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Although the Maya are often grouped with later Mesoamerican empires, the Aztec and the Inca, they were actually contemporary with Rome, Han, and Gupta and develop some of the same characteristics of these early empires.

Mayan Civilization: In Search of More Slaves

From about 300 B.C.E. to about 800 C.E., Mayan civilization dominated present-day southern Mexico and parts of Central America. The Mayan civilization was similar to many other civilizations at that time in that it was a collection of city-states; however, all the city-states were ruled by the same king. Interestingly, like the Egyptians, the Maya were pyramid-builders, and also wrote using hieroglyphics. The golden age of the Mayan Civilization was from about 500 to about 850 C.E. During that time, the Maya produced many great works of scholarship and developed a complexcalendar system, but we know the most about its architecture and city planning because many remains have been discovered. No question, the Maya built tremendous cities—Tikal, the most important Mayan political center, may have been populated by as many as 100,000 people.

The Maya divided their cosmos into three parts: the heavens above, the humans in the middle, and the underworld below. The Maya believed that the gods created humans out of maize (one of the main Mayan dietary staples) and water. They also believed that the gods maintained agricultural cycles in exchange for honors, sacrifices, and bloodletting rituals.

Mayan warfare was somewhat unique in that it was imbued with a tremendous amount of religious significance. Days of religious ritual would precede a battle, and the King and nobility would actively participate in combat. One unique characteristic of Mayan warfare was that it was generally conducted not to gain territory, but to acquire slaves, who were used in large-scale building projects and in agricultural production. The Maya had no large animals, as horses and oxen would not arrive until much later with the Europeans, so humans were their primary source of labor.

Similar to most agricultural societies, the majority of the people were peasants or slaves. Kings, priests, and hereditary nobility were at the top of the social pyramid. Merchants also enjoyed a high status.

The Maya used advanced agricultural techniques, such as the ridged field system, to make the most of the rainfall and swamp conditions of the region. Cotton and maize were widely cultivated; the Maya are known for their elaborate cotton textiles. Many well-preserved ruins of this civilization remain today, including the tiered temple at Chichen Itza, which is similar in design to the Egyptian pyramids and Mesopotamian ziggurats, and several ball courts, which were used for a ritual sport throughout ancient Mesoamerica. Significantly, the Mayan calendar, based on a number system that included zero, was among the most accurate for its time. The Mayan calendar runs only through 2012, giving rise to all sorts of wild end-of-the-world predictions, but if you’re reading this book in 2013, it probably means the calendar only stopped because the Mayans got tired of counting days.

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