Empires of the Maya

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G r e a t e m p i r e s o f t h e pa s t

Empires of the Maya

G r e a t e m p i r e s o f t h e pa s t Empire of Alexander the Great Empire of Ancient Egypt Empire of Ancient Greece Empire of Ancient Rome Empire of the Aztecs Empire of the Incas Empire of the Islamic World Empire of the Mongols Empires of Ancient Mesopotamia Empires of Ancient Persia Empires of Medieval West Africa Empires of the Maya

G r e a t e m p i r e s o f t h e pa s t

Empires of the Maya

Jill Rubalcaba angela KelleR, HistoRical consultant

Great Empires of the Past: Empires of the Maya Copyright © 2010 Jill Rubalcaba All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher. For information, contact: Chelsea House An imprint of Infobase Publishing 132 West 31st Street New York NY 10001 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Rubalcaba, Jill. Empires of the Maya / Jill Rubalcaba. p. cm.—(Great empires of the past) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-60413-155-0 (hardcover) ISBN 978-1-43812-952-5 (e-book) 1. Mayas—History—Juvenile literature. 2. Mayas—Social life and customs—Juvenile literature. I. Title. II. Series. F1435.R83 2009 972.8101—dc22


Chelsea House books are available at special discounts when purchased in bulk quantities for businesses, associations, institutions, or sales promotions. Please call our Special Sales Department in New York at (212) 967-8800 or (800) 322-8755. You can find Chelsea House on the World Wide Web at http://www.chelseahouse.com Produced by the Shoreline Publishing Group LLC Editorial Director: James Buckley Jr. Series Editor: Beth Adelman Text design by Annie O’Donnell Cover design by Alicia Post Composition by Mary Susan Ryan-Flynn Cover printed by Bang Printing, Brainerd, MN Book printed and bound by Bang Printing, Brainerd, MN Date printed: December 2009 Printed in the United States of America 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 This book is printed on acid-free paper. All links and Web addresses were checked and verified to be correct at the time of publication. Because of the dynamic nature of the Web, some addresses and links may have changed since publication and may no longer be valid.

CONTENTS Introduction PA RT I




The Preclassic Era: Dawn of the Maya



The Classic Era: Rise and Fall of the Superpowers



The Postclassic Era: Rise of the Yucatán





Maya Social Structure



Religion and Ritual



Everyday Life in the Maya World




Time Line






Further Resources


Picture Credits




About the Author



GEP-Maya FNL.indd 5

11/5/09 12:45:16 PM

IntroductIon VOLCANO PEAkS PIERCE THE BLANkET OF COOL MIST that hangs above the forest canopy. Ghostly howler monkeys scream, unseen, as if the ruined temples were part of a scene in an unearthly horror movie. For some, the sounds create the illusion that the lost city of Copán is haunted by tortured souls wailing deep within the stone pyramids. Only the occasional rustle of a tree branch reveals that the monkeys are the true source of the screams. They scramble across a platform where priests once addressed thousands of people. The platform is now buried in vines, and moss, and jungle growth. The remains of Copán, one of the richest centers of Maya civilization, lie deep in the tropical forest of modern Honduras. Copán became wealthy because of its rich soil and the Copán River’s annual flood. Each year, the river overflowed and the water left behind a new layer of rich, fertile soil. The huge quantity of precious jade found in the tombs of Copán’s kings is evidence of how wealthy they were.


The Maya were master pyramid builders, but their magnificent cities were buried by the jungle until the late 1800s and early 1900s. This is a pyramid in Chichén Itzá, a great Maya city of the Postclassic Era.

Maya GeoGraphy The land of the ancient Maya lies south of the Tropic of Cancer and north of the Equator in what is now called the Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, southern Mexico, and western Honduras and El Salvador. There are a number of different habitats within the Maya area, but for convenience, scholars divide it into three major geographic zones: the Pacific coastal plain in the south, the highlands in the middle, and the lowlands in the north.

