The two most enduring achievements of the Mayas were their calendar and their writing system. Neither of these was original, but both were more efficient than those of earlier Mesoamerican peoples. The Mayas perfected a solar calendar with eighteen months of 20 days each and a five-day period for religious festivals. Using an ingenious cyclical system of notation known as the "long count," they were able to date events of the distant past for accurate record-keeping and astronomical observations. Their notational mathematics, based on 20 rather than 10 in the current decimal system, employed combinations of dots and bars, in vertical sequences, to indicate numbers above 20. For non-numerical records, they combined pictographic and glyphic symbols, which have only recently been partially deciphered.
Their remarkable accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, and writing were more than matched by their truly magnificent art and architecture. The plaza of each Mayan community was marked by at least one pyramid, topped by a temple. With their terraced sides and horizontal lines, these buildings demonstrated a prevailing sense of proportion. The highly stylized sculpture which decorated their terraces is regarded by some authorities as the world's finest, even though
Mayan sculptors accomplished their intricate carving with
only stone tools. The Mayas also developed mural painting to a high art. Even their lesser arts, such as weaving, ceramics, and jewelry making, reveal aesthetic sense, sublety of design, and manipulative skills superior to artistic creations in many other high civilizations.
The Maya of Mesoamerica, along with the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru, made up the high civilizations of the American Indians at the time of the Spanish conquest. Both the Aztecs and the Incas were late empires (about AD 1300-1533), capstones of a sequence of civilizations in Central Mexico and the Andes in South America, respectively. But the Maya of Yucatan and Guatemala exhibited a cultural continuity spanning more than 2,000 years (1000 BC-AD 1542), and many aspects of their culture continue to the present.
Mesoamerica had three major time periods: preclassic (2000 BC-AD 300), classic (300-900), and postclassic (900-1500). During the six centuries of the classic period the Mayan civilization flourished first in the forests of the Peten in Guatemala and adjacent areas--creating such cities as Tikal, Uaxactun, Quirigua, Copan, and Palenque--and then in the semiarid scrublands of northern Yucatan--constructing such pilgrimage centers as Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Labna, Etzna, Old Chichen, and Coba.
The post classic period in Yucatan was marked by the invasion of the Toltecs from Central Mexico and the establishment of their control at Chichen Itza (987-1200). Later the coastal trading town of Tulum grew in significance following the decline of military leagues led by Mayapan. Pyramids and temples were built in more than 40 cities, each with a population of about 20,000 people. The Spanish conquest by Francisco de Montejo, whose house still stands on the central plaza in the capital of Merida, completed the downfall of the Mayan civilization in 1542.
The Maya located in the highlands lived in a third type of physical environment--the volcanic mountains and intermontane valleys of Guatemala. Kaminaljuyu arose as a notable urban center in the classic period, much influenced by Teotihuacan in Central Mexico. The region was harshly conquered by Pedro de Alvarado in 1524 after the submission of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. The myths and traditions of the past are preserved in the Popul Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche Maya, and the customs of the ancient Maya can still be observed in Quetzaltenango and Chichicastenango near Lake Atitlan. The Maya are a most resilient people.
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