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When the Spanish began to arrive in Mexico and in Central America in the early 15th century, one of the many civilizations they found was the Maya. The Maya, building upon the Olmec culture, were located in present-day Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, southern Mexico, and the Yucatan Peninsula. Even though they had many similarities, the Maya were separated by language differences. Because of that they were organized into city-states. Since there wasn’t a single city-state powerful enough to impose a political structure, the period from 200 A.D. to the arrival of the Spanish was characterized by the struggle of rival kingdoms for dominance.
Mayan architectural achievements were remarkable, given the difficulties brought on by fragile soil, dense forest, and a harsh tropical climate. During the Classic period (250-900 A.D.), the largest Mayan cities had populations in excess of 50,000 people. These high populations required them to practice more intensive agriculture, instead of the typical slash-and-burn.
The Classic period cities had dense precincts visually dominated by extraordinary architecture. Larger cities had numerous high pyramids, ceremonial platforms, and palaces built on platforms or mounds.
The Maya have been called the “Greeks of the New World” because of their intellectual accomplishments. They were the most advanced in writing, math, architecture, and astronomy of all the Indian civilizations.
In math, the Maya developed a system based on three symbols: a dot, a bar, and a shell. The dot represented 1, the bar 5, and the shell 0. The Maya used the concept of 0, 1200 years before anyone in the Old World. Their number system was based on 20 and the value increased from bottom to top.
The Maya elite developed a complicated calendar system. There are two main cycles in their calendar; one was made up of 260 days and the other 365. Each day is named from both the 260 and 365-day calendars. Because of this each full day name could only repeat every 18,980 days or once every 52 years.
The Maya didn’t discover metallurgy until late in the Classic period and used it only to produce jewelry and decorations for the elite. Artists and their numerous assistants cut and filled the stones used for palaces, pyramids, and housing, aided only by levers and stone tools. Each wave of construction represented the mobilization of thousands of laborers. The urban building boom of the Classic period reflected the ability of rulers to appropriate the labor of their subjects.
The abandonment or destruction of the major urban cities between 800 and 900 A.D. brought the Classic period to a close. There were probably many causes for this, but no scholarly consensus exists. The destruction of Teotihuacan, in about 750 A.D. disrupted long-distance trade and thus might have undermined the legitimacy of the Maya rulers. Growing population, especially among the elite, led to environmental degradation and falling agricultural productivity. Some scholars have suggested that climatic change contributed to the collapse, but evidence is slight. Regardless of the disputed reasons, there is an agreement that by 900 A.D. the Maya had entered a new era, the Post Classic.
Evidence suggests that during the Post Classic central Mexican cultural influence increased among the Maya of Yucatan. Legend has it that the Toltecs of central Mexico, led by Quetzalcoatl, conquered the Maya of Yucatan. According to this legend, a group associated with the god Tezcatlipoca had forced Quetzalcoatl into exile. Quetzalcoatl and his followers moved east, defeating the Maya of Yucatan and establishing a new capital, Chichen Itza.
By the end of the 13th century, the Itza were the authority across much of Yucatan. The origins of these people are unclear, but they claimed to be the people of Chichen Itza. The Itza eventually established authority over most of the Yucatan, while many Maya remained independent. The Itza are also believed to have founded the city Mayapan. At its height, Mayapan had a population of about 15,000. But in no way was it as magnificent as Tikal or Chichen Itza. Warfare and rebellion led to the end of the Itza and Mayapan about 1450 A.D.
From the fall of Mayapan until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, the Maya returned to the pattern of dispersed political authority. Towns of modest size exercised control over a larger area and more rural population. Although central authority existed in Maya regions when the Spanish arrived, Maya peoples retained their vitality and sustained essential elements of their ritual legacy.
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