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The Maya civilization

The ancient Maya created one of the most advanced and sophisticated cultures of the ancient world. Despite the lack of metallurgy, the wheel and beasts of burden, they fashioned a highly organised urban civilisation with political centres containing large palaces, temples and pyramids. Richly ornamented carvings and highly skilled paintings decorated the facades and interiors of these buildings. Maya astronomy and mathematics were exceptionally advanced and they were capable of astronomical calculations predicting important astronomical events, such as the helical rising of Venus and solar and lunar eclipses. The Maya used an intricate calendar that contained several separate cycles: including an approximate solar calendar (365 days) and a ritual calendar (260 days). In order to time important political or religious events precisely, they applied the so-called Long Count, a linear count of days from a distant point in the past. Moreover, the Maya were among only a handful of New World civilisations to create a logosyllabic writing system, which made it possible to record complex information in their own language. The Maya painted hieroglyphs in books made of bark paper, on murals and pottery vessels, as well as inscribing them on stone stelae and altars. Pre-Columbian Maya culture flourished in an area now covered by the modern states of Guatemala and Belize, the south-eastern portion of Mexico and western El Salvador and Honduras. This region has a very diverse geology and climate. The northern and central portions are lowlands, while the south is mountainous with a belt of volcanoes running along an east-west axis. Although the most impressive examples of ancient Maya cities are in the lowlands, they are overrun by rainforest and very difficult to reach—especially during the rainy season. Despite these harsh conditions, since the 19th-century Mayanists have been exploring the ruins and reconstructing the past of this ancient, forgotten culture.

The ancient Maya had no uniform state governed by a single ruler. Instead they developed a system of independent city-states or petty kingdoms, the majority of which were governed by kings bearing the title of k’uhul ajaw or “Holy Lord”. Some of these statelets were powerful enough to conquer their neighbours, probably in pursuit of ever-greater quantities of tribute. Research by Maya epigraphers Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube has shown that among the most powerful Maya states were two superpowers: Tikal in northern Guatemala and Calakmul in Mexico. Both strove to drag the smaller petty states into their orbit while trying to eliminate the main opposition from the political landscape. The city of Nakum (explored by Polish archaeologists) was one such smaller state that was torn between foreign influences for most of its history, although it was probably dominated by Tikal due to its proximity to this great site.

Maya history can be divided into three major periods, the Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic. These are further divided into smaller sub-periods. The beginning of Maya civilisation dates back to the second millennium B.C., when the first Maya villages appeared on the Pacific coast in southern Guatemala and south-eastern Mexico. These sedentary people were mainly agrarian—cultivating maize, beans and squash—and created distinctive styles of pottery. During the first millennium B.C., monumental architecture first appears at many Maya centres (mostly as platforms and pyramids) and the first carved monuments dedicated to kings were erected. This period also saw the beginnings of writing and the calendar. The apogee of Maya culture occurred during the Classic period (ca. 3rd-9th century A.D.). It was during this time, when many Maya cities were ruled by the k’uhul ajaw, that the well-known masterpieces of architecture, painting, sculpture and writing were created, and a huge demographic growth took place. But this era came to a precipitous end, as an unfortunate confluence of overpopulation, environmental degradation and warfare intensification was accompanied by natural disasters such as droughts. These resulted in the downfall and eventual abandonment of the majority of the southern lowland polities in the 9th and 10th centuries. However, many cities lying in the southern highlands and in the distant northern lowlands of Yucatan survived this dramatic period and flourished until the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. In spite of the cruel treatment meted out to the indigenous population by their conquerors, the mass murders and Old World diseases that decimated whole swathes of Native American populations, the Maya have managed to survive to this day and have preserved a semblance of their original culture, tradition and languages. Today, more than half the population of Guatemala is Maya and large Maya groups live in Mexico and Belize.

Jarosław Źrałka & Wiesław Koszkul

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