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Mexicolore contributors James O’Kon and Elizabeth Graham

RESOURCE: Just how advanced WERE the Maya?

Just as some of today’s pictures of the ancient Maya can focus too heavily on the negative (take Apocalypto!), others may be tempted to overcompensate, and make super-enthusiastic claims for their greatness. Much depends on who you ask. We invited Jim O’Kon (‘J O’K’), an author, lecturer, and award-winning structural engineer with a passion for the Maya to come up with a list of his ‘outstanding technological achievements’ of the ancient Maya; we also invited Liz Graham (‘E G’), Professor of Mesoamerican Archaeology at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, London, to offer her own view. We hope you’ll agree that comparing the two versions is both thought-provoking and illuminating... Our warm thanks to both! (All pictures kindly supplied by Jim O’Kon, except where indicated).

Time line by Jim O’Kon
Time line by Jim O’Kon (Click on image to enlarge)

1. Maya civilisation
J O’K: The Maya had the longest running civilization in history. Their historic term extended from 2500 BC until 900 AD, a period of 3500 years. The Maya started along with the Sumerian culture and continued until its collapse during the time of Alfred the great. When comparing Maya timelines with European timelines, the lines stay parallel and do not cross, because European cultures did not know that the Maya existed and the Maya did not have knowledge of Europeans. The Maya were the phantoms of history.

E G: The large Maya cities that tourists travel to see in Mexico and Guatemala and Belize flourished from about 200 B.C. to 900 A.D, but Maya civilization goes back much earlier to at least 1000 B.C. Smaller but numerous cities covered the landscape at the time the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. The Maya never formed a unified empire, however. Their great cities were the centres of city-states, which formed alliances as well as fought with one another.

Maya observatory, Maya glyphs
Maya observatory, Maya glyphs (Click on image to enlarge)

2. Maya sciences
J O’K: The Maya developed pure sciences that were advanced beyond the accomplishments of the western world for thousands of years. Their feats in advanced astronomy, mathematics and writing were unsurpassed for millennia. Their calculations of the solar year were more accurate than modern astronomy. In mathematics they invented the number zero, 1700 years before Europeans received the concept from Arabian scholars, and they developed one of the world’s three original written languages.

E G: The Maya made a number of advances in astronomy well beyond the accomplishments of the western world. They followed the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars, and developed an accurate calendar very similar to our years, months, and weeks. They practiced mathematics (a base-20 system), and independently invented the concept of zero. They developed a system of writing, and kept written records in books.

Artists’ impressions of ancient Maya cities
Artists’ impressions of ancient Maya cities (Click on image to enlarge)

3. Great Maya cities
J O’K: The Maya stayed strong politically; one reason is that they never had an empire; their politics consisted of 50 independent city states, the city-states traded goods and ideas with each either. Each city-state had a capital city that was unrivaled in its grandeur, size and elegant buildings. Their great cities were resplendent in high-rise temples, palaces and towering pyramids. Each was decorated in other worldly art and architecture.

Maya agricultural techniques; Maya cotton (centre)
Maya agricultural techniques; Maya cotton (centre) (Click on image to enlarge)

4. Maya agriculture
J O’K: The Maya were the greatest agronomists in the world. The Maya invented foods and fibers that now feed 60% of the world’s population, and the fibers clothe 90% of the people. Some of the food and fiber invented by Maya agronomy include: corn, cotton, chocolate, beans, squash, turkeys, cassava, tobacco, chilies, pineapple, peanuts and sweet potatoes.

E G: Many plants were grown in the Maya area, and some originated in the lowland wet forests. The best known are tobacco, cacao (chocolate), vanilla, cotton, chile, corn, beans, squash, cassava, tomatoes, and pineapple. It is hard to say which were more important. Chile and tobacco travelled the most quickly around the world. Cotton was the product that was probably the most important commercially when the Europeans arrived, because cotton from the Americas was, and is, very high quality.
There were no large-bodied grazing mammals in Mesoamerica (like the cow, sheep or goat in Europe). Therefore plant food was more important in the Maya diet, but they did have turkeys, ducks, and two kinds of deer. Fish and shellfish, as well as turtles, from rivers and the sea were also an important part of the diet.

