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Mayan World

Mayan World (12)

The Maya Region currently spans the countries of Guatemala, Belize, the western of Honduras and El Salvador, and the Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. Like any cultural region, this territory cannot be defined by clear boundaries, so its limits have varied over time and represent areas of high interaction with neighboring groups. In the pre-Hispanic times, other Middle American populations held periodic contacts with the Mayas. To the east, there were Mixe-Zoque, Zapotec and Nahuatl groups; to the west, Lenca and Jicaque groups; and in the Pacífic Coast there were Xincas and other ethnic groups that have not been identified linguistically. Today there are 28 Mayan linguistic groups, which can be found in isolated communities but most are within regions with various external influences, therefore their culture is not static; is dynamic in the way that adapts to globalization and intercultural relations

The Maya area is relatively small compared to other cultures that have occupied the world, and its geography is characterized by high diversity and sharp contrasts with tropical forests, river basins, lake areas, coastal ecosystems, karstic plains, forests cloud and volcanic landscapes. . All these zones have been accessible by means of land and aquatic routes, mainly for the existence of networks of local and long distance exchange. The high biodiversity of the different regions has had an important effect in the development of the human settlements, since they have created different kinds of adaptation, based in the availability of mineral, vegetable and animal resources. This particular way of integrating the different natural settings also influenced the development of an own worldview, which was expressed in pre-Hispanic times in the way of a lot of symbols, materialized in various ways. For example, the center of the cosmos was represented by the Ceiba tree, the sun like a jaguar, the mountains like the loin of a turtle or crocodile and the flashes of lightning like snakes. As to the cities, they were planned according to astronomic orientations and the symbolic landscape, so the pyramidal temples conceived themselves like sacred mountains that remembered the myths of creation. Likewise, caves and water bodies like lakes and cenotes were associated as portals to the underworld. The distribution of resources in each area also directly influenced the development of ancient Mayan cities. The availability of fertile grounds enabled a high agricultural productivity, and the climatic conditions also favored the specialization of certain crops like the cocoa. The presence of deposits of obsidian, flint, jade, pyrite, basalt and other minerals, also determined the exportation of raw material or finished objects. The same happened to the salt mines, shells, feathers, skins and other wildlife resources, which were valued as luxury items. As for forest resources, wood and palms were vital for building homes.

In general, the Maya region can split into three big sub-regions: Lowlands, Highlands and the Pacific Coast. This division is based on differences of altitude that in turn reflects in changes in geology, hydrology, fauna and flora. It is interesting that these divisions of physical character have caused differences in cultural patterns, so it is important to notice that not all the Mayan groups had the same characteristics. That's why it is appropriate to recognize that there has been a significant differentiation between the Mayan populations of the Highlands and the ones of the Lowlands.

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The Pacific Coast is very similar to the Lowlands in some geographical areas, as it is characterized by altitudes below 300 m above sea level and was originally covered by tropical forest. Therefore his flora and the original fauna has been very similar to the one of Petén, apart from own species of the Pacific Ocean. The coastal plain spreads over 700 km from northwest to southeast, initiating in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, to get to the western coast of El Salvador, where it becomes very narrow due to the presence of the Sierra del Balsamo. The Pacific Coast's north limit is bounded by the presence of a chain of more than 40 volcanoes, whose activity has contributed to the high fertility of alluvial soils. The southern slopes of the volcanic chain is known as Bocacosta or Piedmont, which reaches 1,000 meters above sea level and is characterized by high rainfall, which exceeds 2,000 ml per year. For this reason, the main areas of production of cocoa were located at the zones of Soconusco, Suchitepéquez and Izalco. In this region was also important the presence of rivers, which served as territorial borders. Of their natural resources the presence of mangroves is also relevant, what facilitated the settlement of the most ancient populations of the whole Mayan area.

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Mayan Highlands are located mostly in the territory of Guatemala and Chiapas, as part of the mountain systems of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes and Sierra Madre, which rise to 3,800 meters above sea level. The broken landscape of the area contains fertile valleys that have been continuously used for agriculture, and the hills were exploited for defensive purposes settlements. The presence of many water springs, streams, rivers and lakes provided good access to water. As for the vegetation, dominated by coniferous forests, where different species of pines and cypresses predominate. In the Verapaces and in Chiapas there are more humid parts with vast cloud forest, and in the higher areas of Huehuetenango plants proper to the tundra are found. In the driest zones the low forests come across sorts of prickly shrubs and cactaceae. Within the scenic context, the presence of uncountable hills in the Highlands is important to interpret the architectonic development of ancient cities of this zone, since those geographic features were the central focus of religious ceremonies and therefore the need to construct large-sized temples was not prevailing, as it happened on the Lowlands, where the landscape lacks mountains. As to resources, Highlands were the richest in mineral deposits, so they exploded deposits located in river basins, canyons, volcanic outcrops and other types of geological formations. Between these areas highlights the Motagua River Valley, where are the unique deposits of jade in the entire American continent. This is why many sites competed for control of this important trade route.

