A Cultural Gold Mine

Throughout history, many great civilizations have arisen. Scholars have focused much of their time on the achievements of Old World, and only recently have begun to appreciate the advanced civilizations that thrived in the Americas. The knowledge and prosperity achieved by these peoples equals that found across the seas. The Maya are one of these peoples that have a history that is rich and is one of North America's most interesting cultural gold mines.

After the Invasion of the Spanish during the sixteenth century, and the Conquistador's reign of terror, very little is known about the Mayans, relative to the information that existed before this invasion. Even less is known about the Olmecs, their immediate predecessors. One of the most frustrating commonalties shared by the Maya and the Olmec, from an anthropological perspective, is that the few remnants left are some of the most impressive of the era.

The Olmecs were a complex and religiously oriented people. The earliest known man-made mountain on the American continent was constructed by the Olmecs in about 800 B.C. It was the most dominant edifice in a mysterious, geometrically ordered, religious complex in La Venta, Tabasco, Mexico. (Campbell 104) Within in this complex, and adding to the mystique of this civilization, were four giant basalt heads. Each of these huge heads had its own distinct features. It has been suggested that these figures represented past leaders of great prominence. (Campbell 106) The heads appear to wear close-fitting hats and possess features of Negroid or Polynesian cast. Eight other similar monuments have been found at related sites. A great deal of the art of the Olmecs was also found in sites such as these. In La Venta a large basalt sarcophagus was found, covered with the designs of the jaguar, the Olmec's sacred animal. Just beneath the pavement of these magnificent cites, hand carved jade figurines have been found aligned in circular patterns similar to toy soldiers. All of these artifacts were carved without metal tools. (Campbell 109)

With these discoveries to spark the interest of anthropologists and scholars alike, many questions began to arise such as why this particular site would be chosen for worship, what the people were like who created this temple, where their highly developed art, religious notations, and building techniques could have originated from, and what relationship they could have to the comparatively primitive people of the surrounding area. All of these questions remain unanswered. What people of the today do know about these ancient predecessors of the Mayans is that they lived from about 1200 B.C. to 800 B.C. when they were promptly replaced by the Mayans. Their religious and archeological remnants are the most advanced evidence of civilization known to have existed in this area up until about 800 B.C. They had their own form of worship that was centered mostly around the jaguar. The Olmec priests, or Shamans, were thought to be human incarnations of the jaguar. (Campbell 114)

Some interesting parallels can be drawn between the Olmecs and the Mayans. These parallels have led historians to believe that the Mayans emerged from the Olmecs. Both cultures valued the pyramid and its religious significance. The Mayans believed in thirteen layers of the world, the top layer consisting of heaven, and the bottom consisting of the earth. The pyramids were built in an effort to mirror this belief and to provide a physical interpretation of their culture's religious practices. The Olmec pyramids were constructed with similar characteristics. A second similarity between the two cultures was the layout of temple-oriented cities. Both the Mayans and the Olmecs considered their pyramids to be the focal point of social, intellectual, and religious activity. A final link found between the Mayans and the Olmecs was that because both societies were so advanced, no other culture existed from which the Mayan could have emerged. One author wrote, "The great men of Athens would not have felt out of place in a gathering of Mayan priests and rulers." (Aveni 190) The Olmecs were the most advanced society to have existed before the Mayans (Campbell 104), and it can be assumed that there was no contact from outside societies. Since the earliest known evidence of the Mayans existed immediately after the Olmecs it is likely that the Mayans emerged from the Olmecs.

