Legacy of the Ancient Maya Civilization

The ancient Maya, a diverse group of indigenous people who lived in parts of present-day Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, had one of the most sophisticated and complex civilizations in the western hemisphere. This mysterious ancient civilization was one of the most important ancient cultures to develop on our planet reaching the peaks of its power and influence around the sixth century A.D. Though the collapse of the Maya civilization during the ninth century A.D. is a major conundrum in the history of mankind, the ancient Maya never failed to leave behind their legacies which have still contributed to the lives of today.  Although the Maya have excelled in many aspects, they have left behind the legacies and noted for their invention of chocolate, a writing system and calendar.

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(Picture of Cocoa Beans that is processed into a beverage for the ancient Mayans)

Guatemala is known as the birthplace of chocolate, with the Mayans worshiping the cacao tree in such a high esteem, they referred to chocolate as the “food of gods”.[1] The Mayans consumed chocolate by first harvesting cacao beans from its trees; they fermented and dried them, roasted them, removed their shells, and grounded them into a paste by which this procedure is used until today. They often combined this paste with water to create a nutritious drink which may have been the most common Mayan method of consuming chocolate.[2]. Many ancient Mayan artifacts are decorated with paintings of people gathering, preparing, or drinking cacao. It appears to have been an integral part of their religious and social lives as it was often consumed during religious ceremonies and marriage celebrations, the bride and groom would exchange this beloved drink. In the tombs of deceased rulers, the Maya included cacao beans and various vessels associated with cacao consumption. The Maya were so fond of chocolate that they not only gathered cacao beans in the forests, they learned to grow the trees in their gardens. All Mayans could enjoy cocoa, regardless of their social status and the demand for cocoa beans and the beverage it produced brought a huge network of trade routes throughout the region. A change began to happen when the Aztecs conquered the Mayans, they were forced to pay taxes called “tributes” which were paid in cocoa. Therefore the Aztecs, who couldn’t grow their own cocoa, would have a supply. Cocoa beans became money to the Mayans and one city study suggests that of the 11 million beans paid as taxes per year, only two million were consumed and the rest was used as money.[3] When the Spanish had their first encounter with chocolate, they didn’t like it and made tremendous changes to the taste. Spiced with honey and cane sugar, it became a different drink — one that the Europeans loved. The artifact above shows cocoa beans. Fast forward one century and chocolate is now enjoyed by many around the world and the legacy of the Mayans inventions lingers on the tongues of many today.

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(Picture of Hieroglyphic writings used by the Ancient Maya)

The Maya hieroglyphic writing is arguably one of the most visually striking writing systems of the world. The hieroglyphic writing system of the Maya must be interpreted from a triple combination of images which are pictographs or glyphs.[4] The Mayan script is, therefore, a combination of signs, representing syllables and words and it has survived in stone carvings, on stucco, wood, pottery and cloth artifacts and in codices as shown above. It was historically significant to the development of early Mayan society because it allowed people to transmit culture and leave a record for future generations, keep records of significant events as well as religious purposes.[5] The writing system created a barrier of classes between people because it is probable that only small elite of the Maya population could read, possibly only the nobility and priests.  The Maya system of writing would go on to influence other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Aztecs, who build upon the progress made by the Maya and incorporating even more phonetic elements into their writing. The Maya writing system also continued to be used up to the Spanish conquest until it was prohibited. Even then, despite the deliberate destruction of Maya texts, it was continued to be used into the 18th century CE.

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(Picture of the Ancient Maya Calendar)

Lastly, what we call the Mayan Calendar is actually a set of three interlocking calendars, the sacred calendar of 260 days called the Tzolkin, the solar calendar of 365 days known as the Haab, and a Calendar round which after every 52 years, the Tzolkin and a Haab day come back in sync with each other.[6]  In addition, they had names for every day except the last five days of the final month. These days were considered to be unlucky and were simply referred to as the xma kaba kin which means “days without name.” The ancient Maya were accomplished observers of the sky and using their knowledge or astronomy and mathematics, they developed an accurate calendar system which is still used until today. This invention was historically significant to the development of early society because it is a method of measuring time accurately a purpose as it was used to measure time into the future or past. Quite simply, it was used to measure hundreds or thousands of years, as opposed to the days, weeks and months in our modern calendars. One of the most important roles of the calendar was to correlate the actions of Maya rulers to historic and mythological events as well as predicted the future; one of which the predictions was the end of the world on December 21st, 2012.[7] The Maya also believed that a person’s birthday determined their fate through life. A newborn child was thus connected with a particular god as well as remained under its influence depending on the birthdate. Until today, the most precise and sophisticated calendar ever created is one of the legacies of the ancient Maya.[8] The ancient Maya cycle still survives in southern Mexico and the Maya highlands, under the care of calendar priests who still keep the 260-day count for divination and other activities.