E m p i r E s o f t h E m aya


The earliest Maya settlements rose alongside the areas that are now mangrove swamps near the Pacific coast. throughout this book, and all the books in the Great This food-rich environment Empires of the past series, there are Connections boxes. was ideal for supporting yearthey point out ideas, inventions, art, food, customs, and round living. There was sea life more from this empire that are still part of the world today. on the coast and rich farmland Nations and cultures in remote history can seem far away not far inland. The coastal from the present day, but these connections demonstrate plain became a prime location how our everyday lives have been shaped by the peoples for growing cacao, which is of the past. used to make chocolate. The Maya from the coastal plain traded cacao throughout the entire Maya area. Even today, large agricultural businesses dominate the plain. The main crops now are sugarcane, cotton, and cattle. The highlands are mountainous. This region is the most diverse of the three zones. The southern half of the highlands is volcanically active, and the rich, deep soils developed out of ancient lava flows and ash deposits from the nearby volcanoes. For thousands of years, large numbers of people chose to live here despite the dangers of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It was worth the risk because the volcanic ash made the soil excellent for growing plants. Fewer people lived in the mountains in the northern half of the highlands. Here the ancient Maya mined obsidian (volcanic glass), jade, and other semi-precious stones. The rainforest of the northern highlands sprawls down into lower elevations and tropical climates. The gentle hills of the southern lowlands, called the Petén region, are covered with forest and laced with rivers. The Petén gently blends into the dry bushland of the northern lowlands, or the Yucatán Peninsula, where water resources are limited and are found mostly below ground.

What Are Connections?

ClassifyinG Maya history Archaeologists divide pre-Columbian (the time before Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492 c.e.) Maya history into three major time periods: Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic. During the Preclassic Era, from about 1200 b.c.e. to 250 c.e., settled farming communities grew into complex societies. Many Maya kingdoms experienced rapid

Introduction growth in this era. They built monumental structures, established long-distance trade routes, and developed governing systems. In the later part of the Preclassic Era, some kingdoms were enjoying their peak while others had already faded away. The Classic Era was between about 250 and 900. From southeastern Mexico to upper Central America, this varied landscape supported millions of people in Classic times. During the height of Maya civilization in the eighth century, as many as 60 independent kingdoms dotted the Maya area, as well as hundreds of smaller towns and villages. Unlike the Aztec people, their neighbors to the north, the Maya never unified into a single empire. Instead, they built commerce centers that grew into city-states (cities that function as separate kingdoms or

In Their Own Words

Peeling Back the Jungle By the time the Spanish conquered Honduras in the 1520s, Copán had long been overgrown by rainforest. Several explorers visited it in the early 19th century and wrote about the barely visible ruins. In 1839, explorer and travel writer John Lloyd Stephens (1805–1852) paid a Maya guide to lead him to the site. In Stephens’s book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, he offers this riveting account of how the jungle was stripped away to rediscover the ruins. It is impossible to describe the interest with which I explored these ruins. The ground was entirely new; there were no guide-books or guides; the whole was virgin soil. We could not see 10 yards before us, and never knew what we should stumble upon next. At one time we stopped to cut away branches and vines which concealed the face of a

monument, and then to dig around and bring to light a fragment, a sculptured corner of which protruded from the earth. I leaned over with breathless anxiety while the Indians worked, and an eye, an ear, a foot, or a hand was disentombed. When the machete rang against the chiseled stone, I pushed the Indians away, and cleared out the loose earth with my hands. The beauty of the sculpture, the solemn stillness of the woods, disturbed only by the scrambling of monkeys and chattering of parrots, the desolation of the city, and the mystery that hung over it, all created an interest higher, if possible, than I had ever felt among the ruins of the Old World. (Source: Stephens, John Lloyd. Incidents of Travel. Available online. “Lost King of the Maya.” URL: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/ nova/maya/travel.html. Accessed September 23, 2008.)

E m p i r e s o f t h e m aya

Palenque was one of the great cities of the Classic Era. These ruins were once the temple complex.

nations) ruled by kings. These kingdoms formed alliances with one another one day, only to turn into sworn enemies the next. Robert J. Sharer wrote in The Ancient Maya that the capitals of independent kingdoms were “interconnected by commerce, alliances, and rivalries that often led t...

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