Achieving their height in the 10th century, the ancient Mayan civilization occupied the eastern third of Mesoamerica, primarily the Yucatan Peninsula. The topography of the area greatly varied from volcanic mountains, comprising the highlands in the South, to a porous limestone shelf, known as the Lowlands, in the central and northern regions. The southern portion of the Lowlands was covered by a rain forest with an average height of 150 feet. Scattered savannas and swamps appeared sporadically, interrupting the dense forests. The northern Lowlands were also comprised of forests but they were drier than their southern counterparts, mainly consisting of small thorny trees. February to May was the dry season characterized by air that was intensely hot and uncomfortable. During this time of year, in the Lowlands, the fields had recently been cut and burned in accordance with their slash-and-burn form of agriculture. The skies filled with a smoky grit, making the air even more unbearable until the rains came in late May to clear the murky atmosphere. (Miller, 10) Many dangerous animals occupied this region of the peninsula including the jaguar, the caiman (a fierce crocodile), the bull shark, and many species of poisonous snakes. These animals had to be avoided as the Maya scavenged the forest for foods including deer turkey, peccaries, tapirs, rabbits, and large rodents such as the peca and the agouti. Many varieties of monkeys and quetzal also occupied the upper canopy.

Both the Highlands and the Lowlands were important to trade within the Mayan civilization. The lowlands primarily produced crops which were used for their own personal consumption, the principle crop being maize. They also grew squash, beans, chili peppers, amaranth, manioc, cacao, cotton for light cloth, and sisal for heavy cloth and rope. (Miller, 11) The volcanic highlands, however, were the source of obsidian, jade, and other precious metals like cinnabar and hematite that the Mayans used to develop a lively trade. Although the lowlands were not the source of any of these commodities, they still played an important role as the origin of the river systems which served as primary transportation routes. The rainfall was as high as 160 inches per year in the Lowlands and the water that collected drained towards the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico in great river systems. These rivers, of which the Usumacinta and the Grijalva were of primary importance, were vital to the civilization as the form of transportation for both people and materials.

Maize is important in the diet of the Mayan people, and it is a very important part of their culture. There are many tales about maize, concerning everything from the discovery of corn to the theft of sacred corn. The most detailed version of the myth of the discovery of maize is from the area around Honduras and is told by the Mopan, Kekchi, and Pokomchi Mayan tribes.

In the tale, maize was hidden beneath a rock, and the only creatures able to get at it were the small black ants. One day the fox found some kernels that the ants had dropped and ate them. They were sweet and delicious. The fox followed the ants that night and followed them to the maize. He found that the crack in the rock leading to the maize was too small for him to get to the corn. He again ate the kernels the ants dropped.

"Back among the other animals, fox broke wind; they wanted to know what he had eaten that even his wind smelled sweet." (Thompson 349). The fox would not tell the other animals he had discovered a new food, but they were suspicious so they followed him that night to the maize. They too tried the kernels and liked them. They asked the black ants to bring them more, which the ants agreed to until they realized they could not keep the animals supplied. Then the ants would only bring out enough for themselves. The other animals asked the red ant and the rat to bring them maize but neither could fit into the crack. Finally, the animals told man of their newly discovered food.

Man asked the help of the gods to get the maize. The god, Yaluk, asked a hummingbird to tap the rock to see where it was the weakest. After having found the thinnest section, Yaluk sent a thunderbolt down to crush the rock. The maize, which had been white was affected by the lightning bolt. Some kernels were burnt and turned red, others were smoked and turned yellow and others were charred and turned black. This is how there came to be red, white, yellow, and black corn. (Thompson 349-350)

Maize is very important to the Mayan of today and in the past. 75%-80% of the diet in rural villages consists of corn and corn products. (Morely 128) For both men and women, tasks dealing with the planting, harvesting and cooking of corn occupy much of their time. The making of the corn field is the most important activity of men, and it is made today in the same fashion it was three thousand years ago. The slash-and-burn method, in which the trees and bushes are cut down and burnt to create a rich layer of topsoil, is the only method that works in the rocky, densely wooded land in the Yucatan Peninsula. The men begin work in the corn fields at four o'clock in the morning. It is at this time that the women begin the daily production of corn tortilla, a staple of the Mayan diet. The following is a sixteenth-century account of the daily habits of the Mayan people.

