The Maya World
The Ancient Maya
Preclassic Period: 2000 BC to AD 250
Classic Period: AD 250 to 900
Postclassic Period: AD 900 to 1521
Colonial Period: AD 1521 onwards
What was going on in England during these time periods?
Where did the Ancient Maya live?
The ancient Maya lived in a region that today includes Guatemala, Belize, the Yucatan peninsula (Mexico) and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.
The area was diverse including the coast, mountains (highlands) and the rainforest (lowlands). The rainforest area is where we see the beginnings of Maya civilisation.
Maya cities generally contained a ceremonial centre where great pyramids, temples, palaces and ballcourts were built. Many centres had causeways (roadways) and also stelae; standing stones that contained both portraits of rulers and writings about them.
The Maya pyramids were stepped and had a central staircase and a small structure on top. The Maya rulers often built their pyramids on top of one another, so if a ruler wanted to celebrate an important event or if a new ruler came to power a building would be constructed over the old one. You can imagine how exciting this is for archaeologists, as we are literally digging through time!
Activity: The Rainforest Alliance
Climb into the Rainforest Alliance Treehouse and discover the many wonders of the rainforest, as well as learning more about the plants, animals and people who live there.
How did the Maya tell the time?
Time was extremely important to the Maya, every inscription began with the date and their precise calendars greatly aided their astronomical record keeping.
The Maya calendar round of 52 years, consisted of two calendars. The first is of 260 days (Tzolk’in – the sacred year), which has 1 to 13 numbers and 20 named days, e.g. 1 Imix, 2 Ik, to 13 Ben.
The second calendar was the 365-day solar year (Haab), which had 18 months of 20 days each, with 5 days added to the end. For example, 0 Kimi would be followed by 1 Kimi, then 2 Kimi, up to 19, then it would be 0 Manik, 1 Manik and so on.
To make things even more complicated (yes, the Maya didn’t like things simple!), they also had another calendar, called the Long Count. This calendar started on 13th August 3114 BC and ended never! Each cycle of the calendar lasted 5125 years and when one cycle ended a new one began.
You can learn more on the Maya calendar here.
Would you like to see what today looks like in the Maya calendar or how the Maya would have written your birthdate? Then check out the FAMSI calendar calculator.
How did the Maya add and Subtract?
Instead of using a decimal system like ours, from 1-9, then 10, 20 etc., the Maya choose something very different, using a system of 20’s, having only 3 numbers, the dot = 1, the bar = 5, and a shell shape = 0. They then read from the bottom of the page upwards.
So one row would contain dots and bars including ones and fives up to 19. The next row was x 20 which would include dots and bars up to 399 (20 x 20). The next row had dots and bars up to 799 (400 x 20).
What number is being shown in each of the images? You will find the answers at the bottom of the page.
You can imagine then that the Maya were able to calculate extremely large numbers unlike for example, the ancient Greeks and Romans, as they had the concept of zero and place-values. Their number system helped them to make really accurate astonimical predictions and they traced movements of the sun, moon, stars and even planets like Mars!!!!
Activity: Take the Maya Maths Challenge
You are an architect and you are asked to build a temple at the Maya site of Chichen Itza. Can you match the numbers with the corresponding Maya numbers to build the levels of the pyramid? Have a go!
What was Maya writing like?
The Maya were the only civilization in the Americas to develop a fully-fledged writing system just like ours. Glyphs were read from left to right and top to bottom in paired columns.
Their hieroglyphic script can be seen on carved stone stelae, door lintels and on painted murals and ceramics.
There are over 800 signs, but only half of them have been deciphered. One of the reasons for this is that the Maya have many different ways of spelling a word that makes it very confusing for us!
An example is the word King – we have just one spelling for King, K-i-n-g – whereas the Maya word for King was Ajaw and it could be spelt in at least 6 different ways!
Only the elites could write and so you can imagine that writing concerned elite activities – the calendar and life histories of rulers, such as their birth, death, marriage, warfare and conquests.
