New World Civilizations:The Classic Maya

New World Civilizations

The rich traditions and vitality of African civilizations were also

typical of those in America, long before Europeans saw them at the turn of the sixteenth century. Many prejudiced Spaniards considered these societies to be primitive; but others, who bothered to learn, soon discovered the Indians’ technical efficiency, institutional complexity, and artistic creativity, as well as their superstitions and cruelty.

Historical Backgrounds

All American cultures originated with nomadic migrations from Asia to Alaska, across the Bering land bridge, which ceased to exist some 10,000 years ago. Scholars have placed the migrations from Asia between 13,000 and 28,000 years earlier.

During countless generations, these early peoples moved south through North America, occupying most habitable areas. They reached Mexico by 20,000 years ago, Peru some 7000 years later, and ultimately the tip of South America by about 9000 B.C. In this long process, they split into hundreds of ethnic and linguistic groups and adapted to many different geographical environments.

The most significant modification of Amerindian culture came with agriculture. By 7000 B.C., some food crops were known in parts of the New World, but the major agricultural impact came with cultivated maize, shortly before 5000 B.C., in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico.

From this center, maize culture spread rapidly, particularly between 2000 and 1500 B.C. Within a few hundred years, village communities began developing as religious centers; by 500 B.C., large temple-communities were emerging; and during the last 500 years before the Spaniards arrived, city-states united to form large empires in Mexico and Peru.

Cultural levels varied widely at the end of the fifteenth century. Most of the indigenous tribes, including fur-clad Eskimos, mesolithic nomads of the North American plains, jungle head-hunters of the Amazon, and naked savages of Tierra del Fuego, were hunters and gatherers. Advanced peasant cultures, however, flourished in a number of places. North of the Rio Grande, these ranged from the Pueblo culture of the southwest to the large confederacies of the eastern woodlands.

In South America, proto-civilizations were emerging along the north coasts, near the mouth of the Amazon, and on the southeastern pampas. Finally, mature civilizations had been established among the Mayas of Central America, the Aztecs of Mexico, and the Incas of Peru.

In comparison with others, these civilizations shared certain general characteristics. They depended upon maize cultivation, which imposed special social requirements, and they were severely limited by their lack of iron, horses, and most common domesticated animals.

They also shared unique customs such as the wearing of ear or lip plugs. On the other hand, they were remarkably similar to other civilizations in their theocratic organizations, sun cults, pyramids, and human sacrifices. Like the African cultures, they were still in transition from matriarchal to patriarchal institutions, although further advanced in this process.

Finally, a common belief in divine monarchy among Aztecs and Incas was also typical of many other peoples, including Africans, Hindus, and Cambodians.

Emerging Civilizations In Mesoamerica

The term Mesoamerican identifies related Mexican and Central American cultures, after about 1200 B.C. They developed in a bewildering diversity of climates and terrains but were unified by their economic interdependence, since no one region was self-sufficient.

Despite many differences, they shared a complex calendar, hieroglyphic writing, bark paper and deerskin books, team games played with solid rubber balls, large markets, chocolate bean money, and common legends, notably one about a culture hero identified with a feathered serpent. To facilitate our study of developing Mesoamerican culture, we may conveniently divide its history into three main periods: formative (to A.D. 150), classical (150-900), and postclassical (900-1492).

The emergence of Mesoamerican civilization began along a lowland strip of the Mexican Caribbean coast, some 125 miles long and 50 miles wide, near present-day Vera Cruz. Here, by 1200 B.C., food production became efficient enough to support an appreciable number of nonagricultural workers.

The resulting Olmec civilization, renowned for its large building projects and colossal sculptured stone heads, was centered first at San Lorenzo. After about 900 B.C., when San Lorenzo was destroyed by invaders, the center of the civilization moved to La Venta in Tabasco, until it collapsed at the end of the fourth century B.C.

Scattered throughout the Olmec heartland were numerous sparsely populated religious centers, supported by outlying peasant villages. Labor and stone for the massive construction projects, jade for carving, luxury goods, raw materials for the crafts, and food were brought to the centers, often from distant places.

These goods were probably not the spoils of conquest; Olmec society left little evidences of war or violence, excepting those produced by foreign invaders. Its priestly ruling class evidently governed by exploiting fear and respect, even in Olmec colonies as distant as the Pacific coast.

This theocratic orientation is reflected most obviously in the great temple mounds, in the huge stone conical pyramid at La Venta, rising over ninety feet above the island, and in the characteristic jaguar motif of the carving and statuary, which undoubtedly represented a prevailing Olmec cult.

Olmec influence permeated most of Mesoamerica. A few independent Olmec centers may have been established in central Mexico, but it was probably more common for a number of Olmec priests and traders to live among a native population, conducting religious rituals and arranging for the transport of goods to the homeland.