As to the meals which they ate in the time of their antiquity, they eat the same today. This is corn boiled in water and crushed. Then made into dough, they dissolve it in water for a drink [pozole], and this is what they ordinarily drink and eat. An hour before sunset it was their custom to make certain tortillas of the said dough. On these they supped, dipping them into certain dishes of crushed peppers, diluted with a little water and salt. Alternately with this they ate certain boiled beans of the land, which are black. They call them buul, and the Spanish, frijoles. This was the only time they ate during the day, for at other times they drank the dissolved dough mentioned above. (Morely, 176)

After maize, the most important food crop for the Mayans was beans. Beans were usually planted in the same holes as corn and grew up around the cornstalks. The two main varieties of beans grown by the Mayans were the black beans and the red beans; the former appeared to be an overwhelming favorite. (Morely 156) Beans were a large part of the protein intake of the Mayans. Many varieties of squash and pumpkin were grown, sometimes in their own patches, but mostly among the corn. Sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and cassava were also among the favorites of the Mayans. The avocado was an important part of the Mayan diet. (Morely 156) The sapodilla tree bore delicious fruit whose milk was used to make chewing-gum and whose bark was used in the Mayan temples as door lintels. Many plants were also raised for seasoning and flavoring. These plants included chili peppers, vanilla, allspice, oregano, and other herbs, roots, and leaves. (Morely 157)

A considerable number of plant fibers were used in making clothes and products such as baskets and hats. Cotton was grown extensively since it constituted most of Mayan clothing. Another extremely important fiber was henequen, or hemp. Even today its importance can be seen in the fact that products made from this substance constitute the only exportable product of the Yucatan. (Morely 157) The fiber of the bayal palm was used to make baskets, and the leaves of the guano palm were used to make hats and mats. The colors for these products were mostly of vegetable origin. The arnatto tree, known to the Mayans as achiote, was raised for its fruit which bore a rich orange-red color. The wood of the mora tree gave a green color and also the yellow-brown color used in khaki. (Morely 157)

Contrary to popular belief, the Mayan civilization was not one unified empire, but rather a multitude of separate entities with a common cultural background. Similar to the Greeks, they were religiously and artistically a nation but politically sovereign states. As many as twenty such states existed on the Yucatan Peninsula alone, each under the authority of a hereditary ruler. (Spinden 11) These city-states were constantly interacting either through battles or intermarriages in hopes of forming alliances to reduce competition. The king was referred to as mah k'ina "great sun" and the members of his ruling lineage were ahaus or "lords". The kings of the major cities were served by nobles, or cahals, who performed the duties of administrators and governors. Their activities included the delivery of tribute, interaction with foreigners, consecration of marriage alliances, and service on councils. (Miller 17) Women were allowed to rise to the same positions as men, being referred to as "lady cahal" or "lady ahau", but although a woman occasionally did ascended to the ruling position, she never acquired the title of mah k'ina.

An elaborate system of writing was developed to record the transition of power through the generations. Maya writing was composed of recorded inscriptions on stone and wood and also used within architecture. Folding tree books were made from fig tree bark and placed in royal tombs. Unfortunately, many of these books did not survive the humidity of the tropics or the invasion of the Spanish, who regarded the symbolic writing as the work of the devil. Four books are known today: The Dresden Codex, The Madud Codex, The Paris Codex, and The Grolier Codex. (Miller 16) The priests followed the ruling class in importance and were instrumental in the recordings of history through the hieroglyphs. The two classes were closely linked and held a monopoly on learning, including writing. The hieroglyphs were formed through a combination of different signs which represented either whole words or single syllables. The information could be conveyed through inscriptions alone, but it was usually combined with pictures showing action to facilitate comprehension. Attempts to decipher the Maya writings began as early as 1520, shortly after the Spanish conquest. Not until 1880, however, had any progress been made on their comprehension. At that time, the Mayan calendar was discovered in the Dresden Codex. David Stuart presented a simplified explanation of the calendar when he wrote:

(the) calendar is based on paired cycles of 20 and 365 days and a date is generally expressed by noting its position in both the 260- and the 365-day cycle. Since that combination repeats itself every 52 years, the Maya chronicles also recorded a date's position in a more precise "long count," a linear reckoning whose starting point is the year 3114 B.C. (Stuart, 84)

