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Classic Period

Maya had a complex society (Classic period 300 - 900 AD)

Most artistic and cultural achievement came about during the Classic period 300 - 900 AD. The Maya developed a complex, hierarchical society divided into classes and professions. Centralized governments, headed by a king, ruled territories with clearly defined boundaries. These borders changed as the various states lost and gained control over territory. Mayan centers flourished in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. The major cities of the Classic period were Tikal (Guatemala), Palenque and Yaxchilán (Chiapas, Mexico), Copán and Quirigua Palenque, Chiapas(Honduras). For most of this period, the majority of the Maya population lived in the central lowlands of Mexico and Belize.

The Northern Yucatán (where present day Cancun is located) was sparsely populated for most of the Classic period with only a few cities such as Dzibilchaltún (near Mérida) and Xpuhil, Becán and Chicanná (near Chetumal). During the 9th century the population centers of the central lowlands declined significantly. This decline was very rapid and is attributed to famine, drought, breakdowns in trade, and political fragmentation. Fragmentation from large states into smaller city-states focused resources on rivalries between cities including not just wars, but competitions of architecture and art between rival cities. As the cities in the lowlands declined, urban centers sprung up in the Northern Yucatán, including Uxmal (near Mérida).

modern maya houseAnthropologists used to contrast the "peaceful" Maya with the bloodthirsty Aztecs of central Mexico. Although human sacrifice was not as important to the Maya as to the Aztec, blood sacrifice played a major role in their religion. Individuals offered up their blood, but not necessarily their lives, to the gods through painful methods using sharp instruments such as sting-ray spines or performed ritualistic self mutilation. It is probable that people of all classes shed their blood during religious rites. The king's blood sacrifice was the most valuable and took place more frequently. The Maya were warlike and raided their neighbors for land, citizens, and captives. Some captives were subjected to the double sacrifice where the victims heart was torn out for the sun and head cut off to pour blood out for the earth.

The Mayan civilization was the height of pre-Columbian culture. They made significant discoveries in science, including the use of the zero in mathematics. Their writing was the only in America capable of expressing all types of thought. Glyphs either represent syllables or whole concepts and were written on long strips of paper or carved and painted on stone. They are arranged to be red from left to right and top to bottom in pairs of columns. The Mayan calendar begins around 3114 BC, before Maya culture existed, and could measure time well into the future. They wrote detailed histories and used their calendar to predict the future and astrological events. Fray Diego de Landa, second bishop of the Yucatán ordered a mass destruction of Mayan books in 1562 and only three survived.

cover A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya

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