Over the last few decades, the Mayan civilization has deeply captured our interests and imaginations. Generations of curious explorers have dived headfirst into the deep jungles of Central America and discovered buried cities, remarkable pyramids, spiritual mysteries, and astronomical and mathematical wonders that caused our fascination with this ancient culture to grow.
Did you know?
Meaning of Maya: Astronomers, mathematicians, agronomists, philosophers, artists, architects, sculptors and warriors – the Maya of old were a rich, complex society that continue to fascinate.
Introduction to the Mayas
The Maya Empire, centered in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala, reached the peak of its power and influence around the sixth century A.D. The Maya excelled at agriculture, pottery, hieroglyph writing, calendar-making and mathematics, and left behind an astonishing amount of impressive architecture and symbolic artwork. Most of the great stone cities of the Maya were abandoned by A.D. 900, however, and since the 19th-century scholars have debated what might have caused this dramatic decline.
Religion of the Mayans
The Maya were deeply religious and worshiped various gods related to nature, including the gods of the sun, the moon, rain, and corn. At the top of Maya society were the kings, or “kuhul ajaw” (holy lords), who claimed to be related to gods and followed a hereditary succession. They were thought to serve as mediators between the gods and people on earth and performed the elaborate religious ceremonies and rituals so important to the Maya culture.
The Classic Maya built many of their temples and palaces in a stepped pyramid shape, decorating them with elaborate reliefs and inscriptions. These structures have earned the Maya their reputation as the great artists of Mesoamerica. Guided by their religious ritual, the Maya also made significant advances in mathematics and astronomy, including the use of the zero and the development of a complex calendar system based on 365 days. Though early researchers concluded that the Maya were a peaceful society of priests and scribes, later evidence–including a thorough examination of the artwork and inscriptions on their temple walls–showed the less peaceful side of Maya culture, including the war between rival Mayan city-states and the importance of torture and human sacrifice to their religious ritual.
First to discover Cacao
The Mayans were the first to take out the seeds of cacao and toast them to make hot chocolate. They didn’t make M&Ms or Snickers bars, nor did they add milk or sugar to make the cacao taste sweeter. Instead, they drank their chocolate straight up as part of religious ceremonies. The Mayans saw cacao as a sacred fruit sent to them by the gods, and even used it as currency. When the Spaniards got to Central America, they adapted the drink and added sugar and milk to make it taste better.
They Developed the Concept of Zero
the Mayans independently developed it during the fourth century. Zero was represented as a shell-shaped glyph.
They Invented the First Ball Game
Tikal National Park in Guatemala, the largest excavated site in the entire American continent, houses five ancient ball courts that date back more than 3000 years. Researchers believe that the first organized team ball game in history was held there by the Mayans. Forget about golden medals and million dollar contracts – the Mayans competed for their right to live. The winning team kept their lives, and the losing team were sacrificed to the gods and got to spend eternity in the Underworld.
Ball players wearing jade necklaces, little protective gear and scary face paint would step out into hard stone courts seeking victory. They used a heavy eight-pound rubber ball with a human skull in the center of it. The game consisted of passing this ball around without it touching your hands, and then getting it to pass through a small basketball-like hoop. That is some serious ball!