In conclusion, the Maya were undoubtedly among the great ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica. They flourished in the jungles of present-day Mexico (south), Guatemala and Belize. Although they had one of the most complex and sophisticated civilizations, their legacies lay in their inventions of chocolate, a writing system and calendar.

 

[1] Jessica Festa, “Sweet Guatemala: A Look At The Country’s Mayan Chocolate History And Modern Experiences,” Epic and Culture (February 2014): https://epicureandculture.com/history-of-chocolate-guatemala/

[2] “Chocolate and the Mayans” How stuff works, https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/food-facts/history-of-chocolate1.htm

[3] Scotty Hendricks, “Chocolate was used as money in the ancient Maya civilization” Big Think (June 2018): https://bigthink.com/scotty-hendricks/a-sweet-economic-system-chocolate-was-money-in-ancient-maya-civilization

[4] Mark Cartwright, “Maya Writing.” Ancient History Encyclopedia (February 2014): https://www.ancient.eu/article/655/.

[5] Robert Bitto, “The Writing of the Ancient Maya: A History in their Own Words,” Mexico Unexplained (May 2016): http://mexicounexplained.com/writing-ancient-maya-history-words/

[6] Diana Davies, “The Maya Calendar Explained (KS2).” Maya Archaeologist (January 2018): http://mayaarchaeologist.co.uk/index.php/2016/12/31/maya-calendar-system/.

[7] Tim Walker, “What have the Mayans ever done for us… apart from predict the end of the world?” Independent ( December 2012): https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/what-have-the-mayans-ever-done-for-us-apart-from-predict-the-end-of-the-world-8424562.html

[8] Niclas Marie, “The Mayan Calendar & Concept of Time” Time Center: https://www.timecenter.com/articles/the-mayan-calendar-and-concept-of-time/

 

 

 

Bibliography

Bitto, Robert. “The Writing of the Ancient Maya: A History in their Own Words,” Mexico Unexplained (May 2016): http://mexicounexplained.com/writing-ancient-maya-history-words/

Cartwright, Mark. “Maya Writing.” Ancient History Encyclopedia (February 2014): https://www.ancient.eu/article/655/.

“Chocolate and the Mayans” How stuff works, https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/food-facts/history-of-chocolate1.htm

Davies, Dianna. “The Maya Calendar Explained (KS2).” Maya Archaeologist (January 2018): http://mayaarchaeologist.co.uk/index.php/2016/12/31/maya-calendar-system/.

Digital Image: http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/37559

Festa, Jessica.  “Sweet Guatemala: A Look At The Country’s Mayan Chocolate History And Modern Experiences,” Epic and Culture (February 2014): https://epicureandculture.com/history-of-chocolate-guatemala/

Gleghorn, Hannah. Replica Mayan Calendar: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/replica-mayan-calendar-665753?src=A5uTE6YMBnEgS4o7cVwvbQ-1-12

Hendricks, Scotty. “Chocolate was used as money in the ancient Maya civilization” Big Think (June 2018): https://bigthink.com/scotty-hendricks/a-sweet-economic-system-chocolate-was-money-in-ancient-maya-civilization

Katalin, Visy. (November 2014): http://magyarno.com/10-teny-a-majakrol

Marie, Niclas.  “The Mayan Calendar & Concept of Time” Time Center: https://www.timecenter.com/articles/the-mayan-calendar-and-concept-of-time/

Walker, Tim. “What have the Mayans ever done for us… apart from predict the end of the world?” Independent (December 2012): https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/what-have-the-mayans-ever-done-for-us-apart-from-predict-the-end-of-the-world-8424562.html

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