Visitors to modern-day Mexico and Central America are amazed when they see the remains of the vast cities of the civilization of the Mayan people – there are tall pyramids, huge ball courts, palaces, plazas and sacred wells.
The Maya started off as hunter/gatherers that began to settle together in simple communities. As centuries passed they developed a rich civilization with huge cities – some with populations of well over 75,000 people. The cities were ruled by kings. The kings dressed flamboyantly in jaguar-skin wraps and wore gold and jade jewellery and feather headdresses. The people believed the kings were connected directly to the gods.
The great pyramids were built as towering religious buildings. They were brightly painted and decorated with statues.
The Maya had a great knowledge of astronomy (the study of the stars and planets). They were able to plot the movement of the sun, the moon and Venus. They built observatories and buildings that light up with the rising sun on the summer and winter equinoxes and solstices.
They left us a record in the form of hieroglyphs, which are pictures or symbols representing words or sounds. They did not use metal – so all engraving was done using stone tools. They also had a form of books called codices; made out of the bark of trees on which they wrote and folded up accordion-style.
They built huge ball courts to play a game called “ulama,” which was both a sport and a sacred ceremony. Players would aim to get a rubber ball through stone rings fixed high on the wall of the court. They were only permitted to use their hips, shoulders and forearms; not their hands or feet; and they had to wear protective clothing.
The Maya were excellent at Maths. They developed the most accurate and complex calendar of the ancient world, known as “The Long Count.”
The staple diet of the Maya was maize, beans and squash. They also grew chillies and tomatoes. Corn was made into porridge, corn-cakes and tortillas. Cotton was cultivated to make clothing, though animal skins were also worn. Cacao was grown and used to make drinking chocolate for the wealthy families – it was sweetened with honey and spiced up with chillies. Ducks were also domesticated for their eggs and meat – and wild turkeys were penned in to fatten them up. The Mayans also hunted (with bows and arrows and blowguns) and fished.
In 800-900AD nearly all the cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned. Scientists are not sure why this happened – it may have been because of warfare, severe drought, overpopulation or epidemics. The Mayan cities in the Yucatan peninsula carried on successfully until the invasion of the Spanish colonists in the 16th century.
Today there are more than 6 million Maya living in rural areas in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. They are very proud of their great culture and history. Many continue to make beautiful pottery and weave elaborate fabrics in the traditional time-honoured way.