The Mayan empire dominated the land spanning from modern southern Mexico all the way to northern Central America. They lived in different places such as Guatemala and the Yucatan in Mexico, depending on the time period. The Mayan empire had two periods: the Classic period and the Late period. The Classic period spanned from the fourth to the tenth centuries. The Late period lasted until the Spanish conquest. In the Classic period, the Mayas resided in Guatemala, however they moved to the Yucatan at the beginning of the Late period (Burns et al., 2017). Many scientists are unsure as to the exact reason why this migration occurred, however the reason is thought to be corn. Corn was sacred to the Mayas; they believed that the gods “began to talk about the creation and the making of our first mother and father; of yellow corn and of white corn they made their flesh; of cornmeal dough they made the arms and legs of man” (Burns et al., 2017). Everything that the Mayas did revolved around corn; their whole life revolved around the planting and harvesting of corn. Starting in the year 810 CE, the Mayas started abandoning their cities. There was a large drought known to have occured during that time, so it is not surprising that skeletal remains have been found at many of those cities So, it is believed that when they had exhausted the soil in Guatemala, they migrated to the Yucatan for farming reasons (Burns et al., 2017).
Because of the Maya’s exemplary corn production, they had a great amount of free time to spend on leisurely things. They spent their time working on science, allowing them to be the one of the most sophisticated indigenous peoples in the New World (Burns et al., 2017). The Mayas, along with the Incas, used the pictograph, which later developed into the ideograph and finally into a type of writing (Burns et al., 2017). The Mayas also were very advanced in mathematics. They were the first people to invent the zero, and used their mathematics in things such as astronomy (Burns et al., 2017).
Using their extensive knowledge in mathematics, the Mayas were able to predict things such as eclipses, and used the sun for navigation purposes. Their navigation was based on celestial patterns. For example, they would use the rising and setting of the sun in the morning and evenings, ocean wave patterns during the day, and the directions of starts and planets would determine their nighttime navigation (Peck, 2001). The Mayas were so advanced in their astronomical science that they actually preceded European celestial navigation by many centuries. It was their approach to this information that allowed the Mayas to utilize the planets far earlier than the Europeans (Peck, 2001). Another interesting fact is that the Mayas did not recognize the North Star as significant. This is one reason why today’s historians do not fully understand the Mayan astronomy; they attempt to “force” western ways onto Mayan ways and do not consider the many differences between them (Peck, 2001). The Mayas were an extraordinary group of people because their ability to predict events based on their calendar was even more accurate than the calendars used in Europe (Burns et al., 2017). Their accuracy baffles scientists today, making the Mayas known as one of the most advanced indigenous groups in Latin America.
Astronomy, along with corn, played a major role in the Mayan religion. Not only did they worship corn, but they used the planets and stars to plan the planting and harvesting of the corn (Peck, 2011). They also used sacrifices in religious ceremonies. They would sacrifice different types of animals, however in the Late period, human sacrifices would also be made (Alles et al., 2006). Blood was also used as an offering, coming from a multitude of body parts such as ears, tongues, arms, legs, and genital organs. The Mayas believed that since the forces of life in the universe gave them life, they should give them life in return (Alles et al., 2006). The ceremonial grounds that the Mayas congregated on were tall pyramids. This is where the Mayas performed their rituals. Today, the Mayan religion has not disappeared; it is mixed with the religion that the Spanish brought over during their conquest, Roman Catholicism (Alles et al., 2006).
The Mayas are interesting in the way that they had no central capital or authority. Often, the Mayas are compared to ancient Greeks because of their division into politically sovereign states. However, they still possessed unity in their ways of life (Burns et al., 2017).
Though the Mayan Empire is no longer around today, they still have created a lasting impact. Their discoveries and development in numerous fields has affected the way that they are utilized today. For example, the Maya’s use of mathematics is still used today. They were the ones who invented the zero, so if it were not for them, the zero may have not been invented until years later. The Mayan mathematics were “one of the most fertile inventions of humanity, comparable in a way with the invention of the alphabet” (Morales-Aldana et al., 1998). Not only was the zero important, but their ways in teaching mathematics were notable. The teaching was based on using concrete, semi-concrete, and representational materials (Morales-Aldana et al., 1998). Their way of counting was based on corn; children would count down to up, just like how corn grows down to up. The numbers 4, 5, and 20 were important back then, and are still relevant today. For example, the number 5 was known as a “hand,” which some societies today still use in markets to buy things such as a “hand” of avocadoes or bananas (Morales-Aldana et al., 2017). The Mayas used materials such as beans, rocks, and sticks to perform calculations, which can even be used today in elementary schools to help children understand mathematics. These ways of counting and calculating could be the reason that the Mayas excelled in things like mathematics and astronomy.
They Mayas have also impacted today with their engineering. In Palenque, a Mayan city-state in Mexico, a hydraulic system was discovered to be created by the Mayas. They Mayas created a pressurized water system, “using engineering without knowing the tools around it” (Koroluk, 2010). This really exemplifies the Maya’s advancements. They created a system to control water without even learning how to do it. These systems were very sophisticated, and would be able to hold 18,000 gallons of rainwater to control flooding (Koroluk, 2010). But it is not really known if that was the primary purpose of the aqueduct; it may have been used as a wastewater system. If this is the case, the Mayas were a lot more sophisticated than once thought, and have been using advanced technology for years (Koroluk, 2010).
The Mayas have further had an impact on today’s society with their use of chocolate. In ancient Mayan civilizations, cocoa was considered of divine origin and a “gift from the gods” (Lippi, 2009). They symbolized life and fertility, having nourishing, fortifying, and aphrodisiac powers. In the Classic period, the Mayans used cocoa in a drink, grinding the cocoa beans and mixing them with certain spices in order to make a health-promoting drink. Mexican emperor Montezuma drank cocoa, using it as an aphrodisiac to please his numerous wives. Conquistador Hernando Cortes even drank the elixir, writing back to the Spanish crown saying “a cup of it gives every soldier the strength to march for an entire day” (Lippi, 2009). Cocoa was treasured by the explorers, who brought it back to Spain and introduced it to the rest of Europe. The church then stated that “anyone fasting who drank chocolate was considered to have broken his religious fast” once they discovered its euphoric effects (Lippi, 2009). As a result, chocolate was only used in Europe for medical reasons, used to treat problems such as angina, constipation, and dysentery. Today, chocolate is known to have some adverse dietary effects, however it still does possess some health promoting properties. Nonetheless, people use chocolate for a variety of reasons, whether they be simply for pleasure or for its therapeutic powers. Either way, chocolate goes back to the Mayas and would not be popular worldwide if not for them.
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