JOHN HENDERSON: Mesoamerica has all the general appeal that the distant past always has, but it has other claims on our attention, as well. The aesthetic and intellectual achievements of ancient Mesoamerican rank them among the great civilizations of the ancient world as an important part of world cultural heritage. Mesoamerican objects are on display in great museums around the world, and Mesoamerican ruins, which are very easily accessible from the United States, are becoming more and more popular as tourist destinations.
There are also a series of kind of practical contributions that Mesoamericans made to our lives, including cultivated plants that have a big impact on the diets of millions of people around the world-- corn, beans, squash, chili peppers, tomatoes, avocados, chocolate, tobacco. It's hard to imagine world cuisines without Mesoamerican contributions. And in the realm of mathematics, and astronomy, and writing, they were astonishingly sophisticated.
All the things that make Mesoamerica in general important apply to the Maya, but the Maya have a special interest, as well. They're kind of unusually romantic as a lost civilization in the tropical forest. A lot of people think that Maya art and architecture are the most elegant in ancient Mesoamerica, and certainly their mathematics and astronomy were the most sophisticated. But above all, the Maya had a writing system that gives us a kind of entree to their thought and their history that's unique in the pre-Columbian world.
Mesoamerica was one of the few places in the world where large-scale political and economic systems evolved. It's an important arena for comparing civilizations. It has a lot of differences from the familiar classical and near eastern civilizations that make it particularly interesting, and the Maya are least like old world civilizations so they're extra interesting. Pre-Columbian contact between the old world and Mesoamerica is still an open question, but Mesoamerican societies followed with their own evolutionary trajectories without any significant influence from the old world.
Most early civilizations developed in river valleys or in upland areas. The Maya and their Olmec predecessors developed in tropical forests. Southeast Asia was the only other part of the world where that happened, so theories about ancient civilizations tend to be tailored to very different kinds of environmental circumstances. They don't work for the Maya, and they don't work as general theories of civilization.
Mesoamericans lived in cities and states, but they were very different from Mediterranean and near eastern cities and states. And again, Maya cities are even less like old world cities. They have the same kinds of buildings, and political, and economic, and social, and religious functions, but Maya populations weren't densely packed into city centers, and that means that social and economic life had quite a different character. Maya states tended to be relatively small in terms of the territories they controlled. There was never a single state that ruled the whole Maya world. Some Maya cities had pretty large economic spheres, and their King certainly had real power, but it was localized power.
Maya civilization is really a network of independent states tied together by economic links, and aristocratic marriages, and political alliances. It was a lot like ancient Mesopotamia. Mayan states are also varied, and that adds to their interest. Early Maya states tended to invest a lot of resources in things like palaces and monuments to the kings. The core of a classic Maya city was really a celebration of the power of the state and the legitimacy of the kings. Late Maya cities, on the other hand, had much more modest public buildings. They were still ruled by kings, but they rarely glorified themselves in sculpture or in inscriptions. Late Maya states put their resources into commerce instead.
The intervening period in which the transformation reshaped Maya cities and states, which is misnamed the classic Maya collapse, is a potentially very valuable case study into the dynamics of Maya urbanism and kingship.
Mesoamerican farming systems were mainly very simple, slash and burn farming, and the Maya had particularly few intensive techniques to go along with that basic system. Metalworking came to Mesoamerica late as an import from the South. There wasn't any Mesoamerican Bronze Age, and the Maya had almost no metal working, and even imported metal was rare in the Maya world. Mesoamericans knew that principle of the wheel, but they didn't make any practical use of it. They made little wheeled effigies that may have been toys, but not practical vehicles. In part, that was probably because there were no suitable draft animals in ancient Mesoamerica. Maya builders used arches and vaults, but they didn't use the keystone, which means they couldn't roof very large interior spaces.
In general, Mesoamerica was low tech compared to the old world, and Maya technology was unusually simple. That's a sharp contrast with the sophistication of Maya writing and mathematics and astronomy. The things that set the Maya apart from the familiar civilizations of the old world can't really help but sharpen our understanding of ancient civilizations and what it means to be civilized.
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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 2 of 6 in the Maya Civilization series.