Mayans were an advanced civilisation that blossomed in the rainforests of Mesoamerica during the 1st millennium B.C. and reached its peak between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D. The civilisation was notable for its remarkable writing system, knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, the vast pantheon of its gods and many exquisite art forms that flourished in it.
The ruins of many ancient Mayan cities exist to this day and feature excellently built monumental architecture such as pyramid-temples, palaces and plazas. The Mayan civilisation first underwent rapid collapse in the 9th century and then came to an effective end with the arrival of Spaniard invaders.
Mayan writing system: Mayans had a well-detailed written language that they used to pen down books and record events of their history. The Mayan language is called hieroglyphics and much of it has been deciphered by researchers today. In total, the Mayan language nearly 800 glyphs which were the fundamental alphabets of the language. They used both symbols and phonetic units to string together words.
Mayans evolved an advanced mathematical system fairly early in history. They also evolved the concept of zero which they used in mathematical computations. Mathematics was used by the Mayans in recording astronomical calculations and in developing a highly accurate calendar.
Mayans were excellent astronomers with a very minute knowledge of the movement of celestial bodies. Mayan priests would keenly observe the movements of the Sun, the Moon, the planet Venus and that of the stars. The predicted the turn of seasons through such observations. It was largely thanks to such knowledge of astronomy that Mayans were later able to develop a detailed calendar.
The Mayan calendar was one of the most detailed and accurate calendars developed by any ancient civilisation. The Mayan calendar comprised of three separate cycles, namely the lunar cycle, the solar cycle and the Long Count cycle. The lunar cycle was used to record daily dates, the solar cycle was used to record the events of religious significance and the Long Count was used to calculate dates very far in the past or the future.
Mayans were very skilled builders and architects. They had a thorough knowledge of building materials and developed a kind of mortar on their own which served as a very strong cement. It was largely thanks to their building skills that Mayans were able to create monumental architecture in all their major cities. Such architecture included palaces, pyramid-temples, astronomical observatories, city plazas and other structures. These structures were so well built that most of them exist to this day and have suffered little damage over the course of millennia.
Ball game was a very popular sport in Mayan cities. The game had mythological and religious significance for the Mayans who considered it to represent the clash of life and death. Typically, the game was played in a huge ballcourt made of stone. Many such ballcourts still exist in the ruins of many Mayan cities. The game was played between two teams of players who had to hit a large rubber ball with their legs, feet, arms but without touching it with their hands. The game often ended with the priests offering human sacrifices at the altar of a nearby temple.
Mayans frequently offered human sacrifices as part of religious rituals. They believed that the Mayan deities honoured human sacrifices and accepted it as a valuable tribute. As a rule, the more brave and courageous was the sacrificed person, the more valuable was considered the tribute. A typical ritual of human sacrifice involved a priest incising the breast of the victim and wrenching out a living heart. This heart was then presented to the gods as a tribute. Other forms of human sacrifices were also practised.
The Mayan society was strictly hierarchical and was divided into different social classes. At the top of the social ladder were the royalty. The ruler of any given city was considered to carry divine sanction, enjoyed absolute ruler and his rule was dynastic. Under him came the nobility who enjoyed many rights and privileges. The nobility usually occupied positions of civil and military administration. At par with nobility was the priestly class which carried out religious rituals and had a lot of power. Next came the craftsmen and artists who were valued as skilled personnel. At the bottom were the commoners who did farming, hunting and provided labour for the construction of monumental architecture.
Mayans had many gods and goddesses. And religion played a very important role in Mayan society, affecting every aspect of social life. The priestly class served as the intermediaries between the common people and the Mayan gods. They interpreted the mythology, carried out ritual sacrifices and made predictions about future in the role of shamans. The priests, at large, enjoyed a lot of power and influence in the Mayan society.
Mayans had unusual notions regarding the personal beauty of a person. They considered crossed-eyes and flatter foreheads as beautiful. As a result, infants were treated by their parents in such a way as to achieve flatter foreheads. And toys were dangled between their eyes to cross their eyes. Mayans also wore elaborate headdresses as ornaments meant to enhance a person’s beauty. However, such ornaments were exclusively limited to the royalty and the nobility.
The homes of the Mayan nobility were lavishly built. Many of them featured special rooms which served as hot baths. These rooms were constructed with sloping walls and a slit in the roof which allowed sunlight to fall down on a heap of stones. The stones warmed up to extraordinary high temperatures. Water was then poured on these stones which turned to steam. The Mayans nobles would then take steam baths in these rooms.
Mayan civilisation under a rapid collapse around the 9th century. Researchers and historians have been unable to peg an exact cause for this rapid decline. Some claim that it was a result of steadily deteriorating environmental conditions while others blame it on outside attacks.