Editorial Feature

Who Are the Maya?

Kanishk Tharoor shines a light on the Maya people, past and present

Tourists to southern Mexico and northern Central America often visit the startling remains of the cities of the Maya. But, while their ancient cities were abandoned long ago, the Maya never actually disappeared.

Today, the Maya number about 10 million people. They share a proud cultural heritage that endured centuries of Spanish colonization and political upheaval. So who were, and are, the Maya?

Nahuala, 1991, Eileen Monaghan Whitaker (From the collection of The Frederic Whitaker and Eileen Monaghan Whitaker Foundation)
Maya Woman, 1977, Eileen Monaghan Whitaker (From the collection of The Frederic Whitaker and Eileen Monaghan Whitaker Foundation)

Scholars believe the first distinctively Maya settlements emerged around 1800 BCE. Crops like maize and manioc played a central role in sustaining these communities, and it’s not surprising that corn figures prominently in Maya iconography. Rich in limestone and sandstone deposits, the lowlands of what is now southern Mexico and the highlands of Guatemala offered the material for building monumental cities. El Mirador in Guatemala was one of the biggest cities in the world around 250 BCE.

Maya civilization reached its peak between roughly 250 and 900 CE, an era that archaeologists refer to as the Maya “classical period.” Dozens of cities blossomed in the region, connected by networks of trade, diplomacy, cultural exchange and even physical infrastructure: roads called sacbeob in Yucatec Maya cut through the jungle on raised limestone beds. This is the period that saw the growth of famous Maya cities like Tikal and Quiriguá in Guatemala and Chichen Itza in the Yucatan peninsula, whose remains are now popular tourist destinations.

Ruins of the Observatory at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, with Temple of Kukulcan in background (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Probably the most iconic Maya structures are the step pyramids that often stood at the heart of Maya cities. These monumental buildings would have loomed above everything else. They were venues for major ceremonies and commanded great spiritual prestige. The temple of the serpent god Kukulcan in Chichen Itza, for instance, was designed in such a way that the sun during the spring and autumn equinoxes would cast a shadow along the northern balustrade of the pyramid that resembled the undulating back of a snake.

For those of us raised with Old World ideas of urban development, it can be difficult to imagine classical Maya cities. Initially, archaeologists supposed that these cities weren’t cities at all, but only grand temple complexes. Advances in archaeology in the latter half of the 20th century showed that these sites were actually living, breathing cities, home to populations as large as 100,000 people.

The Maya didn’t have grazing animals, so forests weren’t completely flattened around urban areas for pasture the way they were across Eurasia. Clustered around a central administrative and ritual centre, Maya cities would be fairly dispersed, with residential and agricultural areas mingled. They boasted sophisticated water management systems, with canals and cleverly cut irrigation channels.

Kings reigned in most Maya polities, ruling with the authority of ‘divine right’, meaning that their power was asserted by the gods. A class of nobles composed ten to fifteen percent of Maya society, while the vast majority of people were farmers, workers, and artisans, who were often subjected to unpaid labour by the political elites.

Maya cities were cultural as well as political centers, home to artisans, musicians, and writers. The Maya script is the only pre-Columbian Mesoamerican script that has been fully deciphered. A unique language, the Maya writing system consists of ‘glyphs’ that represent both image and sound (logograms and syllabograms). A large reservoir of Mayan inscriptions on stelae, lintels, and other structures, as well as ceramics, is available to scholars.

Maya hieroglyphs on a cast of Stela C, Quiriguá (From the collection of British Museum)

Of the many atrocities the Spanish committed when they arrived in the 16th century, the routine destruction of Maya documents and cultural artefacts ranks among the most heinous. Centuries of Maya thought and expression went up in smoke.

Only a few Maya texts survived the Spanish conquest. Most famously, the Popol Vuh in the K’iche’ language of highland Guatemala provides an account of the mythology and history of the K’iche’ people. It begins with their creation myth, which opens elegantly: “This is the account of how all was in suspense, all calm, in silence; all motionless, quiet, and empty was the expanse of the sky.” Turbulence ensues, and the world and its living inhabitants emerge from the emptiness.

In addition to writers and storytellers, the Maya were accomplished mathematicians. The Maya used a vigesimal number system (based on 20) that even included a symbol for zero at a time when that concept had not yet reached Europe from the east. These numerical symbols allowed incredibly large and precise calculations. Unsurprisingly, the most skillful use of Maya mathematics was in the observation of the heavens.

Maya calendar glyph from the Tzolkin, cast of Stela A, Quiriguá (From the collection of British Museum)

In its heyday, Maya astronomy was more advanced and accurate than its contemporaries around the world. Without equipment much more sophisticated than the human eye, Maya astronomers studied the movement of the sun, planets and stars. By charting the passage of the sun, they measured almost the exact length of the solar year (their figure was 365.242 days, short by only 0.000198). Likewise, Maya astronomers calculated the length of the lunar month (29.5308 days, a shade more than the modern count of 29.53059). Unlike many of their Eurasian counterparts, the Maya did not labour under the illusion that celestial bodies moved in perfect spheres. They had a more nuanced and elegant conception of the heavens after centuries of close study.

They also developed a calendar known as the ‘Long Count’, which numbered days from the creation of the world (a moment thought to be 11 August, 3114 BCE). This count has been very helpful to historians in figuring out the chronology of pre-conquest Maya history, as it features on many inscriptions, allowing scholars to date with some precision the course of significant political events.

The Maya Long Count from Stela C at Quiriguá (From the collection of British Museum)

Around 900 CE, many of the great Maya cities in the lowlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala declined and were abandoned. It’s unclear exactly what caused this great transformation. War, social strife, and environmental changes all may have played a part. Scholars are now wary of the term “collapse” that has been commonly used to describe what happened to Maya civilization in this period. Maya communities remained active and dynamic even if they had reconstituted in smaller settlements.

Greater human catastrophe occurred when the Spaniards arrived. Thanks to the alien diseases of smallpox and typhoid, the Maya population was reduced by as much as 90% between 1500 to 1600 CE. Catholicism and the Spanish language also made deep inroads into Maya life.

Mayan Art, by Dmitri Kessel (From LIFE Photo Collection)

But Maya religion and culture persevered, often coexisting with Christian rites.

Women from Cofradía Santo Domingo Xenacoj, Sacatepéquez, 2013 (From the collection of Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena)
Cofradía from Santiago Sacatepéquez (From the collection of Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena)

There are over twenty surviving Maya languages. Many are not mutually intelligible, as different from one another as Dutch is from Portuguese. These languages and their speakers are no longer confined simply to the traditional Maya heartlands in Mexico and Central America. Thanks to immigration and dislocation, tens of thousands of speakers of Maya languages have moved to the United States. Languages like K’iche’, Mam, and Q’anjob’al, which were once only heard in the highlands of Guatemala, have now travelled far.

Texel, 2013 (From the collection of Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena)
Words by Kanishk Tharoor | Translation by Carolina Casado Parras
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