The Mayans were a civilisation that came into being in Mesoamerica during the 1st millennium B.C. Mayans were originally nomadic tribes who settled down an agricultural lifestyle. This led to the development of earliest Mayan settlements which turned into towns and had become cities by 500 B.C. As the population of Mayan cities grew, society became more complex and different art forms developed.
Mayan civilisation reached its peak between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D., commonly deemed the Classic period of the civilisation. The civilisation underwent sudden collapse in the 9th century. Historians have been unable to ascertain the exact cause of this rapid collapse.
Mayan history is generally divided into four phases which include the archaic period, the pre-Classic period, the Classic period and the post-Classic period. During the archaic period which ends at 2000 B.C., Mayans were nomadic tribes who slowly settled down to agriculture primarily because they learned to grow maize in vast quantities.
The pre-Classic period saw the development of earliest Mayan cities such as El Mirador. During the Classic period, many Mayan kingdoms came into being and many Mayan cities expanded to immense sizes. The post-Classic period saw the decline of the main centres of Mayan civilisation and the civilisation’s shift to the northern lowlands.
In the archaic tribe, the Mayans were divided into different tribes. These tribes later settled in different areas and over time, the settlements expanded into towns and cities. It was on account of this early distinction between different Mayan settlements that the subsequent cities differed in their customs. Although the overarching culture of most Mayan cities was similar, different cities had different sets of deities and the architectural style also different from one urban centre to the other.
Architecture was one of the earliest forms of art that flourished in Mayan cities. Mayans were expert builders and had developed building materials such as highly adhesive mortar on their own. They used this mortar to construct lofty stone buildings which included pyramid temples, palaces, astronomical observatories and residential structures.
These buildings were so well built that most of the Mayan monumental architecture is extant to this day. In many cases, Mayans undertook extremely minute calculations in order to build structures along definite angles. An example of this is El Castillo in Chichen Itza.
Mayans had an extensive pantheon which comprised of many gods and goddesses. Most of the Mayan deities were related to agriculture and natural phenomenon such as floods and rain. Among the most important Mayan deities was Chac who was the rain god. His significance as a foremost Mayan deity was probably on account of his direct relation with agriculture on which Mayans depended for their food.
Another important Mayan god was Yumil Kaxob. He was the Mayan maize god and Mayans believed that it was he who first brought maize to the knowledge of humans. Other Mayan deities included gods of the underworld and gods living in the heavenly realm.
According to the Mayan mythology, the world was repeated a number of times. During the first four attempts, the gods who created the world and humans were dissatisfied with one or the other. As a result, all the four earlier attempts result in the destruction of the world. Mayans believed that they were living in the fifth creation of the world and that the gods were satisfied with the world and the humans in it during this iteration.
Mayan mythology also included tales of the underworld, an example of which is the saga of the Hero Twins. This tale relates the story of two twins who descended to the underworld, defeated the lords of the underworld and then ascended to the sky as the Sun and the Moon.
Mayans developed a writing system of their own which was later termed hieroglyphics on account of its resemblance with the Egyptian glyphs. The Mayan writing system made use of two type of alphabets. One type were logograms which were symbols that denote an entire word or phrase.
The other type were syllabograms which were phonetic units and had to be joined together to create a single phrase. Mayans had a total of nearly 800 such alphabets which they used to write inscriptions on buildings and pen down books on different subjects.
Mayans evolved an advanced mathematical system which was used to record astronomical observations in writing. Mayans also used mathematics to record large dates computed using the Mayan Long Count calendar. Mayan mathematics had the concept of zero which was represented using an empty shell. Other numbers were represented using dots and lines. Larger figures were penned down using a base-20 numerical system which allowed Mayans to record even extremely large numbers.
Mayan developed various forms of arts such as ceramics, stone sculptures, wooden carvings, stucco models and jewelry. Ceramics were usually meant for practical purposes in cooking and eating, although the fact that Mayans painted them makes them a valuable part of extant Mayan art.
Stone sculptures were usually used to adorn architectural structures while wooden carvings also served a similar purpose. Mayans made jewelry using precious metals such as gold and silver, and also used precious stones. Art in the Mayan society was commissioned exclusively by the nobility, and the commoners were forbidden from owning art pieces.
Mayans were an advanced civilisation which came into being in Mesoamerica during the 1st millennium B.C. and flourished in multiple urban centres across this region between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D. The ruins of many Mayan cities are extant today and these include monumental architecture dating back to the Mayan Classic period.
Mayans built palaces, temples, observatories and other structures as part of their monumental architecture. They also had a fairly advanced mathematical system, writing system, astronomical knowledge and practised art in different forms. The civilisation underwent rapid collapse sometime around the 9th century and from then onwards, the centre of Mayan civilisation shifted from southern lowlands to northern lowlands and Mayan highlands.