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The Maya lowlands are the most complex area in terms of geographical features, due to its large size and high biodiversity. In general, the region is defined by having an altitude of less than 300 m, with the exception of the Maya Mountains and the Sierra de Puuc, where higher elevations can be found. Geologically, the lowlands are composed of metamorphic mantle composed mainly of limestone, which has been constantly modified by the action of water, earthquakes, and other forms of erosion. For geographical and cultural purposes, it is appropriate to distinguish which are the Central Lowlands and the Northern Lowlands, experiencing very particular features, although each of these two areas also have their own micro-regions.

The Central Lowland constitute what is known as Petén, and includes what is now the Department of Petén, Belize, southern Campeche and Quintana Roo and the eastern part of Tabasco and Chiapas. Peripheral regions as the basin of the Usumacinta River, the Copán Valley and the Gulf of Honduras may present some features of the Highlands. The vegetation of Petén is characterized by forests that exceed the 40 m high, and rainfall is high, especially between the months of July and January. The fertile soils are in flood-prone areas and in general tend to be shallow, limiting the extensive agriculture. The presence of some permanent water sources such as rivers Usumacinta, Grijalva, San Pedro, Candelaria, La Pasión, Belize and Hondo; lakes like Petén Itzá and Izabal; and the lagoons of Térrminos, Yaxha and Bacalar.

The Northern Lowlands present a different picture, with drier weather and lower forests. They are also quite important coastal and wetland-rich mangrove forests, salt deposits and various marine products areas. Despite having constraints to agricultural production, the region of the Lowlands is characterized by the development of the largest and most complex cities, which could reach up to 100,000 people. Decades of environmental and agricultural studies have determined that this was possible thanks to the combination of different systems of intensive agriculture and hydraulic steering and dispersed design of residential areas surrounding the ceremonial centers. In addition, the key factor was the uptake of water in many areas that do not have permanent water sources. For this reason many settlements were located near lakes and low seasonal flooding, and watery or reservoirs were built in major cities. To the north, the settlement took the cenotes, which are the only sources of water inland. Tanks were also built into the limestone, which are known as chultunes.

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Of the most important plants in the Maya region can be mentioned some trees which were used for constructive purposes, such as the chicozapote, mahogany and cedar, which currently are cataloged as fine woods. From the chicozapote is also extracted the gum, and the resin from the copal tree has been important for ceremonial use. Other trees were used in the construction of canoes or for the production of paper, in particular the amate bark. For food were important fruit trees, in particular the evergreen, which were the most consumed, together with a large variety of wild fruits. The diet was also based on a variety of edible roots and tubers, such as cassava and sweet potato, as well as various herbs, peppers, mushrooms and flowers. Of particular importance have been Cucurbitaceae, including various types of squash or pumpkins. Among the plants that produce edible seeds are the different types of corn and beans, vanilla, achiote, Ramon or ujuxte, and cocoa. With regard to maize, has been the mainstay of all Mesoamerican populations, so that the intensification of its crop around the year 2.000 B.C. was one of the triggers of the development of the Maya civilization. In fact, at the present time corn is the most widely consumed agricultural product throughout the world. Cocoa also deserves special attention, since it was a food reserved for royalty and people of high social rank. When was processed in Europe as chocolate, it became another food consumed worldwide.

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The fauna of the Mayan world is highly diverse, since there are countless species of invertebrates, fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles and mammals. The exploitation of scallops and other shellfish and edible crustaceans, as well as freshwater and saltwater fish was very important in rivers and coastal regions. Frogs and toads had an important role in the religion because of their association to aquatic and terrestrial environments, as well as the hallucinogenic nature of the Bufo Toad. In the same way the reptiles had a strong symbolism, especially turtles, snakes and crocodiles. Of the birds, stands out the Quetzal and the Macaw for its plumages, as well as a big variety of aquatic and gallinaceous, birds that were important sources of food. As for mammals, species are not large, so tapir is the largest animal. Deer and Peccarys were important sources of food, as well as some species of large rodents, large rodents, as the agouti. Of great importance was the Jaguar, symbol of strength and supernatural power, as well as the Puma and other smaller cats. The Spider Monkey and the Howler Monkey are the only two species of monkeys and also appear as important actors in the mythological narratives.

