Maya

Mayan Temple

Can a civilization like the Mayans exist for thousands of years without collapse? Could it be possible to exist for that long and not collapse? What killed off this long living and powerful people? Was it a great flood? Volcanic eruption? Climate change or something else? What caused them to mysteriously vanish?

What caused the Mayan civilization to collapse? So many mysteries come from the Mayan civilization. 

Decline

The Mayans started to slowly fade away in what we call the Post Classic period. The fall of major cities like Tikal in Mesoamerica began at the end of the 8th century A.D. 

Tikal

Temple of the Jaguar

The Mayans thankfully were obsessed with time and carved important dates in stone monuments called “Stelae”. This has helped give archeologists a rough timeline of their history. Stela 11, erected in 869 A.D is the last known dated monument in Tikal.

After the fall of Tikal, other mayan cities followed. The prominent city Tonina, who dominated a large region of Mesoamerica, eventually declined and was abandoned. 

This decline marks the end of the Classic Period of the Maya, and the beginning of what we call the Post Classic Period, lasting from 900 A.D to 1521 A.D.

In this period the Toltecs, Mixtecs, and Aztecs begin to carve out their corner in history, while one of the last cities of the Maya is founded. Mayapan was founded in the northern part of the Yucatan around 1200 A.D, this was the center of the Post Classic Maya. Eventually collapsing in the late 14th century A.D. 

The decline of the Mayans was spread out over the region and its timeline. Each city state may have had different reasons for collapse. The eventual arrival of the Spanish cemented the Maya civilization in the past, leaving many questions unanswered.  

Overpopulation

There were likely several problems at the start of their decline.

One of the major theories is that the Mayan civilization began to collapse in a series of events which came as a result of overpopulation and overconsumption of resources. 

The ruins of Tikal, one of the largest Mayan cities, are an indication that the Mayans were once very densely populated. New scans of the jungle surrounding the site have revealed tens of thousands of new structures, a massive amount of roadways, and irrigation systems. Now archaeologists are saying that this city at one time held around 10 million people. 

Tikal

Temple II at Tikal

This overpopulation in Tikal, and neighboring cities such as Palenque, and Copan, may have been the main cause of collapse for the classic period of Maya Civilization. 

The living conditions at the height of Tikal are unknown, but they were masters at agriculture and enjoyed plenty of luxuries for such an ancient civilization. 

The real reason for collapse may be more suitably linked to war, and political change. The Mayans ritually made war with each other, and the evidence of this is widely spread throughout Mesoamerican history. The Maya are known to have taken slaves and prisoners in warfare.

What We Know about the Maya

Their Civilization began in around 600 B.C. in what is now the Yucatan, and lowland jungles of Guatemala.

The Maya inhabited a large part of what is now Guatemala and Mexico, but they had also occupied present-day Belize, Honduras, El Salvador.They were the dominant culture in Mesoamerica.

Before the Spanish Conquest, the Mayans had a highly developed civilization. The Mayans had unique artworks, architecture, and pottery techniques.

The Mayans had a sophisticated calendar system, they tracked celestial events like the solstices and equinox. They had calendars that tracked the phases of the planets. 

It is known that the Maya had a widespread trade network, but the extent of this trade is not completely known.

The Maya were able to construct a vast city that covered massive areas, likely unsurpassed by any other ancient civilization.

The Maya were skilled stone workers who developed new techniques for carving. Mayan cities were built using pre-made bricks made from limestone.

The Mayan civilization went through an amazing amount of growth during its 3000 year span. However, there were also very important changes during this period.

The Classic Mayan period was the period in the history of this civilization which saw a dramatic rise in the size of its population.

the Mayans had mastered a complex calendar system and developed writing. They are also famously known for understanding the mathematical concept of zero. 

The Mayans are undoubtedly one of the world’s first great civilizations.

Descendants 

Maya

Mayan Market

The Mayan people are still alive today. So the civilization hasn’t completely collapsed or ended. They cary on ancient traditions inherited from their ancestors. They even speak the same language, their ancestors did thousands of years ago.

Archaeologists continue to unearth new discoveries, some that are now changing our whole perspective on the Maya. 

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.

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?

Maya sun

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. 

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.

Origin of the Mayan Civilization

The Mayans were an ancient civilization which existed thousands of years ago. They populated the regions of the Yucatán Peninsula, southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and a part of El Salvador.

