Though Mayan civilization lasted for more than two millennia, starting around 2000 BC, it reached its technological and cultural zenith from 300 AD to 900 AD. Like the ancient Egyptians and Greeks before them, Mayans built vast cities, developed complex societies, and worshipped multiple gods. They were among the first cultures in the Americas to do so, and their legacies live on still today. When you join Discovery Tours’ Mexico’s Mayan & Aztec Illumination, you’ll stroll in the footsteps of the brilliant Mayan minds who laid the foundation for civilization in the Americas.
There was no one ruler in the Mayan world. Rather, the empire was divided into many fiefdoms, each one ruled by a king. The king had a straight line of communication to the maize god and his enthronement was celebrated with a lavish affair. The royal seat was always passed down the paternal line, from father to eldest son. Their society is known to have comprised a noble, middle, and commoner class.
What the royals oversaw was truly monumental for its day. Mayan urban centers have been called one of the great preindustrial civilizations of the world. Of course, the construction of massive temples and other sites was a gargantuan task by itself— quarrying, carving, lifting, and assembling massive stones without the advantage of modern-day machinery. But there was another new concept that had to be invented and developed for it all to come together—namely, project management. Specialization of craft, a centrally controlled organization, and having the political clout to call together a massive work force were as important as the rocks used to build the cities.
As cities grew, the need for communication increased. The Mayan writing system was an extraordinary achievement whose roots took hold somewhere between 300 and 200 BC. Of the dozen or so scripts that developed in Mesoamerica, theirs was the most sophisticated and advanced. It is believed that no more than 500 symbols were in use at any given time; these symbols represented entire words (a jaguar head represented the jaguar, for instance) or represented syllables that, when combined, expressed a word.
Numbers, too, found expression in the Mayan world. Using a “base 20” system (compared to our “base 10”), Mayan numerals were similar to Roman numerals: That is, a dot (“•”) represented “1” and a bar (“—“) represented “5.” Dots were written on top of the bar. So “12,” for instance, was written as two dots side-by-side on top of two bars. The symbology of higher numbers increased in complexity.
This number system played a crucial role in the Mayan calendar. One of the era’s most sophisticated, it recorded lunar and solar cycles, eclipses, and even the movement of planets—all with startling accuracy. Rather than counting 30 (or 31) days in each month, the Mayans counted 20 days (or k’in) in each winal. A year, then (or tun), consisted of 18 winal, which totaled 360 days, followed by a 5-day period known as the wayeb.
Marvel at the ingenuity of the Mayans firsthand during our Mexico’s Mayan & Aztec Illumination small group adventure.