All this variety of plants and animals can be seen in various natural reserves that are found in each region, many of which are at the same time archaeological parks. It is worth noting that for the Maya has always been important the natural environment, so that communities and archaeological sites surrounded by nature are the most attractive additions to its cultural wealth. In addition, local natural resources conservation allows you to enjoy the traditional regional cuisine, since many ingredients are only found as part of each community near ecosystems.

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The development of the Maya culture began about 5,000 years ago, when is calculated that the first language, known as Proto-Mayan was conformed. From that time a timeline was established that allows locating archaeological sites in time units, so in this way interpret social and political processes that occurred until the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. In this way three major periods have been defined: Pre-classic, Classic, and Post-classic, each with subdivisions. The colonial period should also be considered as part of this development that has led to the present day.

The Archaic or Pre-Ceramic, is a long period spanning between the 7th and 2nd centuries BC, which can be defined as the time in which the Maya group formed itself. The populations are quite simple, with semi-nomadic characteristics, which took advantage of wild resources through the collection of plants and animals hunting. It took several centuries for these societies to discover agriculture and used it as a principal means of livelihood. Therefore, it is estimated that the corn, bean and squash began to grow around 3,500 BC. The tools are predominantly stone and perishable materials such as baskets and jugs or gourds.

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The Early Preclassic period indicates the moment in which the Mayan societies were provided with proper cultural features that distinguish them from other Middle American groups. The societies are already sedentary agricultural villages, by what the ceramics appear for the first time. On the Pacific Coast this period initiates about 1,800 B.C., but in the rest of the Mayan area it is defined from 1,000 or 1,200 B.C.

It is early Middle Preclassic, around 800 BC, when the first complex societies appear in the Maya area, in the form of chiefdoms or headquarters. These settlements show signs of a hierarchical organization, with the presence of a dignitary who enjoys privileges, represented in the first examples of monumental architecture and the presence of imported high-value objects, reflecting the existence of networks of Exchange. At this time the Maya established a strong connection with the Olmec civilization that developed on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, therefore it is common to find iconographic elements associated with this region. It is at this time when appear the first expressions of political power in the form of art objects, especially stone sculptures. The end of this period lies between 400 and 300 BC, which coincides with the abandonment of the Olmec centers.

Initially the Preclassic period was defined as a moment of training prior to the Classic Maya civilization, so much so that some researchers prefer the term Formative. However, today it is undisputed that the Maya civilization had already developed as such during the late Preclassic, covering the year covering 300 BC to 250 A.D. At this time there are monumental centers that housed thousands of people, whose architecture denotes a high degree of labor organization. The use of art as a means of political legitimacy achieves a high degree of development, both in the sculptures and architectural elements, and the use of writing begins. The iconography of the Late Preclassic is highly rich in symbols, by which evidence the existence of institutionalized religious systems that were based on mythological narratives for the development of large public ceremonies. The large number of settlements of different scales indicates that the territorial organization is hierarchical, where one greater Center has dominion over other minor centers around. For these reasons it has come to theorize that the Mayan places of this period correspond to “the early states”, where the political power was not relapsing completely into only one leader, but was distributed in a system of bureaucratic nature, formed by specialists in different areas.

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The transition from the Preclassic to the Classic in the third century AD possibly was turbulent in some regions, as it is characterized by the abandonment of some of the major cities, and there is evidence of destruction of sculptures and buildings. Either way, these events gave way to the emergence of new political entities and the beginning of a new era in the history Maya.

The Early Classic period is defined between 250 and 600 AD Its onset is characterized by the appearance of important elements, especially the extensive use of writing in the cities of the Lowlands, which coincides with the disappearance of the same in the Highlands and Pacific Coast. Also it is possible to define a general tendency towards the cult to the leader as personification of the political power. This period also is marked by the relations that existed with the city of Teotihuacán in the Central Highlands of Mexico, possibly inhabited by Nahua groups. Since this city was much higher than the Mayan cities of that time, it was considered that Teotihuacán exercised some degree of control in some areas due to commercial interests. Although this has not been proven, if there was a strong influence from the Mexican plateau in the use of certain symbols associated with the war, as well as other purely artistic aspects, which could well be the result of friendly economic and political relations. In the Early Classic is evidence of the founding of ruling dynasties in the main archeological sites of the Lowlands, and expansionist programs also started in some of them, which include the first direct references to battles and capture of prisoners.