They dominated these regions for thousands of years, building huge cities and enormous pyramids. Experts in Math and Astronomy, they excelled in agriculture and trade, and they even developed a very unique writing and number system, not to mention their calendrical systems. 

Maya

Stone Jaguar Heads

The Mayans developed a sophisticated literary culture, and many of their monuments and religious ceremonies are of great archaeological significance.

Archaeologists are now discovering even more astonishing things about the Maya, underneath the overgrowth of the jungle. The Maya left behind quite a mystery for the future to uncover…

Timeline

There is still debate about an exact timeline for the Maya, as new discoveries keep changing the history. A general consensus is that the earliest Mayan villages in Central America and Mexico, are dated back to as early as 2500 B.C. 

Great waring city states were established, and the Maya civilization prospered for thousands of years. 

Just before the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica, the Maya began to disperse. This is a big mystery in the history and understanding of the civilization. 

 

The Mayans became the dominant power in Mesoamerica in the second half of the first millennium A.D. But the Maya were not the first civilization to emerge in this ancient land.

Pre Maya 

Before the Mayans established their Civilization, The Olmec and Zapotec people made their mark. The Olmec famous for their enormous stone heads, lived in southeastern Mexico, what is now the modern state of Tabasco. 

Olmec

Olmec Stone Head

La Venta is one famous site left by the Olmec, dating to around 1100 B.C. they left behind many amazing giant sculptures, pyramids, and monuments. Archaeologists say that the Olmec date back to about 1500 B.C.

The Zapotec culture, dating to around 700 B.C, pre date the Maya. They ruled in the region that is now Oaxaca Mexico. One major site the Zapotec built, is a large pyramid complex called Monte Alban. 

Piecing together the chronology of the city through pottery, archaeologists have pieced together 2000 years of history for this ancient city. Divided into 5 parts of history, this one city in Oaxaca Mexico has a rich and deep past. 

Pre Classic

Generally the Pre Classic period for the Maya describes the civilizations beginning. From settlers to villages, the Maya began to establish their culture. They begin constructing their first ceremonial city’s and temples.

Around 750 B.C the Mayans establish their first city Nakbe in the northern Guatemalan lowlands. Nakbe is just a few kilometers south of the recently heralded El Miradaor, site and its massive pyramid La Danta.

One of the most famous Mayan archaeological sites, Tikal, was constructed in the Pre Classic period around the 4th century B.C. It is towards the end of the Pre Classic period the Maya start erecting massive cities all over southern Mexico and Central America. 

Classic Period

The Classic Period of the Maya is when the civilization flourished. 

In this period of Mayan history, many major city states battled with each other for power over certain regions.

King Pakal and his lineage start to build amazing temples at Palenque in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico. Including the temple of inscriptions, the palace, and the temple of the cross group. The history of Palenque stretches from 226 B.C. to 799 A.D. 

Palenque

Palenque

Although not as big as other Mayan sites like Tikal. Palenque is known for its massive amounts of monuments, glyphs, and reliefs that were preserved so well. It’s lineages of rulers also added to the history of Palenque. Including the famous Pakal, who ruled Palenque for 68 years. 

Tikal one of the biggest Mayan sites known today, was a powerful city state in the Classic Period. Tikal reigned over a large part of the Guatemala lowlands and part of Mexico during its rule. 

Many cities all over Mesoamerica flourished in this period.

Copan in Honduras

Bonampak in southern Mexico

Chichen Itza and Uxmal in the Yucatan 

After the flowering of the Classic Period, the Maya began to gradually fall…

Post Classic Period 

Mayapan one of the last city’s of the Maya was built in the late Post Classic period around 1220 A.D. The city contains thousands of structures. Eventually abandoned in the middle of the 14th century. 

There are many theories of why the Maya abandoned their cities. Some say overpopulation, some say drought or war, but we still do not know exactly why.

Maya

Mayan Ruins

After thousands of years the Mayan civilization passed into history. The ancient settlements vanished, but traces of their existence in the form of structures are being discovered every year.

Did the ancient Mayans have a longer recorded history than previously thought? With the new discoveries, archaeologists are now claiming that the Mayans may have solidified their culture in the Pre Classic period.

New Discoveries 

Using LIDAR, a light detection and ranging technology. Archaeologists have been able to see through the jungle from above and scan the forest floor. 

This technology has changed the whole perception of the Mayan city Tikal. Archaeologists are now saying that ten to fifteen million people once lived in this region. 