In both the priesthood and the ruling class, nepotism was apparently the prevailing system under which new members were chosen. Primogeniture was the form under which new kings were chosen as the king passed down his position to his son. After the birth of a heir, the kings performed a blood sacrifice by drawing blood from his own body as an offering to his ancestors. A human sacrifice was then offered at the time of a new king's installation in office. To be a king, one must have taken a captive in a war and that person is then used as the victim in his accession ceremony. This ritual is the most important of a king's life as it is the point at which he inherits the position as head of the lineage and leader of the city. The religious explanation that upheld the institution of kingship asserted that Maya rulers were necessary for the continuance of the universe in a form of divine kingship.

The art of the Maya, as with every civilization, is a reflection of their lifestyle and culture. The art was composed of delineation and painting upon paper and plaster, carvings in wood and stone, clay and stucco models, and terra cotta figurines from molds. The technical process of metal working was also highly developed but as the resources were scarce, they only created ornaments in this media. Many of the great programs of Maya art, inscriptions, and architecture were commissioned by Mayan kings to memorialize themselves and ensure their place in history. The prevailing subject of their art is not anonymous priests and unnamed gods but rather men and women of power that serve to recreate the history of the people. The works are a reflection of the society and its interaction with surrounding people. One of the greatest shows of Mayan artistic ability and culture is the hieroglyphic stairway located at Copan. The stairway is an iconographical complex composed of statues, figures, and ramps in addition to the central stairway which together portray many elements of Mayan society. An alter is present as well as many pictorial references of sacrifice and their gods. More important than the imagery captured within this monument, however, is the history of royal descent depicted in the hieroglyphs and various statues. On the monument is a pattern of dates that corresponds to the reign of several rulers as well as many royal names.

The figurine of a seated captive is also representative of Mayan society as it depicts someone in the process of a bloodletting ceremony, which included the accession to kingship. As Schele points out, this figure is of high rank as depicted by his expensive earrings and intricately woven hip cloth. The rope collar which would usually mark this man as a captive, revealed that he was involved in a bloodletting rite. His genitals were exposed as he was just about to draw blood for the ceremony. (Schele 157)

(insert picture of the seated captive here)

The Maya had religious ceremonies and rituals which served a variety of purposes. Although not identical, certain patterns occurred in all of them. Ceremonies were for the praise of the deities, and usually only one was praised per ceremony. The gods could be influenced to be either benevolent or malevolent toward men, so ceremonies and sacrifices were used to influence the gods to act on the Maya's behalf. Preparation for the ceremonies consisted of spiritual purification, including abstinence and fasting. Meat and seasonings were frequently given up before the ceremonies. The men of the Maya of Guatemala actually separated from their wives, did not bathe, blackened their faces, and drew blood from their bodies for up to one-hundred days before important ceremonies. (Thompson 172) The next step, the selection of the day on which the ceremony was to be performed, was a duty of the priests. The day had to be at the proper time of the month and year for the ceremony to be successful and prosperous. On the set day, immediately prior to the ceremony or sacrifice, the priests exorcised the worshipers to release their evil spirits. The actual ceremonies consisted of burning insence for the idols (Morely 206), prayer, and sacrifice.

Sacrifice was performed several ways and could be either human or animal. Children and virgin dogs were often sacrificed out of desire for ritual purity. A common form of sacrifice for penance was self-sacrifice. Blood was dripped from cuts on the worshipper's arm, earlobe, penis, or tongue. Another form of sacrifice was human sacrifice. The victim was stripped and painted the sacred color blue before being lead to an altar. The man performing the sacrifice plunged a flint spear into the victim's chest just below the left rib, pulled out the still beating heart and handed it to the priest. The priest smeared blood on the idol of the deity to whom the sacrifice was being made.

The Maya had a calendar of 19 months, almost all of which had a special ceremony in praise of a deity. The following is a list of the months and the ceremonies that occurred in them.

