Indigenous Cultures Project- Mayans

By: Jessica K and Brooke M

Geographic Location (WAS)

  • Had a large civilization in Central America and South Mexico
  • Lived in an area of about 120,000 square miles
  • During the "classic period" of the Mayans, they lived in the tropical rain forests of the lowlands
  • Around 900, most Maya left the Guatemalan lowlands and moved to areas in the north and south (including Yucatan and southern Guatemala)
  • Developed around A.D. 250, and continued to flourish for hundreds of years
  • Powerful kings ruled the great cities of Tikal, Copan, Palenque, created stone pillars carved with images or writing

Geographic Location (NOW)

  • Mayan territory is divided among Mexico and several other Central American countries
  • The Mayans live in southern Mexico and northern Central America
  • Outside the region there are sizable Maya communities in other parts of Mexico and in the U.S., mostly in California
  • The large cities like Tikal or Chichen Itza are located in present-day Mexican state of Yucatan


  • There were three major era's in the Mayans long history (the pre-classical era from 2000 B.C.E to 250 A.D, the classical era from around A.D. 250 to 900 C.E, and the post-classical era from 900-1521 C.E)

Pre-Classical Maya Civilization


  • Lasted from 2000 B.C.E. -250 C.E.
  • Developed in the highlands of present day Guatemala and El Salvador
  • Was a sedentary agricultural society
  • Had advanced agricultural methods
  • What is now the department state of El Peten in the lowlands of northern Guatemala was the main place of the ancient Maya civilizatio
  • lived in small villages
  • Maya built their first large pyramids and they had their first large settlements

Classic Period


  • Lasted from about A.D. 250-900 C.E.
  • Maya founded their greatest cities and made their remarkable achievements in arts and science
  • They honored the most important events in the lives of their leaders
  • During the first 300 years of the Classic Period, the city of Teotihuacan had strong influence on the Maya art and architecture, politics, and trade
  • Strong kings ruled the great cities of Tikal, Copan, and Palenque
  • Predominant cities of Maya were Tikal, Copan, and Palenque

Early Classical Period


  • Maya culture spread over much larger territory
  • Large cities were dominated by great stone temples, pyramids, and large central markets

Post-Classical Era


  • Lasted from 900-1521 C.E.
  • Centers of Maya civilization shifted north to the city-states of the Yucatan Peninsula
  • Spanish launched a military expedition against the Mayas during 1531-1535
  • Spanish authorities and priests destroyed the Maya culture and religion
  • 16th century: European diseases, abuses, and the social disruption of the Spanish conquest wiped out a large portion of the Maya population
  • 1700: The population of millions had decreased to fewer than 250,000
  • Some Maya moved north to build new cities in the lowlands of Yucatan, and others moved to southern Guatemala's highlands and built cities there

Other History Facts


  • About 30 civilizations rose and fell in Mesoamerica during prehistoric times
  • Two of the early Mesoamerican civilizations were the Olmecs and the Zapotecs
  • The Mayans were the first to develop a writing system that could completely reproduce their spoken language, used an effective numbering system (which included a zero symbol), used sophisticated calendars, never lived as a unified people, separated into groups with distinctive cultures, lived in city-states, self-governing communities, 31 Mayan languages

Mayan Writing (WAS)

  • In Mesoamerica the Maya created a writing system less than 2,000 years ago
  • Mayan writing was made up of symbols that are called glyphs
  • Some Mayan glyphs represented an idea/word
  • Developed an advanced form of writing that had many symbols (represented sounds or ideas and formed a hieroglyphic writing)
  • Kept records on stone called stelae, and made books out of paper from a fig tree bark

Mayan Writing (NOW)

  • Only few books have survived
  • Maya calendars, religious ceremonies and astronomical tables, calendars that show lucky days for farming and hunting (some still exist today)
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Mayan Language (WAS)


  • Mayans didn’t all speak the same language, although the various Mayan languages were all related to each other
  • Spoke Spanish, Maya language, and called themselves and their language "Maya"

Mayan Language (NOW)


  • Today, descendants of the Maya (like people in Yucatan and Guatemala) speak Mayan languages and carry on religious customs of their ancestors
  • Many people of the Mexico and Central America speak one of more than 20 languages
  • Today, they still speak Spanish and "Maya"
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Home life/Traditions (WAS)

  • Entire Mayan families lived together
  • The farmers lived near their fields
  • Mayans built their houses from poles lashed together and used palm trees/grass to thatch together the roofs
  • Each day had special religious importance, and religious festivals in honor of particular gods took place
  • Sacred games were played on special courts, tried to hit a rubber ball through a stone ring with their hips
  • Carved images into stone, some traditions could not be carried out because of the harsh government

Home life/Traditions (NOW)

  • Many descendants of the Maya carry on their traditions of farming and their traditional religious customs, and speak Mayan languages
  • Religious festivals, dances, and feasts still occur today
  • Keep rich and diverse kitchen gardens, kept and have now lots of knowledge on wild plants

Dress (WAS)


  • Men wore a loincloth (a strip of cloth tied around their hips and passed between their legs)
  • Women wore loose dresses that went down to their ankles
  • People of the upper classes wore nicer clothes decorated with embroidery and ornaments. They also had headdresses made of brightly colored feathers of tropical birds
  • Wealthy wore lots of jewelry
  • Children were naked
  • The type of cloth and decorations signaled their status in society

Dress (NOW)


  • At festivals, the Maya dress in their nicest traditional clothes
  • Women wear pretty woven blouses (huipiles), and colorful skirts, belts, and headdresses
  • Men may dress in Mayan style for festivals (they usually wear modern clothing)

