The Early Maya
The Maya civilization was one of the most advanced in all of Mesoamerica. It was also one of the earliest known empires, which began to flourish about 2,300 years ago and flourished for over 1,000 years before ceasing to exist. Among their accomplishments were written language and mathematics that rivaled or surpassed that found in other ancient civilizations such as Greece and China. They also developed a calendar based on a system related to Venus cycles. Despite these achievements, no one has been able to definitively state when the civilization began or ended. Because the Maya did not possess a written language, there is no record that describes this great civilization’s origin. As a result, many facts about this advanced people remain unknown.
The Rise of the Maya Civilization
The area in which the Mayan civilization developed was in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and northern Belize. The core of the civilization is the Yucatan Peninsula. What is now known as Mexico was occupied by several large empires when the Mayans began to develop there. These included the Olmecs, Toltec, Teotihuacan and Aztec. The Olmec civilization began about 2,000 years ago with the first major settlement at what is now San Lorenzo. At its peak it ruled an area that included portions of southern Mexico and parts of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. It was advanced for its time with architecture, sculpture and monumental stone structures. The culture disappeared around 500 CE with no written language to explain what happened to them or how they passed away.
The Toltecs began building their city-state of Tollan around 1,000 BCE near modern-day Chichicastenango in Guatemala. This civilization also disappeared without a trace. The Teotihuacano Empire existed around the same time period. It was centered in what is now Mexico City. Around 700 CE it began to decline, eventually being abandoned in the 8th century. The Aztecs were the final large empire that occupied that area when the Mayans were developing their civilization. They ruled Central Mexico until the Spanish conquest in 1521, which is where most of what people know about them comes from.
The Maya developed earlier than the other major civilizations of Mesoamerica, so they are considered to be one of four Pre-Classic civilizations in Latin America. The Pre-Classic was from 1000 BCE to 250 CE. It was around the 2nd century BCE that the civilization began to develop. During this period, they established themselves as a separate people from other groups who inhabited the area. They built ceremonial centers and began constructing large buildings made of stone and plaster. The structures were called pyramids, even though they did not have steps or a flat top.
The next phase of the culture is known as the Early Classic Period (250-600 CE). During this time, architecture was more advanced and there were more monumental structures built. Inscriptions on ceramic pottery became a common artistic form, along with elaborate paintings on walls depicting gods, calendars and people from daily life. This is the period in which the “Kings’ Series” of monuments was created. It has been theorized that the Maya may have achieved their written language during this time.
Around 600 CE, the civilization began to decline. There is little evidence of power struggles or civil wars, but it is believed that there was a major drought during this time. This would have triggered changes in agricultural practices causing a significant depopulation of populations throughout Mesoamerica at this time. Around 500 CE, it is believed that their written language began to be used for everyday communication after the invention of hieroglyphics by another group of people at around that same time. Hieroglyphics were pictures written on stone that represented ideas or events.
This is the period in which the Maya built their last great building, the Sun Temple of Tikal. Artifacts from this temple are dated between 900 and 1150 CE, so it would have been established around the same time as the Maya civilization began to decline. It has been theorized that after this time there was a major shift in how their society worked, which created instability among their leaders. This resulted in strife over what rituals would be followed and what gods should be worshiped. It also caused political conflicts among other leaders who were vying for power at that time. At the same time, the climate was changing from a wet to a dry, which would have caused agricultural failures as well as droughts.
The Maya civilization finally collapsed around 900 CE, but there are still questions about what happened to them and why. Some of these questions include: How did the Maya destroy themselves? Why did their society collapse? What caused it to happen? The best explanation is that they were no longer able to support themselves with the agriculture practices they used. For example, intensive farming practices such as terracing or canal systems that were found throughout this area were no longer able to sustain their population at that time. Another factor would be that leaders changed how religious rituals were practiced which caused more internal strife among them. They may have also fought among themselves over resources, which would have caused further instability.
The Decline of the Civilization
Other theories include climate changes. A catastrophic El Niño event occurred in 535 CE, which would have likely triggered droughts, leading to food shortages for the Maya. There is evidence that there was another drought in 660 CE or at some other time during their decline or demise around 900 CE, which could have been the final blow to an already unstable society. It is believed that even before 900 CE, there was a falloff in population as people left the area because it no longer provided them with food to eat or water to drink. The Maya had stopped building temples by this time, which is one indicator of their decline.
There are some other theories on why this civilization collapsed. One is that there was a military conflict among the neighbors of the Maya that caused significant loss of life, resources and resources. Another is that internal conflicts over resources or rituals led to civil wars throughout the area causing further instability. It may have also been an epidemic disease, but no evidence has been found to prove this theory. The theory of climate change has also been referred to as the “Fall” by scholars because this civilization was unable to sustain itself after it occurred.