Mayan civilization came into being sometime around 500 B.C. when the earliest Mayans cities began to form. The Mayans were previously nomadic tribes who had gradually settled down in the regions of Mesoamerica and assumed an agrarian lifestyle. From 500 B.C. to 100 A.D., the earliest Mayan cities reached their peak.
Mayans borrowed many elements of culture from the previous Olmec civilisation but they had a unique architecture style, writing language, numerical system, astronomical system and other cultural aspects. Religion and Mayan mythological beliefs greatly shaped the Mayan culture.
Mayans were expert builders who constructed huge pyramids in different ancient cities of Mesoamerica. The construction style of the Mayans typically included pyramid-temples, which rose to exceptional heights.
The temples were the monuments dedicated to the gods and were frequently used for ritual human sacrifices. Mayans made many innovations in building, coming up with a limestone-based plaster and mortar which helped them construct exceptionally strong, durable and long-lasting structures, many of which are extant to this day.
The architecture of Mayan cities was very well planned, with the main part of the city centred on a huge plaza which included most of the administrative and ceremonial complexes.
Mayans actively participated in different kinds of public sports. However, nearly all such sports all had a religious-symbolic meaning. The most popular game among the Mayans was the ballgame.
The game was based on a Mayan mythological saga involving Hero Twins who had descended into the underworld and triumphed over the underworld gods. So the Mayans played the ballgame as a contest between life and death.
The Mayans offers human sacrifices at the end of the game which was seen as the celebration of lifes triumph over death. To play the game, Mayans constructed huge ballcourts of stone, many of which are extant today.
An important part of the Mayan culture was the Mayan language. Having a written language enabled the Mayans to not only pen down their history, mythology and other literature but to transmit it over the centuries.
It is thanks to the Mayan written language that modern scholarship has been able to gain deep insights into the Mayan civilisation. The Mayan written language comprised of images and symbols, and made use of both phonetic and symbolic alphabets.
The language comprised of more than 500 glyphs, giving Mayans a vast array of units and adding flexibility to the language. Mayan priests wrote books about astronomy, mathematics, history, mythology and various other subjects using this written language. Some of these books, called codices, are extant today.
Mayans were an agrarian society who had to rely on sufficient rainfall and conducive circumstances for their annual food production. So Mayans learned astronomy and the ability closely monitor the movement of Sun, Moon, Venus and other astral bodies.
This enabled them to very accurately predict different parts of the year and to foreshadow any adverse circumstances that may affect agriculture. Mayans built monumental observatories where the priests would study the movement of the astral bodies. Mayan astronomy later gave birth to Mayan mathematics as well as the Mayan calendar.
Mayans had a large pantheon of deities. They believed that the world was created in many cycles and that mankind was destroyed in many previous cycles because of their imperfection in the eyes of the gods.
Mayans had a large body of mythology which informed their religious beliefs. Most Mayan deities were related to natural phenomenon such as rain, thunder, Sun and the Moon. Mayans frequently offered human sacrifices as part of the religious rituals, believing that such sacrifices appeased their gods.
Mayans highly valued good art. Notable forms of art included wood carvings, stone sculptures, mural paintings, inscribed and painted ceramics and architecture. Most Mayan art depictions refer to the daily Mayan life or the Mayan deities and tales of the Mayan mythology.
Mayan craftsmen made intricate jewelry from gold and silver which was also considered an art form. So valued was art in the Mayan society that artists and craftsmen, although of commoner origins, were esteemed above the commoners. Mayan art was also one of the most common export objects of many Mayan cities.
Mayan society was strictly hierarchical and this structure greatly dictated the overall culture of the Mayans. At the top of the social hierarchy was the royalty, and rulership was hereditary, so most Mayan cities were usually ruled by long standing dynasties.
Under the royalty came the nobility which comprised of relatives of the ruler, friends and other lineally affluent people in the city. The nobility was the arm with which the royalty wielded its power.
Priests were also a very powerful class, directly related to the royalty and almost on a par with the nobility in their power and influence. At the bottom rung of the social ladder came the commoners. Commoners farmed the lands, hunted for meat, worked on public architecture and were a ready labour force for the plans of the Mayan nobility and the royalty.
Mayans trained their warriors rigorously so that they fought fiercely in battle. The warriors in the Mayan society were expected to bring captives from their battles so that these captives could be sacrifices as tributes to the gods.
So the warriors armed and fought in such a way as to stun the opponents, rather than kill them. In the Mayan culture, warriors were highly esteemed and honoured.
Mayans had a fairly advanced culture which comprised of a well-developed written language, different art forms, a complex society, a stable government structure and many other notable aspects.
Mayan written language greatly helped preserve the Mayan culture over the ages and for posterity. Mayan art forms included ceramics, murals, paintings, stone carvings and tiny objects made of metals or flint.
The society comprised of different social classes and of these, the nobility were the patrons of art while commoners worked on different crafts and arts for the nobility.