The Maya civilization was a Mesoamerican civilization developed by the Maya peoples, and noted for its logo syllabic script—the most sophisticated and highly developed writing system in pre-Columbian Americas—as well as for its art, architecture, mathematics, calendar, and astronomical system, among other accomplishments.
The Maya civilization was first identified as having been in existence for several millennia, and may have evolved out of the Mesoamerican Olmec civilization, or independently from an even earlier civilization that was already in use at the same time. The Maya civilization is linked to the predominant Mesoamerican cultural area, a region that overlaps northwestern Mexico and southeastern United States and includes areas of Central America and northern portions of South America (specifically: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador).
The folklore in these areas describes a helical rising in the middle of the world. A worm leaves the earth in the shape of a ring, causing natural disasters in various places, including earthquakes and floods. The Maya civilization rises from the water in the center of this ring. Many scholars believe that this is when modern humans emerged for the first time on Earth.
The Maya are among Central America’s indigenous peoples, who are able to trace their ancestry back thousands of years. Distinct aspects of Maya culture were influenced by migrations from other regions, notably Mesoamerica to the northwest and northeast, where many different cultures have contributed to their distinctiveness.
That is not to suggest that the Maya lived in isolation. In the Pre-Columbian era, all societies within the modern boundaries of Mexico had come into contact with other native peoples from both the Mesoamerican and South American regions. These exchanges were made possible by a trading network that extended from the Pacific coast of southern Mexico through Central America. Some of the cultures with whom they came in contact were quite advanced. For example, Maya art is related to styles seen as far south as central Chiapas, more than one thousand miles from the Maya area.
The Maya civilization shares many features with other Mesoamerican civilizations due to the high degree of interaction and cultural diffusion that characterized the region. Advances such as writing, epigraphy, and the calendar did not originate with the Maya; however, their civilization fully developed them. Maya influence can be detected from Honduras, Guatemala, Northern El Salvador to as far north as central Mexico (specifically: Veracruz). Many outside influences are found in Maya art and architecture, which are thought to be the result of trade and cultural exchange rather than direct external conquest. The Maya region does not have the massive monuments, instead it is famous for its artistry.
The ruins of Maya cities are spread over numerous locations throughout the Maya area. Each city had a population of around 10,000 inhabitants with the biggest cities covering an area of up to six square miles. Their municipalities contained pyramids, temples, palaces, plazas and ball courts. The Maya developed their first civilization sometime after 1000 BC. Early culture consisted of small villages about 10 to 25 miles apart linked by trade routes that followed river valleys that were established as early as 1000 BC. During the Pre-Classic era (before 400 CE), these villages grew into small city-states. The southern lowlands of Mexico saw the development of urban centers with large ceremonial centers, hieroglyphic writing, and sculpture on buildings. They were the first civilization to use a form of writing, and the only one to develop a full-fledged writing system. The earliest inscriptions in an identifiably Maya script date back as early as 300 BCE.
The Maya were agriculturalists who cultivated maize (corn), beans, chili pepper, and other plants; they also raised animals such as dogs and deer. The Maya practiced hunting and gathering, practiced human sacrifice, and kept slaves. They created literature which consisted of religious texts, historical accounts, poetry and books of laws. The Mayans were good at mathematics; designing calendars with rigorous astronomical precision was one of their skills. In addition to writing on stone they developed a calendar system that consisted of a 260-day cycle consisting of 20 days each in the 13 th , 20 th , 30 th , 40 th , 50 th , 60 th , 70 th , 80th, 90th, 100th and 110th years. They created a calendar system called the Tzolk’in which is thought to indicate the movement of Venus across the solar year.
The Maya people created some of the most famous Mesoamerican art. It was characterized by its use of perspective and shadows, along with a symmetry of design. Maya art was often quite detailed, especially in their carvings which could reach over 6 feet high. The style of the jewelry they wore shows strong influence from other Mesoamerican cultures that they interacted with, such as the Teotihuacan obsidian trade based on the similarity in styles of jewelry. Their temples were roofed with wooden beams overlaid with limestone and carefully crafted so as not to interfere with ritual activities taking place beneath them.
The greatest expansion in the history of Maya civilization occurred during this period as many new cities arose throughout the southern lowlands. These cities are characterized by their tall pyramids with sculpted skyline reliefs that are comparable to those of central Mexico’s Teotihuacan culture.
Many of these cities had long-lasting structures that are still standing today. At some cities, the Maya created ceremonial centers with massive ball courts and plazas that could have accommodated tens of thousands of spectators. The temples at the top of the pyramidal structures were dedicated to rain deities while their lower levels served as living quarters for priests while they carried out rituals for the temples’ patrons.