Maya jadeite chisels (top), scribes (centre) and obsidian knives (bottom)
Maya jadeite chisels (top), scribes (centre) and obsidian knives (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

5. Maya technology and tool-making
J O’K: The Maya excelled in developing technologies that were unsurpassed for more than a thousand years. The archaeologists refer to the Maya as a “stone age culture” because the Maya did not have metal tools. This was because metal ore was not located within their domain. Without metal ore the Maya could not make metal tools or weapons. However, Maya creativity developed tools made out of jadeite and obsidian. Jadeite is harder than iron and obsidian makes the sharpest blades in the world.

E G: Other civilisations in the Americas (West Mexico, South America) developed metal technologies long before the Maya, although the Maya were using and making metal alloys by the time the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. However they did not use metals for weapons or tools; they used it mainly for adornments or as money - copper axes, for example, served as ‘money’ in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The Maya used chert (flint) and obsidian as tools and weapons. Chert is found in many places in the Maya area but obsidian had to be imported from the volcanic areas of Mexico and Guatemala, where obsidian occurs. Obsidian, in fact, is sharper than steel, but it doesn’t keep its edge, and new flakes or blades need to be struck frequently. Not having metals does not seem to have hindered the building of cities, and Maya architecture and material culture (sculpture, art, tools, crafts) are as varied and beautiful as anywhere in the world.

Centre: the arch at the heart of Maya high-rise construction...
Centre: the arch at the heart of Maya high-rise construction... (Click on image to enlarge)

6. Cement, grand high-rise structures, and water resource technology
J O’K: The Maya invented a method for fabricating cement in 300 BC. The British invented modern Portland cement and patented the process in 1851. This was a head start of 2100 years that the Maya had on Europeans and their construction. Cement was used to make cast-in-place concrete, stucco, and mortar for the grand cities of the Maya. These durable structures have lasted for 2000 years while resisting the perils of time and the prying vines of the jungle.
Maya engineers and technicians developed advanced structural mechanisms for constructing their grand high-rise cities and long span structures. A mechanism known as the “Maya arch” was the basic structural element used by Maya engineers to build their buildings.
Maya engineers used their technology to design advanced water collection, storage and filtering systems to provide a year round supply of water for the cities and agriculture.

E G: It is not well known, but the Maya did invent a form of cement, some of which, like Roman cement, could withstand being under water (for example, the building of docks or bridges). Most Maya monumental or palatial buildings were built of limestone blocks covered with plaster or stucco, which was then painted or decorated with pictures of rulers, gods, or glyphs stating rulers’ or dynasties’ emblems. The Maya used an arch called a ‘corbelled’ arch that is also found in the Mediterranean and in the Islamic world. It functions well, but permits the building of only rather narrow rooms.
Although the Maya lived in a tropical climate, rainfall could be unpredictable, and reservoirs were common in cities, as well as various water control measures such as dams.

Sacbe construction details; arch at the end of the sacbé, Kabah, Yucatán, photo by Hermann Luyken (Wikipedia)
Sacbe construction details; arch at the end of the sacbé, Kabah, Yucatán, photo by Hermann Luyken (Wikipedia) (Click on image to enlarge)

7. Maya highway system
J O’K: The long rainy season, the mud tracks, and rugged jungle terrain made travel between the cities-states an impossibility. Maya engineers developed a paved elevated highway structure that stretched between city-states. They featured a paved surface, 30 feet wide, elevated above the jungle floor by 3 feet. These elevated structures, called sacbeob, enabled the Maya to travel in rain, day or night, on a year around basis. The transportation system of the Maya was one of the reasons for its great commercial success.

E G: More and more roads (‘sacbe’ singular and ‘sacbeob’ plural) within and between Maya sites are now being discovered*, although archaeologists are still not sure how they were used. Most people travelled via footpaths, as they do today, but roads may have permitted better transport of goods in the rainy season, and were probably also used for processions and ceremonies.