Such enclaves were typical of regions as distant as the Pacific coast of Central America. In other places, such as the Oaxaca Valley

to the West or the southwestern Mexican highlands, the Olmec influence was more indirect, possibly resulting from Olmec intermarriage with local elites or cultural diffusion through simple trade. By such varied means, Olmec foundations were laid for the religion, art, and architecture - possibly for the calendars, mathematics, and writing systems - of later Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Mayan and Aztec.

The Early Classical Period In Mesoamerica

After the fall of La Venta, Olmec prestige waned, but civilizations continued to flourish, particularly in the Valley of Mexico, in the Oaxaca Valley, and in the Yucatan lowlands. By the second century A.D., these developments had progressed to a point of florescence known as the classical period, which lasted until the tenth century.

This was a golden age, when literacy, complex time reckoning, a bewildering pantheon of gods, interregional trade, and a population increase of fortyfold over the Olmec period affected most of Mesoamerica. Hundreds of communities raised great buildings, "decorated them with beautiful frescoes, produced pottery and figurines in unbelieveable quantity, and covered everything with sculptures." ^3

[Footnote 3: Quoted in Michael D. Coe, Mexico, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984), p. 87.]

Teotihuacan, in the northeastern Valley of Mexico, generated the most notable early classical culture. It was at its peak about A.D. 500, when it was the sixth largest city in the world, with a population between 125,000 and 200,000. As a great religious center, it featured the largest man-made structure in the New World, a great stone pyramid 180 feet high honoring the god Quetzalcoatl.

Along with such imposing temples were wide avenues and bustling markets, drawing wares from throughout Mesoamerica. The city’s governing elite enjoyed every luxury, while exploiting poor urban craftsmen and peasants in nearby areas.

Over other states, including some among the lowland Mayas, Teotihuacan exerted a powerful influence, arising mainly from its cultural reputation, social connections, and commercial advantages.

Another impressive classical center in Mexico was located on the site of contemporary Monte Alban in the Oaxaca Valley. Between A.D. 300 and 700, this concentration of temples, pyramids, and shrines was a theocratic state, dominating adjacent residential hill settlements and a valley population of over 45,000 people.

Although developed on a smaller scale than Teotihuacan, Monte Alban produced a similar pattern of external trade, class differentiation, elaborate religious architecture, artistic creativity, writing, and time reckoning. It derived most of its art styles from Teotihuacan and some from the Mayas but synthesized both in its own traditions. Politically, it remained independent through the classical era, although its elite sought the luxury goods and favor of Teotihuacan.

Classical Mayan Civilization

While Teohihuacan and Monte Alban flourished, Mayan peoples farther south in Yucatan and Guatemala produced the most splendid cultural achievements of the classical era and perhaps of native American societies in any time. Artistic and intellectual activity rose to new heights in numerous Mayan centers, each boasting its temples, palaces, observatories, and ball courts. Although it borrowed from Teotihuacan before the latter’s fall in the seventh century A.D., Mayan civilization subsequently cast a brilliant shadow over the whole of Mesoamerica.

The earliest Mayas are thought to have migrated from the northwest coast of California to the Guatemalan highlands during the third millennium B.C. From that homeland, Yucatec and Cholian speakers settled the northern and central lowlands between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 100, respectively. Mayan villages developed steadily, many becoming ceremonial centers by the Christian era. In the highlands, Kaminaljuyu had by then developed architecture and primitive writing under the influence of Oaxaca and Teotihuacan.

In the early classical

period before A.D. 550, Tikal in the central lowlands assumed the Mayan leadership, as it traded with Teotihuacan and allied with Kaminaljuyu. The fall of Teotihuacan brought temporary confusion, soon followed by the glorious renaissance of the late classical era at Tikal, Palenque, Yaxchilan, Uxmal, and many other Mayan centers.

Mayan communities were supported by productive economies, based upon agriculture but heavily involved in handicrafts and long distance trade. In the rich soil, improved by clearing, irrigating, and terracing, the Mayas raised squash, chile peppers, and many other crops, including maize, which supplied 80 percent of their food. Slaves did the hard labor in the fields and in construction. On the next social rung were common peasants, craftsmen, and merchants. The governing class of priests and nobles, drawn from elite lineages, performed overlapping functions because religion and government were so closely allied. This social structure was rigidly differentiated, with each class distinct in rights and responsibilities.

Mayan women were respected and sometimes honored, but they exercised their limited freedoms within the bounds permitted by a culture characterized by male domination. As keepers of households and experts in handicrafts, they did all of the weaving and alone produced the highly artistic pre-wheel pottery, for which the Mayans are famous. In performing such important roles, Mayan women earned a modicum of respect and status.

When a maiden married, her husband came to live in her family’s house until he proved himself. She could divorce him and marry again, if she waited a year. She was also permitted to hold property.

In many other ways, however, Mayan women were subordinated. They were prohibited from looking directly at men; they waited on men at meals, eating later with other women; and they could not hold public office or enter a temple. Those in elite or royal families were regularly exported for marriage into foreign families, serving as political trade goods for cementing alliances or clinching trade agreements.

