JOHN HENDERSON: Hello. I'm John Henderson from the anthropology department and the archeology program. Welcome to CyberTower's introduction to the ancient Maya. The Maya are just one of the civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica. Peoples living in the whole region from northern Mexico well down into Central America were in almost constant contact. And over the centuries, they came to share quite a lot of things. So we need to think about Maya patterns as variations on Mesoamerican themes. The things that Mesoamericans share range from particular artifacts to complex patterns of behavior. There's some very distinctive Mesoamerican things, like lip plugs and cotton armor, but they aren't particularly important to Mesoamerican societies. They don't tell us much about their fundamental nature.
And then there are a series of things that are important to Mesoamerican societies, but that weren't unique to them-- things like slash and burn corn farming. One very distinctive Mesoamerican complex is a ball game, played with a solid rubber ball, in which opposing teams vollied it back and forth without using their hands or feet. It was usually played in formal courts and there were sometimes quite elaborate architectural complexes. The ball game was a game, but it was also a political event that rulers used to attract allies and to entertain supporters. And like most Mesoamerican things, it had religious overtones, including sacrifice, and losers of ball games were quite likely to find themselves on the sacrificial altar.
The part of Mesoamerican culture that defines it best is religion and world view, because they're both distinctive and fundamental to the Mesoamerican way of life. All across Mesoamerica, gods were similar, although they had different names in different places. All Mesoamericans thought about the universe as divided into color coded cardinal directions, each of which had its own gods and its own symbols. The universe was also layered. There were 13 heavens, and nine under worlds, and in between, the middle world where we live. There were a series of calendars that kept track of the passage of time. All Mesoamericans had a ritual calendar of 260 days and a 365 day calendar based on the movements of the sun. The details were different. The east might be red, or yellow, or blue, or green. But everywhere, the universe had the same structure.
Mesoamerican themes were expressed in different ways, and those differences sort out so that we can define regional variants of Mesoamerican culture. At the most general level, there are Western or Mexican and Eastern or Maya patterns. There was more lowland rain forest in the Maya area, and more dry uplands in Western Mesoamerica. And not surprisingly, farming systems reflect that. Irrigation was a lot more important to Western Mesoamerica than it was to the Maya. Maya populations tended to be spread out in the countryside, around the cities, whereas in Western Mesoamerica, cities were larger and they were more densely populated in the city center. Maya states tended to be smaller than Western Mesoamerican states, and some of those were large enough to actually be called empires.
You can also divide Mesoamerica into smaller regions. Central Mexico was the heartland of the Aztec empire. Tenotchitlan, the Aztec capital, was built on an island in a lake in the valley of Mexico. And when the Spaniards arrived in the early 16th century, it was one of the biggest cities anywhere in the world. Before the Aztecs, the Toltecs and their capital at Tula had controlled the area. Before them, the cities of Xochicalco and Teotenango, and before them, the great city of Teotihuacan.
Southeast of central Mexico was Oaxaca, the homeland of the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs. Monte Alban, this Zapotec capital, was built on a mesa overlooking the Central Valley of Oaxaca. And it controlled most of the surrounding area for the better part of 1,000 years, beginning about 200 BC. To the East and the Gulf Coast region, there was a lot more cultural diversity. The Olmecs, who were the first Mesoamerican society to become truly complex, reached their peak in the southern part of the gulf between about 1,000 and 500 BC. In later times, the Totonacs controlled the area to the north from their capital at El Tajin. And even farther north were the Huastecs who were outlying speakers of Mayan languages.
West and north of central Mexico, there's a lot less archeological work that's been done, but at least we know that the region was even less homogeneous. Michoacan was the homeland of the Tarascans, who stopped the Aztecs dead in their tracks when they tried to expand to the West. In earlier times, there were fairly intensive relations between West Mexico and the Toltecsf and Teotihuacan and they seem to have been rather more peaceful. In the North, Mesoamerican towns had close connections with the southwestern US.
The eastern third of Mesoamerica is the Maya world. The Maya reached their peak in the lowland part of that area, especially the high tropical forest in the southern part of the lowlands. Farther south are the highland Maya, who extended down to the Pacific coast and mixed with non-Maya peoples there. Along the east edge of the Maya world were the [? Allua ?] people, who were particularly interesting, because they're culturally Maya in most ways, but they probably didn't speak a Mayan language.
The [? Allua ?] sphere was the frontier of Mesoamerica. Farther east and south, cultures were quite different. In the north, in the same way, Mesoamerican patterns grated into ways of life like those of the southwestern US. Mesoamerica never had sharp boundaries like modern political states. Its frontiers were fuzzy, places where Mesoamericans and non-Mesoamericans mingled. We can see my some merican patterns most clearly in the 16th century, because we have documents to combine with archeological evidence. Most of them are written by Spaniards for bureaucratic purposes, but some of them are written by Mesoamericans who had survived the Conquest. They give us a particularly detailed view of the Aztecs, and that's useful because they give us analogies that we can use to flesh out the picture of cultures in areas where we only have archeological evidence.
The development of Mesoamerican patterns in early periods is hard to track, because a lot of things that you can see in the documents are hard to see in archaeological evidence. But we can see that Mesoamerica was not static. Its frontiers and regions within it shifted constantly. There was a Mesoamerican sphere at least by 1,000 BC, because the Olmecs are recognizably Mesoamerican. And it must emerge gradually. The pre-Olmec period is not particularly well known, but there are at least hints in things like widespread pottery styles that the process of emergence was underway even before 1,500 BC.
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Maya civilization is mysterious and fascinating, and probably the least familiar of the great civilizations of the ancient world. This part of CyberTower introduces the ancient Maya, puts them in the context of the larger cultural tradition of ancient Mesoamerica, and provides a point of entry to the sometimes daunting array of more detailed information on their cities, art, and writing.
This video is part 1 of 6 in the Maya Civilization series.