General Studies IAncient HistoryHISTORY

Maya Civilization


According to a new study the Maya civilization may have had access to nearly 500 drought resistant edible plants.

About Maya Civilization:

  • The Maya civilization was a Mesoamerican civilization developed by the Maya peoples, and noted for its logo syllabic script—the most sophisticated and highly developed writing system in pre-Columbian Americas—as well as for its art, architecture, mathematics, calendar, and astronomical system.
  • The Maya civilization developed in the area that today comprises southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. It includes the northern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula and the highlands of the Sierra Madre, the Mexican state of Chiapas, southern Guatemala, El Salvador, and the southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain. “Maya” is a modern term used to refer collectively to the various peoples that inhabited this area.
  • They did not call themselves “Maya,” and did not have a sense of common identity or political unity.
  • Today, their descendants, known collectively as the Maya, number well over 6 million individuals, speak more than twenty-eight surviving Mayan languages, and reside in nearly the same area as their ancestors.
  • The Archaic period, before 2000 BC, saw the first developments in agriculture and the earliest villages.
  • The Preclassic period (c. 2000 BC to 250 AD) saw the establishment of the first complex societies in the Maya region, and the cultivation of the staple crops of the Maya diet, including maize, beans, squashes, and chili peppers.
  • The first Maya cities developed around 750 BC, and by 500 BC these cities possessed monumental architecture, including large temples with elaborate stucco façades. Hieroglyphic writing was being used in the Maya region by the 3rd century BC.
  • In the Late Preclassic a number of large cities developed in the Petén Basin, and the city of Kaminaljuyu rose to prominence in the Guatemalan Highlands.
  • Beginning around 250 AD, the Classic period is largely defined as when the Maya were raising sculpted monuments with Long Count dates. This period saw the Maya civilization develop many city-states linked by a complex trade network.
  • Maya cities tended to expand organically. The city centers comprised ceremonial and administrative complexes, surrounded by an irregularly shaped sprawl of residential districts. Different parts of a city were often linked by causeways. Architecturally, city buildings included palaces, pyramid-temples, ceremonial ballcourts, and structures specially aligned for astronomical observation.
  • The Maya elite were literate, and developed a complex system of hieroglyphic writing. Theirs was the most advanced writing system in the pre-Columbian Americas.
  • The Maya recorded their history and ritual knowledge in screenfold books, of which only three uncontested examples remain, the rest having been destroyed by the Spanish.
  • In addition, a great many examples of Maya texts can be found on stelae and ceramics.
  • The Maya developed a highly complex series of interlocking ritual calendars, and employed mathematics that included one of the earliest known instances of the explicit zero in human history. As a part of their religion, the Maya practiced human sacrifice.

Features Maya Civilization:

  • Known for its monumental architecture and an advanced understanding of mathematics and astronomy.
  • They also developed a system of hieroglyphic writing and highly sophisticated calendrical and astronomical systems.
  • They practised mainly slash-and-burn agriculture, but they used advanced techniques of irrigation and terracing.
  • As early as 1500 BCE the Maya had settled in villages and had developed an agriculture based on the cultivation of corn (maize), beans, and squash; by 600 CE cassava (sweet manioc) was also grown.
  • They built great stone buildings and pyramid temples and worked with gold and copper.
  • They began to build ceremonial centres, and by 200 CE these had developed into cities containing temples, pyramids, palaces, courts for playing ball, and plazas.


  • The 800 and 950 AD period is called the collapse of the Classic Maya civilisations.
  • Reasons for collapse:
    • Past evidence: The Maya people faced starvation because of their dependence on drought-sensitive crops such as corn, beans and squash.
    • Recent study:  It examined the drought tolerance of the 497 indigenous food plants of the Maya lowlands under three different scenarios: Short-duration, medium-duration and extreme drought.
      • These plants have also been identified through paleoethnobotany, a branch of science dealing with behavioural and ecological interactions between past humans and plants.

Researchers found that Under extreme drought conditions, stems such as hearts of palm and cactus pads would remain available for multiple year’s.

  • The Maya people could have turned to chaya and cassava to meet their carbohydrates and protein needs
    • Chaya, a shrub whose leaves are high in protein, iron, potassium and calcium, could have also been available.

Other Ancient Civilizations

  • The Incan Civilization– Ecuador, Peru, and Chile
  • The Aztec Civilization- Mexico
  • The Roman Civilization- Rome
  • The Persian Civilization– Iran
  • The Ancient Greek Civilization– Greece
  • The Chinese Civilization– China
  • The Ancient Egyptian Civilization– Egypt
  • The Indus Valley Civilization– Northeast Afghanistan to Pakistan and northwest India
  • The Mesopotamian Civilization– Iraq, Syria, and Turkey

Source: Down To Earth

Also Read: Ancient History

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