Friday, January 30, 2015

Achievements of the Mayan Civilization Compared to Other Latin American Civilizations

(written for Latin American History Class, University of S. Indiana, 1994)
There are many similarities between the Latin American cultures of Olmecs, Maya, Toltecs, Aztecs. All of these civilizations made some important individual achievements, but they also borrowed from other previous civilizations to some degree. Each had large ceremonial centers, with great pyramids; they each practiced human sacrifice; they all had ritual calendars. However, when compared, the most notable achievements in the use of calendars, astronomy, mathematics, and writing belong to the Maya.

The construction of the ceremonial centers and the great pyramids for all these cultures may have resulted from their fascination with their gods. Many ancient people believed that the gods controlled everything: life, death, wind, rain, and the growth of crops. If one believes that the closer one gets to one's god the better, then tall pyramids make sense.

The conquering of one group by another would also explain the mingling of the religions and adoptions and adaptations of various gods. If the god possessed appealing qualities it would be kept; if it was similar to one of their own, alterations could be made to suit the new rulers. For example, the rain god Tlaloc appears in most of the Latin American cultures, albeit under other names and with changes in appearance. 

The Maya, Toltec, and Aztec all had their own version of Quetzelcoalt. The Maya worshiped a sun god. Throughout Mesoamerica the jaguar was held sacred. Even today, the modern day Yanamamo, a native tribe of South America, consider the jaguar sacred and many of their myths are centered around the jaguar.

There is some evidence that each of these societies practiced human sacrifice, although none is likely to have reached the level of cruelty as that of the Aztecs. One Aztec religious ceremony is reported to have cost 20,000 people their hearts. Most crimes brought death or mutilation. An extremely cruel society will usually collapse in time, from inner or outer influence. One wonders how long the Aztec would have lasted had the Spanish not arrived when they did.

The Aztecs were a monarchy in which the monarch was chosen by the Council of 100, possibly from an elite class. Power was not shared but the Council probably had some control. They were a people who dealt in treachery, using one tribe as allies to defeat an enemy tribe and then defeating their allies. 

The only Aztec achievement worth noting is the building of Tenochtitlan in Lake Texcoco. The aqueducts, paved streets, causeways and floating gardens sound more like Rome or Greece than Central America. A great deal of ingenuity went into the creation or it would not have lasted centuries. In spite of this the Aztecs, and the Toltecs, were not a creative people; they built their empires with the creative achievements of previous civilizations.

Maya society was probably as well organized as that of the Aztecs. According to Norman Hammond in Ancient Maya Civilization it was multi-layered, the ruling class at the top, and each successive layer possibly containing many specialist such as priest, artisans, warriors, traders, and farmers. Rulers probably inherited their positions through their fathers. The family was central in Maya society.

The cultures of Mesoamerica had ritual calendars and their very lives were bound up in the cycle of days. Some days were considered evil and anything that happened on these days was doomed. Knowing you were born on a bad day must have been a real bummer. From the moment of your birth you are marked. It would be interesting to know how much psychology had to do with the development of such individuals. It is doubtful they would have turned into model citizens if everyone expected them to be otherwise.

In The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, Nigel Davis says "the Olmecs invented the art of writing" and the use of putting dates on stone. Although the Olmec probably developed the first calendar, once source indicates that they may not have had it before 500 B. C.

Regardless of who the inventor was, the Maya used both the calendar and writing to their fullest potential. The Maya used three calendars, a long count, a secular, and a religious calendar. The secular calendar had 360 days with 5 evil days added; it was only 2/10,000 longer than our current calendar. The religious calendar had 260 days and was based on the year of Venus. With the long count calendar they could count up to 157,700 years. When one thinks of the knowledge of astronomy necessary and the time involved in developing these systems, it is unbelievable that a primitive people could accomplish such a thing. However, they were able to predicted eclipses, both solar and lunar, with incredible accuracy, and their calculations in time are truly awe inspiring.

Equally amazing is their invention of one of the most complicated system of writing during this time. They used a hieroglyphic form on stela, tall stones covered with carved symbols, These stela have helped unravel much of the mystery of the Mayan culture. They also had books made of fig bark, most of which were burned by the Spanish. No other Latin American culture used the stela idea, nor did they have a form of written communication. During the post classic period of the Mayan empire there are no more stela and the long count calendar is lost. This may suggest that those who knew how to utilize these things disappeared. Whether by conquest or by choice is a debatable question. 

The 260-day calendar is still used by Mayan descendants today.
The city of Teotihuacan is said to have been a central influence on many of the Latin American cultures for hundreds of years. It is difficult to explain, however, why the Maya began "their most spectacular period" after the decline of Teotihuacan. It may have been because contact with the city hindered their creativity in some way. It could also be that the city itself was a spur to the Mayan creative desires.

The ability to take an idea and expand on it was something the Maya did to near perfection. Nearly everything they borrow is improved. The disappearance of the long count and the writing is an indication that the Mayan brain pool declined, and that loss is never regained. But perhaps the greatest achievement of the Maya civilization lies not in their monuments, their mathematics, their astronomy, or their writing; perhaps it lies in their survival. In spite of conquering tribes and invading armies they have retained their identity as a people for thousands of years. Perhaps a people's greatness should be measured on their ability to survive instead of the monuments they leave behind.


Davies, Nigel. The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico. Penguin Books: 27 Wrightslane, London W8 5TZ, England. 1983: 9-256.
Fagg, John. Latin American History. The Macmillian Company: London. 1969: 3-34.
Hammond, Norman. Ancient Maya Civilization. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, New Jersey. 1990: 5-303.
Stuart, Geroge E. and Gene S. Stuart. The Mysterious Maya. The National Geographic Society: Washington D.C. 1977: 17-195.

No comments:

Post a Comment

What do you think?

Photo Attribution

I've tried to attribute all photos to their sources. Should you find an error, please notify me.

If known, unless otherwise noted, all photos are either my own or from You may not copy, download, or otherwise use my personal photos. Visit for information on their photos.