Maya: Maya Prehistory

Archaeologists divide the prehistory of the Maya region into the Preclassic (c.1500 BC–AD 300), Classic (300–900), and Postclassic (900–1500) periods, and concur that in most parts of this large region the most spectacular florescence occurred during the Classic period. This was followed, in much of the area with the exception of Yucatán, by a demographic collapse at the end of which (c.AD 1100) close to 90% of the population had been lost or migrated away and most of their great civic centers had been abandoned.

The Maya may derive from the Olmec, or they may have originated c.1000 BC among nomadic tribes in N central Petén, Guatemala, where there are evidences of a once-flourishing agricultural people. The earliest inhabitants may have been relatively few in number and practiced shifting cultivation, but a massive, relatively low (33–55 ft/10–15 m high) earthen structure was constructed at Aguada Fénix, Tabasco, Mex., near Guatemala, during this period. As populations increased, agriculture became more intensive. The Maya created huge canal systems to drain and raise wetland soil, producing arable lands sometimes called floating gardens. They also cut and cleared forestlands, for agriculture and for their urban centers.

Linked with this process, social organization became increasingly hierarchical, with increasing differentiations of wealth and status, shown primarily in the differential size and elaborateness of both residences and public buildings. Settlements in civic centers show a repeated pattern of arrangement of residences, pyramidal structures, and temples around courts or plazas, with buildings made of cut stone masonry, sculptured and stuccoed decorations, corbel-vault stone roofs, and paved plazas. Such groupings in small, poor rural settlements involve buildings of largely perishable materials and small size. Most of the elaborate carvings, relief and full-round, and the paintings, mural and ceramic, which are the hallmarks of Classic Maya art, come from the civic centers. These civic centers were numerous, including Copán in Honduras, El Mirador, Piedras Negras, Tikal, and Uaxactún in the N central Petén region of Guatemala, and Palenque and Uxmal in Mexico.

Neither during the Classic period nor at any other time does there seem to have been any political unification of the area as a whole. Rather, political organization seems to have been described by a series of small, city-state-like polities, each characterized by its own internal differentiation of status and power. While much earlier literature refers to professional rulers and priests, the present view is that the higher-status individuals were more probably heads of patrilineages (see kinship), and that much of the religious complex was centered on ancestor worship rather than on universalist gods. In contrast to the civilizations of central Mexico, urbanization and occupational differentiation in the Mayan region were poorly developed, even during the Classic period. Most of the population, estimated at 14 million in the 8th cent., lived in suburban agricultural communities.

On the other hand, the Classic Maya are the undisputed masters of abstract knowledge among indigenous American cultures. They had a system of written hieroglyphic script, largely syllabic in nature, which, although once considered astronomical or religious in content, is now considered primarily dynastic and political. (Mayan writing, however, dates to the late Preclassic period.) Although the script now mainly survives on the stone structures of their civic centers, it was also used in written records that were almost entirely destroyed by the Spanish during their later conquest of the area. The Mayan system of mathematics was an achievement not equaled for centuries in Europe. A vigesimal (base 20) numerical system was used, notable in its development of the zero as placeholder. Several types of calendar reckonings were in simultaneous use, and the 365-day Mayan year was so divided as to be more accurate than that of the Gregorian calendar.

The period following AD 900 was one of rapid decline, and many of the major cities were abandoned. It has been hypothesized that recurring and persistent severe droughts that followed a period of a period of increased warfare and social and political instability may have led to the collapse, and a number of studies support this theory. Deforestation may also have contributed to the collapse. In the heartland of the lowland Maya, most major centers had been abandoned, probably more gradually than has been supposed, by around AD 1100. In the Yucatán highlands settlement persisted, with a probable colonization of the site of Chichén Itzá by Toltec warriors who had migrated from central Mexico and were ultimately absorbed by the Maya. Subsequently, Mayapán, which flourished from the 13th to 15th cent., was one of the last significant city-states. By the time of Spanish conquest, most Mayan populations were centered around small villages.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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