Social Studies – American Civilizations: The Mayas

The Mayas were a sophisticated Mesoamerican civilization that was prominent from AD 200 to 950. The Mayas had a form of hieroglyphic writing, however, most of their history and folktales were preserved orally.

So, it was more common for people to tell stories to each other than to actually write them down, but there is some history still preserved in writing.

True or False:
The Mayas were an important civilization that was prominent from 200 to 950.
True or False:
The Mayas believed that Earth was a flat square with gods at its four corners and its center.


The next lesson: Ancient Greece, both lessons are included in Practice Tests.

[divider]The following transcript is provided for your convenience.[divider]

The Mayas developed a very accurate calendar based on a solar year. Now, they were able to plot the movements of the Sun and figure out the year very, very accurately. But, whenever they developed their calendar that they actually followed, they made it a straight 365 days no matter what. And so, they ended up losing a day every four years because there’s that one-quarter rotation that happens every year. So, while they were able to plot the movement of the Sun to see how long the solar year was very accurately, their calendar ended up being a little bit off, but it was still much more advanced than any other calendar at this particular time period.

The Mayas used a base 20 and base 5 numbering system, and they’re credited with developing the concept of zero. So, they were also mathematically advanced, and were very involved with their counting, and they developed a symbol for zero as well.

The Mayas practiced astronomy, charting the movements of the Moon and planets to accurately predict eclipses and other events. So, they were involved with mathematics, they were involved with astronomy. They charted the movements of the Moon and planets, and they charted the movements of the Sun. And so, they were real big on making observations and then developing different ideas based off of those.

Mayan architecture was often a tribute to their gods. So, they were also good builders. However, like much of the early American civilizations, the Mayans didn’t really use the wheel because they didn’t have any large, draft animals. No horses, oxen, donkeys that could pull things for them, or help them plow a field. So, most of their architecture was built just by human hands.

They tended to incorporate the natural landscape of an area into its design with minimal site planning. So, if they were in an area that had some hills or mountains, and they would build temples that went up higher, up against the side of the mountain or the hill. If they were on a flat area, then the whole city would kind of just spread out. And there wasn’t always a lot of planning, except that there were always large, open plazas that were created for people to gather near religious and political buildings. So, when they built these large temples, they would build a large plaza below it so people could gather there outside of it.

And while they didn’t have the large animals to help them, and they didn’t have a lot of metal tools, they were able to get the stone they needed to build their architecture from areas nearby. So, they were able to still do a lot with the stonework they had. And they often use limestone because it was still a soft enough stone that they could use other stones to cut it down, and then harden it once they were actually building their buildings.

The Mayas had a complex system of religion. So, we said that a lot of times, their architecture was a tribute to their gods. Their gods are very important to them, but it was a complex system that the Mayas had. In fact, scientists and archaeologists who have studied the Mayas still don’t know all the facets of this religion, but here are some things that seem pretty consistent throughout the histories and observations and findings that we have found in regards to the Mayans.

They believed that Earth was a flat square with gods at its four corners and its center. So, in each corner, a god was dominating that area, and then in the center, there was a god in charge of that area. Above the sky were 13 different levels, and below were nine underworlds. Each one of those levels, above and below, was dominated by a different god.

Each male god had a female goddess counterpart. So, they weren’t all considered male. They did have female goddess counterparts for each male god. There were patron gods and goddesses for different jobs and classes. So, the higher class would have gods that they prayed exclusively to, the lower classes would pray specifically to certain gods. People with different jobs – the stoneworkers, the builders, people working in the field, rulers – each one of them would have a god that was specifically designated as a god who cared about that particular job.

Mayan rulers had religious powers. So, the rulers they picked, they also believed had kind of been chosen by the gods, and so, were given religious powers. And while that may not have necessarily been true, they could look at certain things that happened and say, “Oh, this happened because the gods are pleased,” or “Our ruler is pleased with this, and he’s gotten the gods to call down favor. It rained today. Oh, thank you, ruler, for doing this for us.” So, even if the ruler didn’t have religious powers, they believed he did, and looked at everyday events to kind of back that up.

Rituals often involved human sacrifice and self-mutilation. This was common in a lot of early American civilizations. And so, people would either be sacrificed, or would offer themselves as sacrifice, or they would cut themselves and make themselves bleed and their blood would be considered the sacrifice. And sometimes, again, this was done if they were saying, “Oh, we haven’t had rain a long time, we need rain.” “Oh, this other civilization is trying to come and take over us, please save us from this happening.” And so, they would sacrifice themselves or mutilate themselves in hopes that this would please the gods and make them show favor.

Another thing was the ballgame was also sometimes used as a religious ritual with the Mayas. And the ballgame was where different players would try to keep a rubber ball in play, and not have it go to the ground. They could hit it different ways, sometimes with their hand or with another body part, or sometimes they had rackets, but the goal was to keep the ball in play. And a lot of times, the losers of this ballgame would be human sacrifices, and this was when it was like a religious ritual. It was played for fun, but when it was a religious ritual, it was also played as an end result to appease the gods with a human sacrifice.

So, the Mayas were an important civilization that was prominent from 200 to 950. They had a system of writing, but they don’t have a lot of writings that have been found because they mainly preserve their histories orally. They developed a calendar. They had a base 20 and base 5 numbering system. They’re credited with coming up with the concept of zero, before that, people just kind of started at one. They didn’t think about, “Oh, what if there’s nothing?” So, they came up with a number for that. They practiced astronomy, architecture, and they had very complex religion.

The next lesson: Ancient Greece, both lessons are included in Practice Tests.