The Maya: History, civilization & gods

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The Maya civilization stretched throughout Central America and reached its peak during the first millennium A.D.
The term "Maya" refers to both a modern-day group of people who live across the globe and their ancestors who built an ancient civilization that stretched across much of Central America. The Maya civilization reached its peak during the first millennium A.D., and Maya ruins can still be seen across Central America.

The Maya civilization was never unified; instead it consisted of numerous small states, each centered on a city ruled by a king. Sometimes, a stronger Maya state would dominate a weaker state and demand tribute and labor from it.

Mayan origins

Nomadic hunter-gatherers had a presence in Central America for thousands of years. However, permanent village really took off when these people began cultivating maize in what archaeologists call the Preclassic period (1800 B.C. to A.D. 250). This lead to the creation of early Maya cities.

"Effective farming, as expressed by densely inhabited villages, was an innovation of the Preclassic period," wrote Michael Coe, the late emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale University, in his book "The Maya" (Thames and Hudson, 2015).

According to Coe, farming became more effective during this period, likely because of the breeding of more productive forms of maize, and perhaps more importantly, the introduction of the "nixtamal" process. In this process, maize was soaked in lime, or something similar, and cooked, which "enormously increased the nutritional value of corn," Coe wrote. Maize complemented squash, bean, chili pepper and manioc (or cassava), which were already being used by the Maya, researchers reported in 2014 in the Journal of Archaeological Science .

During this time, the Maya were likely influenced by the Olmecs, a civilization to the west of them in the modern-day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco. The Olmec people may have initially devised the long-count calendar that the Maya would become famous for, Coe wrote. However, the discovery of a ceremonial site dated to 1000 B.C. at Ceibal, an…
Owen Jarus
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