LIDAR has revealed numerous previously undiscovered structures. Leading to new theories about the Maya.

The Maya People Still Live

The Ancient Mayans are gone, but the Maya people still live in modern day Central America, and Mexico. They carry on their past with oral tradition and ceremony. 

Traveling through the Yucatan and Guatemala, one can see the Maya people are still here.

Conclusion

Thankfully the Mayans were obsessed with their calendars and recording the dates of major events. They recorded astrological events, war related events, they also preserved lineages and recorded the dates kings and queens would ascend to the throne.

The history of the Mayan civilization survived on pottery locked away in secret burial chambers, hidden inside the pyramids. Survived on large carved monuments called “stela”, and the remaining codices that escaped the cultural destruction by the  Spanish.

Preserved by time and the aggressive jungle, hiding pyramids and almost the whole civilization under the trees. 

The Pre-Hispanic Mayan culture was the most advanced ancient civilization on the American continent, and existed for over 2,000 years from 800 BC to 1440 AD.

Poking out of the lush green canopies of the Mayan jungles, are ancient ominous limestone structures. Rivaling the Pyramids of Egypt in size and in number, these overwhelming temples are still shrouded in mystery. These are the Mayan Pyramids. 

The Mayan pyramids are some of the largest and oldest structures in the world. Unlike the pyramids in Egypt, Mayan pyramids are ziggurat like step pyramids. With over 4,400 known mayan sites throughout Mexico and Central America, the Maya left a permanent mark in history. 

How Old Are the Mayan Pyramids?

Mayan Pyramids How Old

Tzol'kin Mayan Calendar

The Mayans civilization stretched over the span of thousands of years. Many kings and queens would go off on construction campaigns.

When the Mayan pyramids were first discovered, the pyramids had weathered severely. Some completely covered by the jungle, you would not even know you were standing on a pyramid. 

Many of the Mayan pyramids were built at different times. All over the Maya peninsula, there are cities that have still not been discovered.

Even well known Mayan archaeological sites continue to reveal more and more about the mysterious Mayans. Archaeologists are still uncovering new structures deep in the jungle, and the established knowledge and timeline is changing.

So how old are the Mayan pyramids? To answer this question, one needs to understand that the Mayan civilization was comprised of city states that were constantly at war with one another. City’s would rise and fall, change rulership, and literally be built on top of each other. 

Chichen Itza

How Old Mayan Pyramids Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

For example at Chichen Itza the famous pyramid “El Castillo” was built or enhanced onto an existing pyramid the Maya had built centuries previous. 

Archaeologists dub this former pyramid the substructure, and it is said to be built somewhere around 600 A.D. Hundreds of years later around 900 A.D the Maya complete the pyramid in honor of the god “Kukulkan”, which is the Mayan version of the Aztec god “Quetzalcoatl”. 

The Pyramid itself is a calendar. With a total number of 365 steps, representing their solar calendar “The Haab”. The temple also tracks the spring and autumn equinoxes, and is positioned so perfectly that on these two days triangles of light illuminate the staircase to form what looks like a serpent crawling down the pyramid from the sky.

Pyramids of Palenque

Ancient Palenque City

Palenque

In the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico lies one of the most beautiful mayan sites. Famous for its history of rulers, monuments and detailed inscriptions. Some of the city’s earlier structures date back to around 226 B.C. 

Temple of Inscriptions 

Palenque Pyramid

Temple of Inscriptions

Built by the infamous Lord Pakal around 675 A.D in the late Classic period, this massive 9 level pyramid gets its name from the many detailed inscriptions. At the top of the temple like platform, carved into the stone is 180 years of Palenque’s history. The pyramid houses a tomb where Pakal’s body is encased in an elaborate sarcophagus. 

Temple of the Cross, Sun, and Foliated Cross

Palenque Pyramids Cross Sun and Foliated Cross

Temple of the Sun

After Pakal’s death his son Kan Bahlam erected the three temples, to commemorate his lineage. Constructed in 692 A.D, these three pyramids all facing a central court yard are very unique.

Pyramids at Tikal

jaguar, stains, look

Jaguar

In the Guatemalan lowland jungles, the Mayans built an enormous city. Tikal was a massive city state that reigned for centuries. Flourishing in the classic period from around 200 A.D to 900A.D. 

Recent discoveries of raised highways and aqueducts, are rewriting the history books about this ancient city. Archaeologists are now saying that the area was home to close to ten million people. 