The beginning of the Late Classic in 600 AD does not constitute a significant difference compared to the previous period. Actually there is a continuous process that gradually led to the highest population growth in the Lowlands, reaching millions of people. This is reflected in that each city was identified with a symbol, called "emblem glyph" and has been possible to establish the political maps of the time according to their geographical distribution. In the middle of the 8th century AD, the Central Lowland experienced a rapid decentralization and political fragmentation that was accompanied by an increase in conflicts, but at the same time, causing the artistic peak in the Mayan history. It is at this point that we find the finest expressions in polychrome ceramics, jade lapidary art, mural painting, architecture and sculpture. Also the development of writing reached a level of sophistication that few civilizations in the world have achieved.

This process culminated with the rapid abandonment of some cities during the last years of the eighth century AD, followed by a more gradual process in others. This phenomenon, known as "Maya Collapse", resulted in the almost total abandonment of all Central Lowlands in the early tenth century AD, and their causes were the combination of political and environmental factors. Despite this massive abandonment is an almost unique event in the history of mankind, no way meant the "end of the Maya", as often it has been misinterpreted. On the contrary, it was a process of political transformation, which means better when taking into account the continuity that occurred in the Postclassic period. There is no denying that many of the "cultural markers" that distinguished the Classic Maya disappeared, as is the extensive use of writing, the erection of Stelae, and the development of jade jewelry and painted glass. For its highly political nature, the collapse should be understood as the end of a monarchical system, so that all those elements or markers also disappeared with the kings, because they were tools to justify their positions. Already without kings, there was no need to glorify their stories or have ostentatious funeral offerings. In contrast, the post-classical societies were somewhat more efficient to invest less in their kings, creating councils for decision-making. The leading theory is that much of the population who left the Central Lowlands migrated north, where other prosperous centers were located. In the case of the Highlands and the Pacific Coast, not much is known about their centers in the Late Classic, although there is evidence that many were abandoned.

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The Early Postclassic period defined between 900 A.D. and 1,200 A.D., is of supreme importance, since it symbolizes the continuity of the Mayan Civilization after the Classic collapse. Apart from the Northern Lowlands not many sites of this period are known, probably because the effects of many migrations out of Petén. However, there is no evidence that mass movements of people in the Highlands occurred, suggesting that current Mayan populations are descendants of the same groups that settled before the Postclassic. In this regard we must contextualize the Mayan sites within the Mesoamerican scope, because the early Postclassic period is the period called "Toltec", when predominated a "international" style of art, expressed in architecture, ceramics and sculpture. However the word Toltec has a strong mythological meaning, tollan or tula is the name of the place of origin of many populations. Therefore, the Toltec influence should be understood as a process similar to what happened with the Olmecs during the Middle Preclassic and Teotihuacan in the early classic, and not as conquests or migrations from one place. What is clear from this period is the disappearance of the monarchical system of the classic, which was replaced by Governments based in confederations or councils, where the lineage was the basic unit of the social and political organization. The concentration of populations in the high lands of the North was due in large part to the rise of the trade route that surrounded the Yucatan peninsula, significantly transforming economic patterns. For example, it is notorious that jade declined as an element of luxury, which was relatively replaced by gold, turquoise, and other materials from the Northwest of Mesoamerica. 

Finally, the Late Postclassic represents the last moment of pre-Hispanic Maya culture, which began in 1200 AD and ends with the different processes of conquest throughout the region. This period is characterized by the disappearance of large territorial states in the Lowlands, as the territory is fragmented into many provinces, governed by capitals of smaller scale. On the contrary, in the Highlands were consolidated strong political entities, who achieved unprecedented territorial expansion, to such an extent that they conquered and integrated several different ethnic groups under its control. However, conflicts between these groups were used by the conquerors as an effective means for eventual defeat and domination in the sixteenth century. At the same time, the Mayan groups of the Gulf Coast enjoyed a prosperity period, thanks to its mastery of the marine routes and the direct contact that they had with the Aztecs. This is why they were able to confront the Spaniards with a high degree of resistance.

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