Mayans: Who Are They? Mayan Civilization

Shamans, Philosophers, Stargazers, Cosmologists

Mayan civilization map

Mayan civilization grew to its advanced form over 1700 years ago in a region of today's southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, western Honduras and Belize.

Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza
Mayan structure

Their language developed between years 1500 BC to 300 AD. That was the time they have experienced population growth and built large towns - that period of Mayan culture is known as Pre-Classic.

Mayan reliefs at Chichen Itza

Most prosperous time for Maya, the Classic Period, falls in between years 250 and 900 AD. However, their population stopped to grow around 800 AD already.

The true reason of their civilization's later collapse is generally unknown today, but there exist a few relatively new hypotheses, of which one suggests, that ancient Maya had a habit of wasteful exploitation of natural resources, which in effect led to water and food shortages.

Other factors, that may have contributed to the Mayan civilization's downfall, were wars they too often fought and probably some disease first time brought to their land by the European colonizers.

Pyramid Temple of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza

The most known and respected Mayan ruler of the Classic period was K'inich Janaab' Pakal, also called Pacal the Great. He reigned over Palenque for an exceptionally long period of 68 years, between 615 and 683 CE. To the greatest achievements of his reign is attributed the construction and extension of some of Palenque's most notable inscriptions and monumental architecture.

Pacal the Great was born in 603 and has lived for 80 years, to 683. He was buried within the Temple of Inscriptions, of which the large carved stone sarcophagus lid has become one of the most famous pieces of Classic Maya art.

Civilization of Maya was strongly influenced by an earlier Olmec culture in southern Mexico, which developed writing system, complex religion and the Long Count calendar - or at least its earlier form.


Mayan glyphs at Yaxchilan Mayan stucco glyphs Mayan glyphs on Haab calendar
Mayan Observatory / El Caracol at Chichen Itza

Mayans adopted much of Olmec knowledge, many practices and developed them further. They had advanced arithmetics and astronomy - for example they had predicted the motions of Venus to a degree of precision only equaled in recent times.

Mayan structure at Yaxchilan

They were also influenced by the civilization of Teotihuacan from Central Mexico. These cultures co-existed; both developed and prospered at roughly the same time, until around year 650 AD, when Teotihuacan civilization collapsed. Yet the Mayans then were still at the time of their greatest prosperity.

Mayan numerals

One of the really outstanding ideas for the time which emerged in Mayan (or Olmec) civilization was the mathematical concept of zero. It wasn't yet known in Europe even several hundred years later.

To understand Mayan calendar, it is important to know, that Maya were basically using so called vigesimal (base-20) numbering system. However, there was also base-18 system used in the Long Count.

Children of the Maya were named after the date on which they were born. That was because the time was of utmost importance to Mayan people - and this is especially remarkable when we consider the multitude of their calendar systems.

Mayans of the Classic Period were famous time-keepers, simultaneously using a few different calendar systems, of which the Long Count, and the fact of its ending on December 21, 2012, is the major cause of the existence of 2012 doomsday theory phenomenon and of the current abundance of greatly varied Mayan Calendar 2012 predictions, as well.

Although much has already been researched and written about Mayan civilization, it still has many unsolved mysteries. For example, at the ancient Olmec-Mayan city Comalcalco were found bricks with symbols almost identical to those found on bricks used in building Rome and with inscriptions in Arabic, Phoenician, Egyptian, Chinese, Libyan, Ogam, Tifinag, Burmese, and Paliburmese, among others, still not deciphered.

Both this and other discoveries prompt some researchers toward conclusions, that Mayans - or Mesoamerican civilizations in general - must have been prominent sailors on a scale not yet acknowledged by today's mainstream science. But such hypotheses simultaneously raise many more questions about our current state of knowledge of ancient history in wider aspect.

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Mayan glyphs at Yaxchilan
Fragment of Mayan inscriptions on La Mojarra Stela
Kukulcan / Quetzalcoatl relief
Mayan relief at Yaxchilan