Face in stone from Teotihuacan,
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Ruins of Teotihuacan, a view from the Pyramid of
the Moon. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Ruins of Tikal at its main plaza.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Around 900 BCE, Olmec civilization (which began around 1500 BCE), in the tropical lowlands of what today is southeastern Mexico, shifted its center from what today is the city of San Lorenzo to La Venta, a city that influenced Central America for centuries. The Olmecs extended their influence to the highlands of Mexico, including the valley where Teotihuacán was developing, and to Oaxaca and Guerrero.
The Olmecs weakened themselves with civil war, and sometime around the year 100 CE they were overwhelmed by people from the Tehuacan Valley. The center of this expanding power was the city of Teotihuacán, about thirty miles northeast of the center of what is now Mexico City – a place that had transformed itself from villages to city. By 500 CE, Teotihuacán would be a city with a population of more than 125,000.
Teotihuacan's power was trade, mainly control of obsidian, a dark green volcanic glass found on mountains – a material that could be cut and pierced. And Teotihuacan produced and traded highly polished ceramic figures. With no horses or wheeled transport, it took traders months of walking to cross Teotihuacan's area of influence, and Teotihuacan tied together its trading region with relay points and regional distributors. These settlements became cities, and Teotihuacan's culture spread with its goods, north into what is now the United States and south into what is now Guatemala.
In becoming a state power, Teotihuacan formalized its religion. It had numerous temples, and two pyramids faced with stone dedicated to the sun and moon. Its main god was Quetzalcoatl, a feathered snake god of fertility. Amid its religious monuments it had stone carvings depicting people in song and at play amid gardens, streams and fountains – an imagined paradise.
The Maya lived in and around the tropical rain forests of what is now Guatemala and Belize, in small villages of one or two room houses. They worked plots of land, taking food from trees and other wild plants. They hunted and trapped small animals. They made pots from clay, and they made string, weaving cloth, ropes and nets. It is estimated that around 900 BCE they migrated into the lowlands on what is now called the Yucatan (Yucatán) Peninsula. And there they grew beans, maize, chili peppers and squash.
The Maya counted in the same manner as the Olmecs: a dot for one and a bar for five. They had a zero as a mathematical symbol, and apparently from the Olmecs they had inherited writing. Their writing was pictorial representation and abstract symbols, without an alphabet. As in other early civilizations, their writing was limited to their elite, some of whom wrote poetry. And similar to some other ancient peoples, their writing was mainly about religious matters.
The Maya had a coherent set of beliefs about the nature of the universe – built upon astrology. Mayan astrologist-astronomers created a sophisticated calendar system based on detailed naked-eye observations of the movements of celestial bodies and an extensive use of mathematics. The Maya saw the universe as turning in cycles, and from these cycles and the positions of stars they interpreted the past and made prophesies. They believed that in the distant past, cycles had brought cataclysms and rebirths and that eventually cycles would bring another cataclysm in which all the world's inhabitants would perish.
They believed, as do astrologers today, that the date of one's birth determines one's fate and is a guide to what actions one should take – not mindful that fate and willful action were incompatible. They believed in omens, that omens were of crucial importance in determining the suitability and probable outcome of a proposed action.
These cycles of time were, of course, controlled by the gods, and the Maya saw gods in great variety. They saw the sun, moon and the planet Venus as deities, each with its own place in the cyclical calendar of life. Each of their gods was a patron of a unit of time. Each of these gods came into prominence and power over life as its unit of time reappeared.
The Maya believed that a great tree supported each quarter of the heavens, that the earth was flat and the heavens layered, with specific deities and celestial bodies occupying each of heaven's thirteen tiers. The place where the spirits of the dead mingled – the underworld – had nine levels, each with its own lord of darkness. The Maya saw most of their deities as having four pairs of opposing attributes: male and female, old and young, good and evil, celestial and underworld.
To demonstrate piety, appease their gods and guarantee fertility and cosmic order, priests performed an elaborate cycle of rituals and ceremonies, including torture and human sacrifice. Human blood was thought to nourish the gods and thought necessary to achieve contact with the gods. The Maya thought the blood of kings especially in demand by the gods. Captives and defeated nobles and rulers were sacrificed to the gods. Mayan rulers, as the intermediaries between their people and the gods, had to undergo a ritual bloodletting and self-torture. Mayans showed their devotion to their god by sticking spines through their ears or penis, or dragging a thorn studded cord across their tongue, drawing blood that was spattered onto bark and sent to the gods in the form of smoke.
Trade linked the villages of the Maya. They developed their agriculture. Their population increased. Villages grew in number, and by the first century CE their settlements grew larger and more complex. Commerce advanced, and networks of trade and communication stretched across the Mayan world and to Teotihuacan. The typical Mayan family had two or three houses in an open area, and the families were grouped into hamlets where water and well drained soil were available. A ceremonial center existed for every fifty to a hundred families. Several of these areas with a minor ceremonial center- perhaps as many as or more than 700 families – were grouped around a major ceremonial, political and economic center, which we call a city. By the mid-200s, Mayan cities had become numerous, with temples on tall platforms and their buildings of limestone or coral with plaster interiors. One of the cities, Tikal, was twenty-five miles wide, with a population of around 10,000 and numerous temples, shrines, ceremonial centers, ball courts and plazas.
Private property, a division of wealth and class differences had arisen. The Mayan cities – like the cities of Greece before Philip V - never united. The rulers of cities lived in elaborately decorated palaces, and they were buried in grand tombs. And like rulers in Eurasia and Japan, they described themselves as having ties with the divine through their ancestry.
Copyright © 1999-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.