Mayan Pyramid Facts

May 10, 2022
Nick

The Maya Pyramids are some of the oldest structures still standing.

Maya

Tikal

The ancient Egyptians used cut sandstone blocks to build their pyramids, but unlike them, the Maya only partially used cut blocks of limestone. Instead of layering blocks and blocks of cut stone, which would have been more time consuming, they created the basic forms of their pyramids by using a fill, which was a mix of smaller stone, garbage such as broken pottery pieces, and soil. They would then form quickly built construction walls of stacked stones to hold back the fill.

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Once the fill had taken shape and was the desired height or depth, the Maya would then cover that with cut and shaped limestones. Sometimes those cut stones were large, other times they could be the size of fists. These pieces were precisely created to fit together with a limestone mortar and would be the face of the pyramid. These cut stones were then covered in plaster and painted and designed to reflect the power of the ruler who ordered the pyramid be built.

Some of the pyramids that the Maya built were first constructed over 2000 years ago, and their clever use of the environment and resources around them mean that many of those pyramids are still standing today. In Guatemala, an area rife with tectonic activity, their pyramids are even earthquake proof!

Did the Maya calendar end on December 21, 2012?

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Many people have become interested in the Maya culture over the past few years with the help of several good documentaries. The big news around 2012 was that the Maya predicted that the world would end on Dec 21, 2012. Obviously, that didn’t happen, so did they just get it that date wrong?

No, because the Maya did NOT in fact predict the end of the world. The Maya had two calendar systems, the tzolk’in (sacred calendar) and the haab (more everyday calendar). Used together, the two would create what is called a long count. The long count is divided into the k’in (day), unial (20 days), tun (eighteen unial’s), k’atun (twenty tuns), and the bak’tun (twenty k’atuns). 

Based on this system, the Maya recorded time in a circular manner, rather than a linear one that Western societies do. The event of Dec 21, 2012 was not the end of the world, but a change over to the start of a new cycle – basically the way we celebrate the new millennium in 2000.

The Maya developed Math and Zero

 

The Maya people developed an early form of number theory, geometry, and astronomical technology that enabled them to predict solar eclipses and create calendars. They used this ability to accurately predict patterns in the movement of the stars and the planets that they observed. It was these systems that helped them create some extremely accurate calendars that could have dates set for the ancient past or far future. 

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Their math was different than ours though. While we use a base 10 system, the Maya used a base 20, possibly because when they started counting, they used their fingers and their toes! Many ancient civilizations used an association system of numbers to predict future events. What makes the Maya so special, is that they are the only civilization whose long-term prediction of planetary alignments was accurate. Their knowledge of this unique system has helped scientists better understand Earth’s orbit pattern over time!

Part of why they were able to do such amazing astronomy and calendars is that the Maya developed the concept of the number zero, and they were one of the few ancient cultures to do so. This allowed them to have incredibly accurate math systems that they used to observe the heavens, build amazing structures, and create a complex calendar that that accounted for the fractions of days that our planet experiences. Today, we deal with that fraction by creating a lead day every four years. The Maya added four additional days to the end of the calendar and adjusted their calculations. 

The Maya people used hieroglyphs as a form of writing

Mayan Alphabet. Close up of hieroglyph or glyph writing system found in Copan (Honduras), Tikal (Guatemala) and Chichen Itza, Palenque, Uxmal, Yaxchilan, Bonampak (Mexico).

Despite treating the Maya people as a monolith, it is likely that they were not one ethnic or cultural group. When the Spanish arrived in Central America in the 16th century, there were dozens of languages being spoken, all of which shared a root family, and so has been called Maya languages. These include Quiché, Kaqchikel, and K'iche'. It is likely that this diversity of language existed in the Pre-Columbian past of the Maya as well.

The Maya also had a written language, in the form of hieroglyph, with each letter representing a sound, so you would only need to know a few letters to read or write a word. This writing is most commonly found from the Classic Period (AD 300 – AD 900) on altars, stelae, and other monumental items. These would tell the stories of grand deeds done by rulers and war leaders. They would also include the dates these important events happened, so archaeologists can now read exactly when these things happened.

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