic tribes or peasant revolts that led to the demise of the cities. Through the use of carbon dating we now know that Tikal experienced a serious drought at about the same time it collapsed.

Amazingly, no such demise occurred at this time in the Yucatan. Here, the Maya constructed huge cities complete with palaces, pyramids, ball courts, living quarters, and large ceremonial centers. This area was invaded around 900AD by Toltec armies who overran the Maya and began governing from Chichen Itza. The Toltecs introduced them to their styles in architecture and art. Also, the Toltecs were obsessed with human sacrifice. After 1200 AD. the Maya regained their political and cultural influence. Soon, Chichen Itza was abandoned and the city-state of Mayapan became the capital. It was overthrown in 1441. At this time, the Maya empire was in full decline.

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