This festival celebrated the Maya New Year's Day. It was a solemn occasion in which all houses were cleaned and old utensils were thrown out as an act of renewal.
Priests, physicians, sorcerers, hunters, and fishermen celebrated in praise of their respective gods.
Zotz and Tzec:
In the month of Zotz, the beekeepers prepared for their feast which was held in Tzec. The beekeepers burned incense on pictures of honey. The feast was held to increase the yield of honey.
A very important festival was held in honor of the god Kukulcan. Clowns passed from house to house collecting gifts and on the last day of the ceremonies, it was said that Kukulcan himself came down to join the feast. (Morely 217)
Yaxkin and Mol:
Utensils and doorposts were covered with a blue ointment that was sacred to the Mayan. All the boys and girls were gathered in the town and struck nine times on the back of their hands to make them skillful in their future work. (Morely 218)
This was a ceremony of renovation. Clay idols and incense burners were renewed.
In this month, hunters made amends to the gods for any unnecessary blood spilled while hunting.
Old men offered the hearts of birds and animals to obtain a year of good rains. (Morely 220)
The ceremony held in this month was in honor of the god of cacao, Chac Ek Chuah. The owners of cacao plantations sacrificed a dog with cacao-colored spots. There was the usual feasting at this ceremony, but drunkenness was not allowed. (Morely 221)
This ceremony, called Pacum Chac, was put on by the warriors to obtain victory in war and was in honor of the god Cit Chac Coh. (Morely 221)
Kayab, Cumhu, and Uayeb:
The last three months of the year were a break from religious festivals. There was feasting and drinking for pure pleasure in this period. Over-indulgence was expected. (Morely 226)

In addition to religious festivals, the Maya had ceremonies for important times in their lives. The first one, hetzmek, occurred when a baby girl turned three months old and a baby boy turned four months old. The father of the child handed the baby to its godparent who placed the child on his or her hip. Nine objects which symbolized what the child would do in his or her life were placed on a table. The godfather, carrying the child, walked around the table nine times, each time placing one of the objects in to the child's hand and telling him or her what its purpose was. The same process was repeated by the godmother. Then the godfather returned the child to his or her father and said, "We have made the hetzmek for your child." (Morely 164)

As a child reached puberty, a coming of age ceremony for all the children the same age in the village was performed. A prominent man was chosen as a sponsor for the children. He was responsible for assisting the priest with the ceremony and providing the feast. On the selected day, all the youth met in the courtyard of the sponsor's home. An old man was chosen to be the godfather to the boys, an old woman to be the godmother to the girls. After the priest expelled all evil spirits, the ceremony began. The children had white cloths placed on their heads and were asked if they had committed any sins. If they had, they were separated from the group. The remaining members sat in complete silence as the sponsor tapped each child on the head nine times with a special bone and moistened his or her forehead, face, and the spaces between the fingers and toes with water. (Morely 165) After this, the children gave gifts to the priest's assistants and received gifts of food and wine from their mothers. (Morely 166) The girls were then considered to be of marrying age, therefore, their symbols of purity (red shells tied around their waists) were cut off. The male symbol of youth, a white bead worn in the hair, was also removed.

Maya marriages were almost always set up by a matchmaker. When the matchmaker had found a suitable couple, a dowry was decided on by the families involved. The boy's family paid the girl's for dresses and other items of little value, and the boy's family made clothing for the new couple. On the day of the ceremony, the relatives and guests met at the bride's father's house where the betrothed were presented to the priest by the fathers. The priest made a speech explaining the marriage agreement, then sprinkled perfume throughout the house. A huge feast ended the ceremony. (Morely 168) The universe of the Maya was structured in many layers. Heaven consisted of thirteen layers stacked on top of one another with earth being the lowest layer. Thirteen gods, one for each heaven, ruled the Upper World and as a group were called Oxlahuntika. The nine levels of the Under World were each ruled by a god and this group of gods was called Bolontiku. The lowest level, similar to Hell, was called Mitnal and was ruled by the Lord of Death, Au Puch. The gods of the Under World and the Upper World battled for control of the earth. Above the highest layer of heaven, Hunab Ku, the original source of all, existed. (Campbell 100)

