The Ancient Mayans

Ancient Mayan artifacts and structures have always fascinated me. It’s interesting to think about how they built their temples in the jungles of Central America and how certain objects were used by these people in their everyday lives. My personal favorite artifacts are the beautiful glyphs that have been found carved in stone and written on soft bark and ceramics. In class, we talked mostly about the timeline of the great Mayan Empire, several of the monuments and structures they built, and a few aspects of their culture. Knowing how intellectual the ancient Maya had been during their time, I decided to some research on a couple of their biggest accomplishments and beliefs to learn a little bit more about these people.

Agriculture was very important to the ancient Mayans, and they developed several techniques to successfully grow food, such as maize, squash, and beans. One technique was slash and burn farming, or as it is known in Mesoamerica, milpa. Vegetation in a designated area would be cut down, and this would be burned. The resulting ashes were incorporated into the soil to provide some nutrition to the developing crops. In the lowlands, where the ground could get swampy, Mayan farmers created raised fields out of the swamp mud, raising them about two to four feet above the surface of the swamp water. The surrounding water canals supported fish and water lilies, with the former providing droppings for fertilizer and the latter being used as fertilizer. In the highlands, the ancient Maya used terraces as plots for their crops.

Astronomy was a significant practice of ancient Mayan culture. This science expressed universal order and the gods’ role in it. The Mayans viewed celestial events as communication between them and the gods. Many of the temples and the buildings that the Mayans built were used as astronomical observatories or were aligned with some celestial aspect, such as the equinoxes or the rising of Venus. One such building, for example, is Building J at Monte Alban. Constructed in the shape of an arrow, the five brightest stars at that time would have set at the point of the arrow.

The ancient Mayans’ calendars are very intriguing achievements, especially since they have been found to be very accurate time keepers. The Long Count calendar consists of kins (days), winals (20-day months), tuns (360 days), k’atuns (20 tuns), and bak’tuns (20 k’atuns). The start date of this calendar is August 11, 3114 BC. The Haab (also called the Vague year) is based on solar observations and consists of 365 days. The oldest calendar used by the ancient Mayans was the Tzolk’in (or Sacred) calendar. This calendar is comprised of thirteen periods, each consisting of twenty days (260 days total). A different animal, plant, or natural force symbolizes each day for one of these periods. I find it fascinating that even after thousands of years, the Tzolk’in calendar is still in use today by traditional Mayan groups. All three of these calendars were used at the same time, making the whole process of time keeping very complex.