Maya Civilization Writing, Scribes

Maya civilization writing scribesMaya Civilization Writing, Scribes

Maya civilization developed in Central America in today’s countries of Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.  It flourished for 1500 years.

Maya scribes used a writing system based on hieroglyphics to express words with pictures and symbols. They developed the only known writing system in Mesoamerica, long before Spanish explorers arrived, following Columbus.

History of the Maya Civilization

map Maya civilizationThe first Maya settlements formed around 2000 BC in small farming villages in the highlands and Pacific coast of Guatemala. Pottery developed around 1700 BC. By 1000 BC, villages also sprang up to the north in the lowland regions of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Early Maya culture showed the influence of the earlier Olmec civilization. They adopted customs from the Olmec including gods, urbanism, rituals, and art.

The Maya used slash-and-burn cultivated farming for food production. They grew maize (corn), beans, squash, chili peppers, and tobacco. They discovered cacao beans and invented chocolate as a beverage made from processed cacao beans, known as cocoa. Cacao beans were also used for currency, to trade for goods and services. For meat protein, they hunted deer, turkey, rabbits, monkeys, and iguanas.

A food surplus led to a population boom and villages grew. They began to build ceremonial centers. By 200 AD, large cities were developed.

The Yucatan Peninsula is a vast limestone shelf in the Gulf of Mexico. Urban construction using quarried limestone included large step-pyramids, temples, palaces, plazas, observatories, and ballcourts, all built without metal tools, draft animals, or the wheel. Common people lived in houses made of mud and stone with thatch roofs.

Maya civilization developed art, writing, architecture, mathematics, and astronomy. They invented the concept of zero and a complex and accurate Maya calendar system. They were skilled potters and weavers.

Like the Sumerians, the Maya mysteriously knew about planets that were not discovered until many centuries later, when telescopes were invented.

Maya astronomers created precise tables for the positions of the moon and Venus and could predict solar and lunar eclipses.

Maya ballcourt goal Chichén ItzáMaya trade developed with neighboring regions on the Pacific, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico coasts. Traders used dugout canoes powered by paddles. Some accounts mention the use of rafts and sails.

They played a ballgame named pok-ta-pok with a large rubber ball on a ballcourt with a hoop on each side.  At the end of the game, designated players were sacrificed according to Maya religious beliefs. It was considered an honor to bring messages to the gods.

Maya City States

The Maya civilization never unified into a Maya empire, but instead consisted of many city-states. In each region, a large city-state with a king ruled over smaller nearby villages.

Strong city-states developed. They engaged in warfare with rival cities and took captives. The captives were tortured and ritually sacrificed to please and nourish the Maya gods with blood.

Maya pyramid El Castillo Chichen Itza

Tikal was the largest city-state with its great Temple of the Jaguar.  The Maya who lived at Tikal believed they came from the star cluster Pleiades, in the constellation Taurus.

Pleiades means Seven Sisters in Greek, one of the Seven Sisters is named Maia.  The builders placed the seven most important pyramids of the Grand Plaza in the same star map pattern as the seven stars of Pleiades.

Calakmul, north of rival city Tikal, was the seat of the large Snake Kingdom, marked by the distribution of their emblem glyph of the snake head sign.

Chichen Itza is a famous former Maya city, now a popular tourist destination in the northern Yucatan. [See the image of its pyramid of Kukulcán, known in Spanish as El Castillo (The Castle).] The pyramid is aligned with seasonal solar cycles, precisely designed to cast a serpent’s shadow on the spring and fall equinoxes.

Maya jade burial mask King Pakal PalenquePalenque, west of Tikal, was a major city with the most famous Maya King, Pakal the Great. [See the image of the jade burial mask of King Pakal.]

Copan was another major city, now located in western Honduras. It has a Hieroglyphic Stairway, with 2200 glyphs that comprise the longest known Maya hieroglyphic text.

Maya Writing System

Maya writing jaguar balamaThe Maya began to write around 300 BC, as evidenced by murals at San Bartolo, Guatemala, many centuries before the Spanish conquistadors arrived. It was the only true writing system developed in the Americas.  Maya script has over 800 hieroglyphs (signs) consisting of words and syllables.

Maya scribes were required to be of noble birth or related to the ruling class. They were highly honored members of creative society. As members of the royal family, they were believed to carry the seeds of divinity in their blood. A scribe was often described as a sage, wise one, or divine artist.

Maya scribes wrote on books made of strips of paper manufactured from the inner bark of wild fig or ficus trees, or on deerskin, covered with a thin coating of lime plaster for a smooth surface.  The pages were folded accordion-style into a book called a codex.

Maya scribe paintingScribes used reed pens, quill pens, and animal hair brushes, with conch shells serving as inkwells.  Maya inscriptions have been found on stone, pottery, ceramics, shell, bone, wood, and jade.

