The Mayan civilisation lasted an extraordinarily long time from 2600 BC to the end of the seventeenth century; today, their descendants still live in Central America with millions of people still speaking Mayan languages. The merging of pre-Columbian and post-Conquest ideas and cultures from the sixteenth century colonisation of the Americas by the Spanish resulted in a unique set of traditions and beliefs.
The Mayans occupied what is today southern Mexico and Central America. Historians cite their establishment around 2600 BC with clay figurines being the earliest evidence of small communities. The Mayans were not alone in their early existence; other civilisations included the Olmec culture and Zapotec-speaking peoples and it is possible that there was great cross-cultural exchange in terms of hieroglyphics, the earliest of which date back to 250 BC.
Up to AD 900, an agriculturally intensive and urban-centered civilisation developed. Small kingdoms sprang up, complete with temples and palaces, accommodating a total of millions of people. Power appears to have moved with the economy, focusing on trade or commercial centres. Long-distance trade took place with the other aforementioned Mesoamerican cultures, trading cacao, jade and salt, as well as with other, more alien groups in the Caribbean.
Some cities began to be abandoned as early as the 9th century, possibly due to factors such as trade collapse, droughts caused by climate change, and the exhaustion of agricultural potential. In the north, the civilisation continued to flourish but it is believed that groups split into competing city-states. Typical polities included a city and several lesser towns ruled by a hereditary ruler (ajaw). Cave sites, some of which are used by modern Maya today, were as important as the stepped pyramids and temples. The rebuilding of these sites was common by rulers though city planning seems minimal if not non-existent. Open public plazas were the focus of urban design, surrounded by the principal governmental and religious buildings. Careful attention was paid to the directional orientation of temples, while individual shrines and common housing made up the outer spheres of the cities. Orientation was due to the Mayan interest in astronomy, especially the moon and Venus. Stone was used from local quarries, often limestone, while houses were usually wood and thatch. Cities could be linked so closely to the royal household that the fall of the royal court, as at Piedras or Copan, could see the settlement collapse.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century the lack of a single political centre caused the conquistadors to take up to 170 years to gain full control. Though the invaders were attracted by the supposed material and mineral wealth of Mayan lands, the cultural life was far richer, not quite representative of the ‘savages’ the Europeans spoke of. Art began in stone reliefs and coloured murals often depicting the human form. Ceramics and clay figurines followed Mayans to their graves and, thanks to the Maya script, we know that they were one of the few civilisations where artists labelled their work. The script had more than 1,000 glyphs and could be as old as 400 BC. It was most likely lost within a few generations of the Spanish conquest. Texts existed on paper made from tree-bark as well as on limestone and ceramic pottery and were written using quills in black and red ink. Evidence of a belief in the afterlife exists in writing on funeral pottery.
Much of Maya religion is not yet understood but they believed in an underworld, Earth and heavens. Human sacrifice was practiced to a certain extent and religious ceremonies were enacted only when symbols from the heavens were promising. There were gods of death, sun and sky as well as many supernatural characters and unattached gods, such as the ‘aged’ god, Itzamma. The important thing to remember is that the religion was based on cycles, not permanence; therefore ‘good’ traits were not always considered admirable.
What is clear is that the Maya were a complex and incredibly advanced civilisation, even by the 16th century. After this, the Mayan civilisation continued to develop, though thanks to the lack of interest the Spanish showed in preserving traditional Mayan culture, much of what was unique to the Mayas was lost. Despite this, a more fusion-style culture developed and is still passed on between people today, who are Maya by both language and descent.