Government and Politics

The Mayan Empire

Was the Mayan Empire the most advanced early civilization?

In some regards, the Mayas were more advanced than other civilizations. Their development preceded that of the other agrarian civilizations in North and South America, principally the Aztec and the Inca.

The Mayas were an agricultural people who in about 1000 B.C. settled in southern Mexico and Central America. Their territory covered Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, much of Guatemala, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. They developed a civilization that was highly advanced: Not only did the Mayas produce remarkable architecture (including flat-topped pyramids, temples, and towers that are still visited by tourists today) and art (including sculpture, painting, and murals), but they developed their own writing system—probably the first in the Western Hemisphere. They used this system to record time, astronomical events, their history, and religion (they believed in more than 160 gods). They also developed an advanced mathematics as well as a 365-day calendar believed by some to be even more accurate than the Gregorian calendar in use today.

At its peak, the Mayan population numbered some 14 million. Their history is divided into three periods. The Pre-Classic period began about the time they originated (roughly 1000 B.C.) and extended into A.D. 300; this was the group’s formative period. During the Classic period, 300 to 900, Mayan culture spread throughout the area and city-centers were developed at Copán (Honduras), Palenque, Uxmal, and Chichén Itzá (Mexico), and Piedras Negras, Uaxactún, and Tikal (Guatemala). Scholars believe that Tikal was home to some 50,000 people and was not only a center for government, education, economics, and science, but was also a spiritual mecca for the Maya.

It was in the second half of the Classic period that the Maya made their greatest accomplishments in art and science: Europe would not produce a superior system of mathematics for centuries to come. During the Post-Classic period (900–1546), they were invaded by the Toltecs. However, the Maya absorbed these people rather than being conquered by them. Nevertheless, by the time the Spaniards arrived in the mid-1500s, the Mayan civilization was in decline. Some historians attribute this to widespread famine or disease while others believe the decline was due to a rebellion of the people against the harsh government. Though they were conquered by the Spaniards and became assimilated into the larger culture that developed in the region, Maya Indians still survive in Mexico and Central America today.


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