Food (WAS)

  • Corn was the main food of the Maya
  • The Maya used corn to make batche, an alcoholic drink
  • Maya farmers grew: corn, black/red beans, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins, cacao beans, avocados, tomatoes, chili peppers, and cotton
  • Grew cocoa trees for their favorite drink, called xocoatl
  • Headdresses were shaped like ears of corn
  • Food production activities practiced in mesoamerica, tropical latitudes increase the amount of food

Methods of Agriculture


  • Slash-and-burn
  • Raised plots
  • Terraced fields
  • House gardens

Food (NOW)

  • Mayans filled corn dough with meat, which is now called tamales today
  • Mayans made corn flat bread, which is now called tortillas today
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Work/Jobs (WAS)


  • Men and older boys did most of the farm work, hunting, and fishing
  • Women and older girls made the family's clothes, prepared meals, raised younger children, and supplied the house with firewood and water
  • Young children learned by observing their parents
  • In off-seasons, men joined huge construction groups
  • During the 19th century, extensive plantation-based agricultural enterprises in the region forced owners to use the Maya as a source of labor
  • All labor was done manually, overseen and directed by a religious and military elite, military governments left tens of thousands dead and many more displaced

Work/Jobs (NOW)


  • Men do physical labor, women help at home
  • Mayas led protests and publishing demands for equality and re address past outrages
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Living Conditions (WAS)

  • Whole Maya families lived together
  • Clothing of the Maya kept them comfortable in the hot, tropical climate
  • Maya civilization reached its period of greatest development at about A.D. 250 and continued to flourish for 100's of years
  • Great palaces and temples: homes of the noble class
  • Rectangular home with one/two rooms each, made from wood/stone: homes of the common people
  • Weather in the tropics was warm
  • Little furniture in homes, beds were woven straw mats
  • Mayans struggled growing enough food to feed everyone

Living Conditions (NOW)

  • Most live in households involved in production, consumption and/or reproduction, may have a significant symbol in society
  • Archaeologists study the houses
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Religion (WAS)


  • Worshiped many gods and goddesses
  • Each day had special religious importance, religious festivals took place
  • To earn the help of their gods, the Maya fasted, prayed, offered sacrifices, and held many religious ceremonies
  • Built tall pyramids with small temples on top. Their priests would climb the stairs and perform ceremonies in the temples
  • Spanish missionaries wanted to convert the Mayas to Christianity
  • Rulers and a class of priests practiced a variety of religious rituals, including bloodletting and human sacrifice
  • Maya religion was a complex collection of myths and beliefs including several different gods drawn from nature
  • Each god influenced their life

Religion (NOW)


  • Today, many descendants of the Maya farm as did their ancestors, and carry on some of the traditional religious customs
  • Roman Catholic faith, pre-Christian religion, protestant minority, Christian beliefs are mixed with earlier Maya belief systems

Government (WAS)

  • Each Maya city governed its surrounding area, and some large cities each controlled one or more smaller cities
  • The Maya never united to form a single, centrally governed nation
  • Generations of a single family ruled for 100's of years
  • Each city-state was ruled by a hereditary line of kings and the cities fought with each other for territory and power
  • When the Spanish arrived only 50 years after the fall of Mayapan, the Maya put up a lot of resistance to the invaders, but were strongly weakened by the recent collapse of their governments
  • Some traditions couldn't be preserved because of harsh government, scribes and priests who could read/write glyphs died, no one could read the ancient glyphs
  • Under pressure of authorities, people were able to produce more food

Government (NOW)

  • The type of government today is a non-Maya government
  • The government of the Mayas never united to form a single, centrally governed nation
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Judicial Process (WAS)


  • During the classic period, there was a high competition for land and other resources. Because of this, rival cities would fight each other, and sometimes a growing city would break away from a larger city's control.
  • The Maya depended on their mortal rulers to make sure that the God's didn't destroy Earth or extinguish the life-providing Sun
  • The Maya Gods were very powerful, but needed people as much as people needed them
  • The city of Chichen Itza dominated the north part of the Yucatan Peninsula in the late-Classic times
  • Chichen Itza was invaded by foreigners, and the city went into decline
  • Following the collapse of the Mayapan, the peninsula reverted to competing kingdoms

Judicial Process (NOW)


  • Looking back now, it is now known that during the period from about 800 to 925, the Maya abandoned the great cities of the central Maya area, which ended the Classic Period
  • The great days of Maya civilization were pretty much over after the Maya abandoned the great cities
  • Because of this, the judicial process of the Mayans today is not very organized or clear, and just like in their history, the Mayans government and judicial process is not completely set in stone or organized
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Experiences with Modern Civilization (WAS)

  • Hieroglyphic writing system- inscriptions were carved onto stone and wood, modeled in stucco, painted on murals and ceramics (most inscriptions from the Classic Period)
  • Agricultural techniques, engineerimg skills
  • Civilization reached the period of greatest development at about A.D. 250
  • Maya produced remarkable architecture, painting, pottery, and sculptures
  • Made great advancements in astronomy and mathematics and developed a yearly calendar
  • Developed an advanced form of writing
  • The Maya fifteen-hundred-year civilization consisted of multiple groups who shared religion, arts, writing, scientific advances, and many other cultural traits, but never lived under one unified government

Experiences with Modern Civilization (NOW)

  • Monuments were carved and some buildings were built- and there are some still standing today
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-Mackanvia Resources (Worldbook Online, Student Resources in Context, ABC-CLIO, JSTOR)

-World Geography Textbook