The Maya: a 4,000 year-old civilization in the Americas

The Maya: a 4,000 year-old civilization in the Americas


Obscured by the fame of the Aztec empire or shrouded by a veil of mystery, the cultural history of the Mayas has generally been misunderstood by the public. Maya civilization developed in a territory the size of Germany and Denmark together (nearly 400,000 km2).

This vast territory shows three distinctive ecological and cultural sub-regions: the Northern Lowlands, which covers the Yucatan peninsula; the Southern Lowlands, which includes Belize, the Guatemalan Petén region and parts of Chiapas; and the Southern Highlands, which refers to the Guatemalan mountainous region. Conventionally, scholars tend to talk of three major periods in the history of Maya civilization: the Preclassic (2,000 BC – 300 AD), the Classic (300 – 900 AD), and the Postclassic (900 – 1550 AD).


This periodization only covers the cultural development before the European arrival, thus, implying that the Maya became extinct after this. Yet, the Maya have continued to develop and adapt through the historic periods that I characterise as the European Colonization (1550 – 1821 AD), and the National Modern (1821 AD – to date).


Material evidence places a distinctive Maya culture along the Pacific Coast of Guatemala at 1,800 BC. The environmental setting where the Maya emerged consists of a thick evergreen rainforest canopy rising 40 to 70 m. above the ground, populated by mahogany, rosewood, chicle, tropical cedar, rubber, sapodilla, native palms, and the sacred Maya tree, ceiba (Ceiba pedandra).

Fauna in the Maya region comprised the tapir, jaguar, jaguarundi, margay, white-lipped and collared peccaries, paca, and white-tailed and brocket deer in the wild; and the dog, stingless bee, Muscovy duck, and turkey in the backyard. Fishing villages provided marine fishes, mollusks, and other species.

Although slash-and-burn, multi-crop (maize, beans, and squash) agriculture has been prevalent for centuries, the Maya also implemented intensive agricultural systems in different landscapes, such as terraces in hillslopes, canals and drained fields in swamps, and orchards in a managed rainforest.


The Late Preclassic period (300 BC – 300 AD) witnessed the emergence of hierarchical society and sacred kingship. Rulers founded their leadership in specialised knowledge and shamanic practice, which linked them to the creator deities. Notable among these were Itzamná and Ix Chel: the Primordial Parents, Kinich Ahau: the Sun God, Pahuatun: the Quadripartite Skybearer, the Youthful Maize God, the Plumed Serpent, the Old Rain God and his Wife, the Hero Twins, among others.

Maize was the most important crop for the Maya, who believed the Creators used ground corn to form the bodies of the first humans. Preclassic Maya cities showed temples decorated with painted stucco masks. Building projects were associated with elite ceremonies performed atop the temples for Maya commoners who witnessed from open plazas below.

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