Historical Background of the Mayas
Maya culture is defined by the boundaries within which Maya was spoken in pre-Hispanic times. This culture is still alive today with approximately "6 million speakers of nearly 30 extant Maya languages" inhabiting large portions of the Maya Regions. The Classic Period (A.D 300-900) was a time of Maya control over many territories. Among those were Honduras and El Salvador through to Guatemala and Belize and north to Yucatán and southern Mexico. This period was open to new an extraordinary and arts and sculptures. It was a time of great activity and production in architectural sites. These civilizations which flourished during this time were highly skilled in mathematics and science, as well as, technology. The Mayas would be the people who would have a great influence on future civilizations to come(Cotterell 1980).
Maya style of art was realistic, displaying acts of contemporary life in murals. The temple pyramid complex itself was said to be dedicated to Quetzelcoatl, a god at Teotihuacan and later with the Toltecs and Aztecs. This period was a glorious period of development of crafts and trades, a complex religion, intensive agriculture and many amazing cultural achievements.
Many artifacts suggest that the Mayan society had a hierarchy. Many sculptures and murals left behind represented their rulers and leaders. These murals display their rulers on royal thrones and benches. These types of artifacts strongly suggest that the Mayas had a highly civilized and organized society with castes and classes.
People of high society were those people in charge of the government. The others were judges, priests and public administrators. The lower classes were those people who were farmers, artisans and commoners.
Although the monumental architecture of each of the impressive remains of Classic Maya civilization is strikingly unique, certain features remain constant. Some of the common features of Maya sites are the north-south orientation, the paved ceremonial plazas in the center of the pyramids with small temples on top, palace structures on lower platforms, and at least one ball court. The commonalties within these structures have roofs decorative by masonry and plaster vertical projections whose sole purpose was aesthetic beauty and power.
Musical instruments have been discovered and suggest that festival type activities took place within Mayan communities. Ritual feasts were given in honor of their gods. The Mayas also enjoyed playing sports.
The Mayas were intelligent individuals. They had an incredible numerology system leading to the creation of zero. They created calendars and used a special dot system to mark special events and activities in town.
Maya civilization was, “culturally refined
and distinguished by a singular aptitude for the arts and crafts and by
a high degree of scholarship.” This skilled capability of the Mayan people
continued up until the beginning of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519(Cotterell
Maya regions are ecologically divided into three types of areas. These are the southern lowlands, the northern lowlands, and the highlands/Pacific slope region. The northern area was an important source of salt production, cacao production, and limestone, from which the Mayas constructed their cities and sculptures.
The highlands are largely volcanic area with a surrounding mountain chain from Chiapas to southern Guatemala. Peaks vary from 3,300ft to 13,100ft. There are also valleys with fertile land and large lakes which made these areas all the more attractive to explorers. Exploitation of their natural land resources became inevitable.
The Mayas today inhabit two specific regions
of México. They are both the Lowlands and the Highlands.
The lowlands represent 30,000 Chontal Indians, 200-300 Lacandon Indians,
40,000 Chol Indians, and 400,000 Mayans of the Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana
Roo areas. The highlands people represent 100,000 Tzotils, 60,000
Tzetals, and 30,000 Mames, as well as 15,000 Tojolabals. All of these
diverse groups make up an area that has extreme cultural and historical
wisdom (Bernal 1980).
The Late PostClassic period (A.D 1200-1250) was the rise of a group of people called the Mexicas, better known as the Aztecs. They "were know among themselves and to their neighbors as Tenochca, Mexica, and Colhua Mexica, rather than Azteca," which strictly speaking, only applies to their ancestors of México at Tenochtitlan. The capital of the Aztec empire was Tenochtitlan. The word 'Aztec' was popularized through the literature of such writers as, William Prescott and Alexander von Humboldt. The Aztec ancestors had migrated to a place which was called, Aztlan, which was in the northwest. There patron god, Huitzilopochtli, had commanded them to leave there in 12th century A.D. As legend had it, at the end of a long nomadic journey, the Aztecs came to a site where they, "encountered an eagle with a rattlesnake in its beak perched on a cactus growing from a stone." It was there that they decided to settle, in Tenochtitlan (Cotterell 1980).
The Aztecs were people who were had strong religious beliefs. They were cultured people who also had strong beliefs about their heritage. They carried their strength in the knowledge and worship of their pluralistic gods. Aztecs would often bring gifts to the capital Technotitlan to decorate and honor it. Some of these gifts were food, feathers, salt, arrows and luxuries from trade.
Religious activities were mainly focused on within the temples. These walled precincts contained dorms, schools, sacred pools, altars, gardens, arsenals, and ball courts. These temples usually contained the shrine to the deity in which it was dedicated to as well.
This civilization had outstanding craftsmen and sculptors. A period of expansion and prosperity occurred during the rule of Moctezuma, who was ruler when the Spanish overthrew the Aztecs, leaving them vulnerable. When their lands were threatened and taken away from them, many Aztec families became nomadic. The Aztecs were proud of their people and of their land, but because of their hardships, survival became their main concern (Boone 1994).
The Aztec 'Tira de Peregrincacion,' is an ancient
indicator of places the Aztecs stayed in their travels. Sculptures
that the Aztecs left behind give good predictions of what the people may
have looked like.