Legacy of the Mesoamerican Masters
The Maya civilization once spanned a vast expanse of Mesoamerica, covering areas that are now parts of southern Mexico and Central America. This region was a center of vibrant cities, thousands of inhabitants, and innovations in every field. Yet, within two centuries, these cities went silent, leaving behind forsaken temples and incomplete art pieces.
Map of the Maya region
The Maya’s golden era, known as the Classic Period, started around 250 CE. Over 40 cities sprouted with stunning architecture, from plazas and palaces to arenas for ball games and temples shaped like stepped pyramids, adorned with intricate reliefs and writings. These cities were bustling, with populations ranging from 5,000 to 50,000 residents.
Temple of Kukulcán (El Castillo), Chichen Itza
The cities were supported by numerous farmers. While the Maya used the simple “slash-and-burn” farming method, which involves clearing land by cutting and burning vegetation, they also mastered advanced irrigation and terracing.
At their height, the Maya numbered between 2 million to possibly 10 million people. Yet, while they shared cultural and societal ties, the Maya weren’t a unified empire. Rather, their city-states and regional leaders often toggled between harmony and conflict.
Adela Breton, Ruins at Chichen Itza, c. 1902
As the Maya civilization expanded, they established intricate trade routes, refined warfare tactics, embraced sports, and developed a hieroglyphic writing system. Their genius extended to math and astronomy too, introducing concepts like zero and crafting an elaborate calendar system.
This calendar had three versions: one divine, one for societal events, and the astronomical Long Count, which began from a mythical date marking human creation on August 11, 3114 BCE. A new cycle of the Long Count commenced on December 21, 2012, giving rise to widespread myths suggesting the world’s end on that day.
Pages from the Paris Codex, one of the few surviving Maya books
The Maya philosophy was rooted in the belief of life’s continuous cycle, where existence neither had a beginning nor an end. They revered their deities through diverse spiritual practices and rituals, including human sacrifice and bloodletting.
However, during the 9th and 10th centuries CE, a shadow fell upon this civilization. While a few northern cities thrived, most faced decline. Trade dwindled, conflicts erupted, and death rates climbed. By 900 CE, the once-glorious Maya civilization had crumbled. The catalyst for this downfall remains a subject of debate, with several prevailing theories presented by scholars.
Some postulate that the Maya overexploited their natural surroundings, making it untenable to support their expansive populace. Others contend that relentless conflicts between rival city-states and the unraveling of traditional dynastic governance sowed the seeds of disintegration. Additionally, a drastic environmental shift, such as an extended and severe drought, might have been the driving force behind the Maya civilization’s demise.
The heart of Tikal, one of the most powerful Classic Period Maya cities
In the 1840s, explorers and researchers “rediscovered” the remnants of the Maya. By the mid-20th century, we began to unravel their unique writing system, leading to deeper insights into their history and culture. Our understanding of the Maya today largely stems from their preserved art and architecture.
Today, over 6 million Maya people continue the legacy of their ancestors, farming the same lands and navigating the same rivers.
Words of wisdom
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” ―Mark Twain
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” ―George Bernard Shaw
“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.” ―Émile Zola
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” ―Plutarch