In Maya mythology, Itzamna, an upper god and creator who resides in the sky, was the founder of maize, cacao, writing, calendars, science, and medicine.

About 90% of the hieroglyphs have now been decoded, by the skillful analysis of scholars from several countries, revealing valuable information about Maya history and culture. The story is told in Breaking the Maya Code by Yale Professor Michael D. Coe.  See the 2008 PBS NOVA series documentary video, Cracking the Maya Code.

Decline of Maya Civilization

At its peak, their civilization included an estimated 5 to 13 million Maya people. The decline of Maya civilization at Tikal began around 900 AD, marking the end of the Classic Period that had started around 250 AD.

Tikal and other cities were mysteriously abandoned, centuries before the Spanish explorers arrived. This may have been caused by overpopulation, drought, climate change, depletion of low-nutrient soil, deforestation, or wars with neighboring cities.

Over time, abandoned cities and their buildings and pyramids became overgrown with thick jungle vegetation. Many hills in the region are actually sites of tall overgrown temples still waiting to be uncovered by archaeologists. Remote jungle locations with no roads make ground access difficult.

Spanish Conquest of the Maya

In 1521, Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire at their capital of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. A sick Spanish soldier transmitted smallpox to the Aztecs who had no immune resistance to the disease. The Aztec people and warriors were greatly weakened and thousands died.

Following the conquest of the Aztecs further north in Mexico, Cortes invaded Maya territory during the Spanish Conquest of the Yucatan, funded by the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1523, Cortés sent Pedro de Alvarado to conquer the Maya in Guatemala. But, since the Maya did not have an organized empire or capital city, it took until 1697 before the last Maya city, Tayasal, fell to Spain.  The Maya were scattered across many villages and fought with guerrilla tactics and used pits lined with spikes to kill Spanish horses.

Bishop Diego de Landa portraitIn July 1562, Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa led an inquisition and ordered the collection and burning of Maya texts at Mani in the northern Yucatan lowlands. Only 4 codices of the Yucatan Maya survived.

He wrote that the native books contained superstition and lies of the devil. Native scribes were singled out for persecution so that within 100 years, the art of Maya hieroglyphic writing almost disappeared.  One ancient alien theory is the books contained advanced knowledge, possibly brought by friendly alien visitors.

Maya villagers hid books, records, and clothing owned by their ancestors as precious relics. They stored items in wooden chests, removing them only on special occasions.

De Landa kept detailed records of Maya culture and language. His notes were later used to help decode the Mayan language.

Although many irreplaceable books were burned, writings carved in stone survived in temples, sculptures, and monuments. The Maya did not have metal tools, but were expert carvers on bone, flint, and jade, using obsidian cutting tools. Writings also survived on pottery and ceramics.

During the Spanish Conquest, Maya scribes learned to read and write using the Roman alphabet in schools established by Christian missionaries. To preserve their history and culture from burning in bonfires, they transcribed some important writings from Maya hieroglyphs into modified Latin script.

Around 1700, Dominican friar Francisco Ximenez translated the sacred history, Popol Vuh, of the Kʼicheʼ (Quiche’), one of the Maya peoples, into Spanish. It is one of the few and most important books on Maya history studied by scholars. The book was written around 1554 and does not include the names of the authors, to keep their identities hidden from Spanish punishment.

What Happened to the Maya?

Maya people marketplaceDuring the Spanish Conquest, up to 90% of the Maya people died from war, disease, and slavery. But, the survivors preserved their native culture, even while the Spanish converted them to Christianity.

More than 7 million Maya people still live today in their native homelands in Central America and other countries, mostly speaking Spanish and Mayan languages and practicing both traditional and modern customs.

Systematic archaeological exploration of Maya sites began in the 1830s.  Hundreds of sites still remain unexplored, covered by jungle growth.

Today, the Tikal National Park in northern Guatemala is a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Chichén Itzá in Mexico is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

Image Credits
1. Map, Maya region, Wikimedia Commons, cropped, text labels added, CC BY-SA 3.0
2. Photo, Maya ballcourt goal, Chichén Itzá, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
3. Photo, El Castillo (pyramid of Kukulcán) in Chichén Itzá, CC BY-SA 4.0
4. Photo, Maya jade burial mask King Pakal Palenque, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
5. Drawing, Maya hieroglyphic writing, jaguar, ba-la-ma, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
6. Mural, Maya scribe
7. Portrait, Bishop Diego de Landa, 16th century, in the monastery at Izamal, Yucatan, Wikimedia Commons, public domain
8. Maya people selling produce at market place, Fair Use for education, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian

Suggested References
by Michael D. Coe, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University
1. The Art of the Maya Scribe, 1st ed. 1998, the life, status and function of a Maya scribe
2. Breaking the Maya Code, 3rd ed. 2012, how experts decoded the Maya hieroglyphs
3. The Maya, 9th ed. 2015, updates on the most recent archaeological and epigraphic research

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