Jim O’Kon’s reconstructions of the lost suspension bridge
Jim O’Kon’s reconstructions of the lost suspension bridge (Click on image to enlarge)

8. The longest bridge in the ancient world
J O’K: At the ancient Maya city of Yaxchilan Maya engineers constructed the longest bridge in the ancient world. The bridge extended across the broad Usumacinta River which surrounded the city in a giant omega. The site of the city was perfect for defense, but the raging river during the six month rainy season made it impossible to cross. To solve the problem of being isolated for six months Maya engineers constructed a long suspension bridge across the river. The bridge had three spans, the longest was 63 meters.The bridge structure was suspended by cables made from henequen rope and transported the city’s citizens across river.

Maya use of the tumpline - mural and artist’s reconstruction
Maya use of the tumpline - mural and artist’s reconstruction (Click on image to enlarge)

9: Maya transport systems
J O’K: The Americas did not possess native beasts of burden and all transportation had to be man powered. Without horses or mules, the use of the wheel was a disadvantage, because it took as many men to pull a wheeled court as it did to carry the load in a cart. The solution for the Maya was to use a backpack type device called a tumpline or a metapal. This device was connected to the forehead by a leather strap and was able to transport heavy loads. The leather strap caused the loads to be supported by the spinal column rather than muscles. The transport and construction of Maya buildings was implemented by the efficiency of the tumpline.

E G: Trade and exchange were key to wealth and prosperity. The Maya developed long-distance maritime trade networks that stretched from Honduras to Veracruz on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, and footpaths and roads along which goods were transported criss-crossed the Yucatan peninsula. There were no beasts of burden, and the Maya did not use the wheel, so men carried loads either using a backrack (a kind of backpack) or tumpline, which is a cloth or mat device that is like a backpack but the supporting strap goes around the person’s forehead rather than his shoulders.

Top left is a Maya rubber ball made by vulcanization
Top left is a Maya rubber ball made by vulcanization (Click on image to enlarge)

10. The Maya ballgame and the invention of the bouncing rubber ball
J O’K: The Maya played a ballgame which was connected to their culture.The Maya ballgame was the first organized sport in history. The game was played with a lively bouncing rubber ball. Maya technicians invented the “bounce” by developing the vulcanization process 3000 years before Charles Goodyear invented the process for automobile tires in 1839. The Maya mixed natural rubber with juice from the morning vine. When the Spanish first saw the bouncing ball they thought it was bewitched.

E G: The Maya played a ball game with a rubber ball, and in fact rubber was invented in the New World. The game varied but was a bit like a combination of volleyball (keeping the ball in play over a centre line) and squash (being allowed to hit the ball against a hard surface).

Top left: the abandoned city of Tikal
Top left: the abandoned city of Tikal (Click on image to enlarge)

11. The collapse of Maya civilization, and surviving Maya culture today
J O’K: From 750 AD to 910 AD, the worst drought in 7000 years struck Maya civilization. The drought lasted 150 years and caused the abandonment of Maya cities and the death of 97% of the population. Their civilization ceased but Maya culture with its language, religion, and writing skills lived on. The culture survived the conquest, the cruelty of Spanish colonial rule and virtual slavery after independence. These hardships did not deter the Maya from preserving their heritage and currently seven million Maya live within the boundaries of the classic Maya domain in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.

E G: The Maya ‘collapse’ refers to a time between about A.D. 800 and 1000 when many of the large cities in the interior of the Yucatan peninsula - places such as Tikal and Palenque -were abandoned. The ruling dynasties that were in charge for so long seem utterly to have lost power. The situation was very like what happened in English history, when dynasties would be in power for a while but would then decline, either impoverished or defeated by another dynasty. It is interesting that trade and exchange, especially maritime trade, grew at this time, as if merchants were able to expand their activities and involve more people in commercial enterprises. Cities and towns in Belize, northern Yucatan, and along the Gulf Coast weathered the collapse and were flourishing at the time the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s.
European diseases devastated the Maya area, but Maya people and culture survived. There are about 7 million Maya living today in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 09th 2014

*See an excellent photo of an ancient Maya road (sacbe) on Richard Seaman’s website...
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Mexicolore replies: Their names are given at the top, ha ha! Jim O’Kon and Elizabeth Graham.
Mexicolore replies: Many thanks for your support and kind words - always really appreciated.
Mexicolore replies: It is mentioned - see point 2 above. Sorry it’s not more pronounced, but this is after all just a super-broad-sweep look at the Maya.
Mexicolore replies: Sorry!!!!