The actions of the Maya on earth influenced their afterlife. If they were without sin on this world, they would ascend to the Maya paradise, where there was an abundance of good food and drink, and a cessation of labor. If the Maya sinned in this world, however, they would descend to Mitnal where they would be plagued by hunger, cold, weariness, and grief for eternity. (Campbell 100)

The world the Maya live in today was not the first one ever created. There are a number of versions of the Maya creation and the following one comes from the Valley of Mexico. (Thompson 332)

The Mayan believe that they live in the fifth world. Each world had a sun, a specific length of existence and a method of destruction. The first world was called 4 Ocelotl (jaguar). The sun was Tezcatlipoca. The people were giants and after thirteen times fifty-two years, the jaguars devoured the giants. The next world, called 4 Eecatl (wind) had the sun god, Quetzacoatl. After seven times fifty-two years, the winds swept away all the houses, trees and people. The few remaining people turned into monkeys, which explains the similarities between humans and monkeys today. The third world, 4 Quiauitl (rain) lasted for 6 times 52 years with the sun Tlaloc. Fire raining from the sky and the formation of lava destroyed the world. The sun also burned houses. The surviving people turned into birds. The fourth world, 4 Atl (water) had the sun, Chalchihuit licue, and lasted for 13 times 52 years. Flooding ended the world, the mountains disappeared, and the people turned into fish. The fifth world, which the Maya of today inhabit, is 4 Ollin (movement). The sun is Tonafiah, and the world will be destroyed by an earthquake. In this world, men were made from bones rescued from the Under World by the god Quetzacoatl, who dripped his blood on them to bring them to life. After this was done, other parts of the world were created. "With the men and trees and gods they now raised the sky with its stars as it now is. When the sky was raised Tezcatlipoca and Quetzacoatl walked across it and made the road which appears in the sky, and they were there and ever after are there with their abode there." (Thompson 333)

The Mayans had a complex sense of time and space with regard to the motion and existence of celestial bodies. They kept their first chronological records carved in stone. These records were kept primarily for political reasons. (Aveni 191) The fundamental unit of time for the Mayans was the day. In Mayan writing, this unit was denoted with a single dot which represents the tip of a persons finger. Five days were denoted with a line which represented a persons finger viewed from the side. (Aveni 192) For the Maya, space and time were synonymous. The directions used in charting the stars and other celestial bodies were denoted using the images of the kin. Each kin glyph marked out the four directions of the sky-earth. The extreme positions of the floral symbols at the center of each kin frame represented procreation. They also mapped out the extreme positions of the sun during the winter and summer solstices. The direction east, lah-kin, was seen as the "sun-accompanying". The west, represented by the chi-kin was "sun devouring" because it was seen as the place in which the sun was swallowed up each night. (Aveni 193) From this it can be seen how the Mayan interpretation of space is directly tied into time. The Mayan terms for east and west were derived from terms in the Mayan dialect meaning to enter and exit. The east, the point at which the sun rises, was thought to be the singular point at which everything entered the world. The Maya believed that when the sun set, it reversed its direction and moved beneath the earth so that it could rise the next morning in the east. (Aveni 194) The east was closely linked with procreation. Similarly, the west was closely linked with death.

Through their precise knowledge of time and many other achievements, the Maya have proved themselves as a culture deserving recognition. As their hieroglyphs continue to be deciphered, our knowledge of the Maya will increase and many more achievements of this great society may surface. Hopefully, someday the Maya will be thought of in the same context as many of the other great civilizations of the world.


Alison Beadell is responsible for the section on the physical geography, climate, fauna, flora, and resources of the environment in which the Maya lived. She also wrote about their language and social organization, both political and religious and researched the art of the Maya. Finally, she wrote the bibliography. Sarah Cunningham wrote the sections about the cultural rituals and the structure and formation of the universe. She also included the folk tale that representes the character of the society. Warren Davidson was responsible for the sections about the earliest known evidence of the origins of the society, their basis of survival, and the star tale.