Writing was often inked in codices; screen-fold books of bark paper, bound with jaguar skin. Spanish colonial authorities burned almost all of them; only four are known to have survived. These codices give us an insight into other aspects of Maya life. They include astronomical tables used for predicting solar and lunar eclipses as well as the movement of the planets, Venus and Mars.
There is also mention of planting and tending their crops, caring for the stingless bees they raised for their honey and making offerings of incense or cacao.
The documentary also talks about San Bartolo, the site where I did my research and the beautiful mural that was discovered there.
Did the Maya Play football?
This picture comes from children using my magical Maya resource – Learn more here
The Maya ballgame was only one type of several played throughout Mesoamerica, from the Preclassic period to the Spanish conquest. Ballcourts were often located within ceremonial centres and usually each important site had a ballcourt.
How to play the Maya ballgame
The court was divided into two halves by a line perpendicular to its long axis, and opposing teams faced each other across this dividing line. The Maya wore heavy body padding and belts. The ball; a rubber sphere which is depicted in various sizes, could be hit with the elbows, hips and knees, but never the hands or feet. A point was scored for one team when the opposing team failed to return the ball before it bounced a second time, or when the ball reached the opposing end zone (or when thrown through one of the two stone rings, a later addition).
It is thought that the rubber ball was produced by mixing latex with juice from the morning glory vine, which contains a chemical that makes the rubber less brittle and more bouncy. So they were quite advanced chemists as well!
What is the Popul Vuh?
The Popul Vuh is the story of Maya creation and includes the great myth of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. These twins became great ballplayers and were summoned to a ballgame by the Underworld Lords. In their first game, the Lords tried to use a skull as a ball, to which the Hero Twins refused. However, they had to undertake several trials in various Underworld houses, in which one, the “House of Bats”, Hunahpu had his head chopped off! The lords hung his head over the ballcourt and announced that it would be used as the ball at the next match. Yet Xbalanque fashioned a temporary head for his brother’s body and persuaded a rabbit to impersonate the ball, so he could retrieve Hunahpu’s head and restore him whole!
Activities: The Mesoamerican Ballgame
Play the ballgame!
Did the Maya really have chocolate?
Cacao, bean-like seeds from which chocolate is made, originates in the Maya area and was grown mainly in Guatemala. A highly valued commodity, the bean of the cacao tree when processed, became the chocolate used in chocolate drinks. Like us, the Maya loved chocolate, but rather than eat it in bars, they drank it. They flavoured their chocolate drinks with spices such as chilli and sometimes they would use honey. They made sure that their drink was frothy and we see many depictions on vases of these frothy drinks. We also see depictions of how they made the drink frothy by pouring the liquid into another pot from a height.
Cacao beans can be roasted, then easily stored and transported – for that reason cacao became a form of currency much later in the Postclassic period. So at this time you could say that the Maya were literally drinking money!
Did the Maya have Music?
There are many depictions on painted vases and murals of the ancient Maya playing musical instruments. We also have been lucky enough to find remains of these instruments too. Instruments could be made out of clay, wood, bone, shell and even reeds such as trumpets, drums, flutes, whistles and rattles. Music was played on many occasions, from ballgame events and warfare to festivities at court. The image above depicts a conch shell that was used as a trumpet. It is very hard to play…see how Brookland School children having a go…
Are there still Maya people living today?
Yes, there are Maya living today, around 8 million of them! Half the population of Guatemala are Maya and did you know that there are around 28 different Mayan languages spoken today?
Maya women, traditionally wear a blouse, called a huipil made of cotton with beautiful designs, that are distinct to the community they are from and which act as a form of identity. Huipiles were also worn by ancient Maya women. Women also wear a cotton skirt (corte) and often a coloured cotton ribbon in their hair (cinta). Spinning and weaving important parts of daily life for Maya women and each community has its own customs.
Both the ancient and modern Maya ate lots of maize, beans and squash, giving them a healthy diet of carbohydrates and proteins. Maize was much more than a food for the Maya though, they believed that they had been created from maize and one of their deities is the god of maize.
a. 806, b. 2005