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Sunday December 17 2017
The Mystery Behind the Ancient Mayan Civilization
Elena Piccini

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Arcane mysteries, prophecies, legends and many questions without answers reign the mind of whom thinks to one of the most ancient and great civilizations of the world, the Maya.

• The Mayan Empire

Starting in the Yucatan, the Maya expanded their borders around southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize, and Western Honduras. The culture’s beginnings have been traced back to 1500 BC, entering the Classic period about 300 AD and flourishing between 600 and 900 AD.

From the third to the ninth century, the Maya empire produced awe-inspiring temples and pyramids, palaces, and observatories, highly accurate calendars, mathematics and hieroglyphic writing, and a complex social and political order. They were also equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade with distant peoples. The buildings that we can still admire nowadays were built without metal tools, beasts of burden, or the wheel! For the Maya, science and religion went hand in hand, forming the core of daily life.

• Chichen Itza, Yucatan

One of the most impressive examples of the astronomic Mayan wisdom is Chichen Itza. For more than thousand years, every equinox of March and September, in Chichen Itza, the hearts of innumerable spectators tremble on having re-lived through the experience of the Mayan magic: the Sun projects its mysterious shade, the steps of the temple are illuminated and give him life to the great adorned with feathers serpent, which seems to slip for the steps until his prodigious body disappears secretly. Kukulcan was the Mayan name for the feathered serpent, god of the ruling caste. The ancient Mayan civilization is fascinating, and, to create the optical illusion of the snake are necessary deep knowledge, as which was possessed by this civilization.

• The Mayan Calendar and Mathematics

The Maya invented a more precise calendar than the one we currently have, they accurately predicted the eclipses, knew with accuracy the path of the planet Venus, and they developed complex systems of writing and agricultural technologies. They did all this without the help of metallic tools, of animals of load, or of the wheel (that, curiously, was used in “toys” for their children).

Ancient Mayans discovered two fundamental ideas in mathematics: positional value and the concept of zero. The Maya system is based on the number 20, not on the number 10 as our own. This means that the Maya counted from zero to nineteen before they had to move to the next order, instead of using 10 digits, from zero to nine, as we do. Perhaps they employed fingers and toes to keep the count.

In short, it was a rich population in contrast with the poverty that various thousand of descending Maya live in today.

• The Mayan Art

The Mayan architecture and painting were well developed, as the big figures of stone of Chac-mool and the Atlantes of Chichen Itza reached high reputation. They molded every kind of material (as jade, obsidian, limestone) and turned it into art. With a limy plaster they decorated and carved their buildings with fantastic images of birds and supernatural beings. Their passion for painting is shown in their daily lives: they covered their murals and walls of their buildings, and decorated their dresses and bodies with lathers and colored plumage and the bones of the royal tombs.

• The Mayan Books

Few “Mayan books” written in fragile barks of cork were saved from the destruction and invasion. Only 4 of them have been found until today: the Dresden code, with studies on the planet Venus and the prediction of eclipses; the code Glolier, discovered recently, with astronomic calculations; and the codices of Madrid and of Paris, which are more fragmentary. When the Spanish came to this region, there were only remaining dispersed tribes. In fact, not even the conquerors knew the big Mayan cities, because they were covered by the jungle for centuries.

Many of the sacred Mayan texts contain important references to plants and agriculture. While the Mayan spiritual practice was full of rituals dedicated to Mother Earth, their traditional medicine was similarly wholly dependent on the healing powers provided by the earth – its soil, water, plants and creatures. Most of their remedies come from the jungle. In their daily life, fishing and hunting were common, especially for deer, peccary, and all kinds of small animals. Their rain forests were filled with all kinds of tropical birds, as well as flowers, plants such as heliconia, orchids, and bromeliads.

• The Mayan Empire Collapse

Looking at the impressive remains of ancient Maya civilization, it’s hard to picture how such a society could collapse. No monuments or other structures seem to have been produced after AD 822. Does this mean that the collapse was unexpected? Or was the end a gradual decline? Were they suffered a climatic change? Were they remained without food? Were they invaded by foreign groups? There are many hypotheses as to what might have occurred. Through fieldwork and lab work, historians and archaeologists have been piecing together what happened to bring about the rapid fall of this huge empire. Maybe, the phenomenon was related to a high density of population and to an extensive period of drought, but there still are numerous doubts and suppositions about the crash of this majestic and powerful empire. Insufficient food supply, earthquakes, pestilence, invasion by outsiders, internal rebellion or a combination of these factors have all been suggested as possible causes for the fall of the Mayan eminence. How did the Maya prosper so many centuries? It is a good question, bearing in mind that the modern people are repeating some of the mistakes of the Maya.

• The Maya Today

The Maya today number about six million people and they are distributed in small groups in the states of Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. Some of the largest Maya groups are found in Mexico, the most important of these being the Yucatecs, the Tzotzil and the Tzeltal. The Yucatecs live on the warm and tropical Yucatan Peninsula, and the Tzotzil and Tzeltal live in the highlands of Chiapas.

Among the most fragile of the Maya groups today is the Lacandon of the Chiapas rain forest. The Lacandon are a small group - numbering only 200 in the early 1980s - and have attracted great interest among researchers. This is partly because the Lacandon have never been Christianized, and are believed to practice a variant of the ancient Maya religion. The Lacandon are, however, under intense pressure from the modern world. The Maya have faced formidable challenges, many of which continue today, and will have to overcome them in order to survive in this modern and quickly evolving society.


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