Each Mayan center was governed by a hereditary priest-king, although some very few states may have had ruling queens in earlier times, before the sixth century. The typical ruler in the late classical period was considered to be a descendant of the sun god.

He was assisted by a council of priests and nobles. His government levied taxes, supervised justice, conducted foreign relations, and made war - indeed, as time passed in this era, warfare became increasingly common. Headmen, selected after passing examinations, were appointed to administer affairs in outlying villages.

They commanded local militias, subject to strict control by the top military officers of the states. Some centers remained independent, but most were members of loosely organized leagues, based on common religions, royal marriages, or diplomatic alignments.

Religion permeated all phases of Mayan life. Law and taxation, for example, were interpreted as religious principles and religious offerings. Education was conducted mainly as training for priests, who made reading, writing, and learning caste specialties.

They conducted the numerous public rituals, including some human sacrifice by decapitation. Mayan thought was more ritualistic than scientific; mathematics and astronomy were considered necessary to schedule ceremonies honoring the divine heavenly bodies. These were but some among a vast hierarchy of deities, ruling the universe under a supreme god and his consort.

The two most enduring achievements of the Mayas were their calendar and

their writing system. Neither of these was original, but both were more efficient than those of earlier Mesoamerican peoples.

The Mayas perfected a solar calendar with eighteen months of 20 days each and a five-day period for religious festivals. Using an ingenious cyclical system of notation known as the "long count," they were able to date events of the distant past for accurate record-keeping and astronomical observations.

Their notational mathematics, based on 20 rather than 10 in the current decimal system, employed combinations of dots and bars, in vertical sequences, to indicate numbers above 20. For nonnumerical records, they combined pictographic and glyphic symbols, which have only recently been partially deciphered.

Their remarkable accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, and writing were more than matched by their truly magnificent art and architecture. The plaza of each Mayan community was marked by at least one pyramid, topped by a temple. With their terraced sides and horizontal lines, these buildings demonstrated a prevailing sense of proportion.

The highly stylized sculpture which decorated their terraces is regarded by some authorities as the world’s finest, even though Mayan sculptors accomplished their intricate carving with only stone tools.

The Mayas also developed mural painting to a high art. Even their lesser arts, such as weaving, ceramics, and jewelry making, reveal aesthetic sense, sublety of design, and manipulative skills superior to artistic creations in many other high civilizations.

The Postclassical Era In Mesoamerica

Widespread disturbances brought a collapse of classical Mesoamerican civilization during the ninth century A.D. The causes are not yet fully understood but are presumed to have been a combination of overpopulation, resulting internal upheavals, and invading waves of fierce Chichimec barbarians from the far north.

When civilized life revived on a more primitive level, it was in a new mode, which emphasized war, domination of society by military classes, human sacrifice, and gods thirsting for human blood. These characteristics had not been completely absent in the past, but they were much more typical of the postclassical era after 900.

Following the time of troubles that ended the classical period, a semicivilized group of Chichimeca known as Toltecs, created a new power in the Valley of Mexico. One of their legendary kings, Topiltzin, established his capital at Tula, which became a great urban center of 120,000 people, a hub of trade, and the center of an evolving Toltec confederacy, which assumed the leading role formerly played by Teotihuacan.

In adopting the Teotihuacan god Quetzalcoatl, who opposed human sacrifice, Topiltzin alienated followers of the traditional Toltec war god, Tezcatlipoca. In the struggle for power which ensued, the war cult prevailed. Topiltzin was ultimately exiled, and the Toltecs expanded their empire by conquest and trade to include everything between the Gulf and the Pacific, including some Mayan cities to the south.

The tumultuous political conditions of the early postclassical period soon brought disaster to the Toltecs. Failing crops and internal dissension caused great outward migrations from Tula and abandonment of the capital at the end of twelfth century. Shortly after, the city was destroyed by the Chichimeca. For the next two centuries, Mesoamerica was a land of warring states, constantly forming and dissolving federations. Some cultural continuity, however, was maintained by peoples in the Oaxaca Valley, notably the Zapotecs, whose culture was as old as the Olmec. Although struggling constantly for supremacy over neighboring peoples, the Zapotec towns, temples, ball courts, and art helped preserve Mesoamerican traditions for later times.

As Toltec barbarism spread from central to southern Mexico, it left the less developed Mayan highlands relatively undisturbed but brought definite decline and reorientation to the old lowland centers. At Chichen Itza, in the tenth century, a Toltec elite established tributary hegemony over northern Yucatan and maintained a trading network, by land and sea, within the whole southern region. From the early thirteenth into the fifteenth century, Mayapan became a fortified center, defended by Mexican mercenaries and maintaining leverage over subkingdoms by keeping hostages from dependent royal families. Trade and population continued to grow among the postclassical Mayas, but art and cultural pursuits - including architecture - deteriorated. The Spaniards later described a Mayan people who were fiercely independent, blood-thirsty, and, like the Aztecs, inclined to sacrifice the hearts of war prisoners on the gods’ altars.