Tens of thousands of structures hidden by the jungle overgrowth still remain uncovered. 

Temple of the Jaguar

Guatemala Pyramid Jaguar Temple

Temple of the Jaguar

Tikal’s Temple of the Jaguar was constructed around 732 A.D. The temple is 180 ft tall and has 9 levels, representing the nine levels of the Mayan underworld Xibalba. 

Jasaw Chan K’awiil ruled Tikal in the Classic period, and was buried the Temple of the Jaguar’s tomb. 

The temple gets its name from a carving of a king sitting on a jaguar throne. Ironically enough this area is one of the few remaining bio reserves that is home to many wild jaguars.

El Mirador’s La Danta

 

North of Tikal, deeper into the dense jungle stands one of the largest pyramids in the world, La Danta. 

At the site of El Mirador, archaeologists have uncovered amazing carvings and reliefs that portray scenes from the Popol Vuh. Many of the structures at El Mirador are Pre Classic Maya. El Mirador lasted between 1000 B.C.- 250 A.D

La Danta is the largest Mayan pyramid at 236 feet tall, by volume La Danta is the largest in the world at 99 million cubic feet. 

Uxmal and the Magician’s Pyramid

At the Mayan site of Uxmal in the Yucatan Peninsula, is the Magicians Pyramid. A fairly large pyramid that was decorated with lattice type design. Uxmal thrived around 600 to 1000 A.D. It is said that the god Itzamna built the pyramid overnight, giving it the name “Magicians Pyramid”.

The Purpose of Mayan Pyramids: what were they used for?

If you're keen on diving deeper into the intricacies of the Maya world, a visit to our homepage at MayanDay.com will give you today's Maya Calendar date—a vital part of their cosmology. But another monumental aspect of their world, both literally and metaphorically, were the pyramids.

Pakal's Tomb in Palenque

King Pakal, shown in the tomb of one of the most iconic mayan pyramids, the Temple of Inscriptions

King Pakal, shown in the tomb of one of the most iconic mayan pyramids, the Temple of Inscriptions

Nestled within the dense jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, the ancient city of Palenque serves as a testament to Mayan ingenuity and spirituality. Among its architectural wonders is the Temple of Inscriptions, a pyramid specially commissioned by King Pakal. This structure is renowned for preserving a wealth of Mayan glyphs, bas-reliefs, and carvings.

At the temple's core, archaeologist Alberto Ruz unveiled a remarkable find: the tomb of Lord Janaab K'inich Pakal, the great king of Palenque. Encased in a grand sarcophagus, Pakal's burial chamber is a treasure trove of Mayan art and glyphs. Notable among the artifacts is an intricately crafted jade mask, adding another layer of mystery and reverence to this extraordinary discovery.

Not Just Tombs

Contrary to popular belief, the Mayan pyramids were not primarily intended as burial places like their Egyptian counterparts. Although some of these structures do contain tombs, they served a more complex array of functions.

Platforms for the Gods

The most immediate purpose of these pyramids was religious. They served as platforms where priests could get closer to the gods and perform sacrifices, rituals, and other religious ceremonies. The staircases often aligned with celestial events, connecting the Earth with the cosmos in a physical and symbolic way.

Centers of Community and Governance

Beyond their religious function, the pyramids were also the centerpieces of Mayan cities and were surrounded by other important structures like ball courts, palaces, and plazas. They essentially served as the central point around which the community revolved, acting not just as places of worship but also as hubs of social, political, and economic activity.

Astronomical Significance

The Maya were keen astronomers, and many of their pyramids are designed to align with celestial bodies and events. The Pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza, for instance, is renowned for the snake-like shadow it casts during the equinox, symbolizing the feathered serpent god descending from the heavens.

Calendrical Relevance

The steps and tiers of some pyramids also encoded the complex Mayan calendrical systems, like the Tzolk'in and Haab. These were not just buildings; they were stone representations of time itself.

Conclusion

The Mayan pyramids were multi-dimensional constructs that served as the physical and metaphysical centers of their cities. From facilitating spiritual communion to acting as astronomical observatories, these pyramids are a testament to the rich and complex life of the Maya civilization.

To expand your knowledge of the Mayan world and its complex calendar system, visit MayanDay.com or check out our book "The Maya Calendar: An Archetypal Structure of Reality."

This article is sponsored by MayanDay.com, where you can find resources to expand your knowledge of the Maya Calendar and the Maya world at large.

 

 

 

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