The Mayan Civilization  by Karin Suter, Sabrina Buell



            The ancient Mayan civilization was one of the most fascinating and influential cultures in our world’s history.  Factors that make it so interesting are the culture’s curious sophistication and its sudden demise.  Lying in the tropical forest of Central America, Mayan cities were vast creations encompassing a complex society far ahead of its time.  From 300 to 800 of the Christian Era these cities flourished in a state of extensive scientific and artistic enlightenment.  Despite all their progress, the Mayans never got past the stone age.  Mayans can probably be credited with the first manufacture of rubber and being the first group to cultivate cacao, papaya, and the aguacate or avocado pear.  They were in possession of a complicated number and calendar system but never developed a phonetic alphabet or discovered the wheel. 

Historical records suggest that after centuries of glory the Mayan people fled their cities for no apparent reason and left their world to fall to ruin.  By the time the Spaniards discovered these cities hundreds of years later, all that left were the remnants of this great civilization.  Most of what we know about the Mayan Empire has been discovered in archeological excavations and interpretations of hieroglyphics.  From these we have at least a superficial knowledge of this society of the past.  In this section of our paper, we will present you with a brief history of the Mayan past and then focus on the modern Maya.

            The Mayan region was by no means homogenous in culture or in the distribution of natural resources.  While historical data suggests that the ancestral Mayan stock started in a particular highland region of Central America, consequent dispersal led to the formation of many differentiated groups in different areas.  These groups often interacted with each other through trade because of the need for resources.  Various groups often followed the same system of agriculture and worshiped the same tribal gods.  However, each tribe still had its own specific culture and style.  The most important region of the Mayan Empire and the area of our interest where the famous civilization reached its maximum height is located in the tropical forest-clad lowlands.  Tikal is only one of the many great cities in this area that produced the most intricate architecture and abundant hieroglyphics.

            It is very interesting that the cultural peak of the empire was reached in an area covered with dense forest which man had to fight with nothing but stone tools and fire.  The Maya in this lowland area were active traders and farmers of beans and maize and succeeded to clear the forest through the practice of cutting and burning for planting.  Other sustenance stemmed from trading cacao, jade, and other specialties.  The principle medium of currency was the cacao bean.  This was ideal because when the value of the cacao dropped due to overproduction, the Mayans simply took more beans out of circulation for chocolate production.  The Mayan city-states thrived as hubs of commerce and the people were able to establish themselves in this unfriendly natural environment.

            Mayan art and scientific realizations have made a lasting impression on modern mankind.  Achievements in art can be witnessed in sculptures, the vestiges of Mayan paintings, and the beauty of their pottery, stone, and jade preserved in altars and historical monuments.  Much of Mayan art is distinctly different from European art and is easily recognizable.  The architecture of terraced pyramids and the detailed planning of their cities such as Tikal also give notice to the Maya’s great accomplishments.  The Mayans were special in that they used engineering skill in their building.  While other indigenous groups built by setting one stone on top of the other, the Mayans took into consideration factors such as stress and strain.

            Scientifically, the Mayans were more progressive than any other civilization in this time period and advanced far beyond their own personal needs.  The calendar system the Mayans invented allowed them to plot time for the next 400 million years and predict occurrences such as the movements of the planets and the eclipses of the sun and the moon to the nearest second.  The Mayans calculated the days in the year to add up to 365.2420 days compared to our actual value of 365.2422.  Their number system allowed them to make sums up into the millions and comprehend the concept of zero ahead of any other culture.

            Considering that the Mayan Empire was stuck in the stone age, the building of pyramids and temples must have taken teamwork and an abundance of patience.  With the average Mayan lifetime being only thirty years, close cooperation between astronomers and generations must have also existed to achieve such accurate measurements and observations.  Various religious ceremonies and dances probably also helped to build stable communities. 

The last three centuries of this empire’s existence consisted of an increase in the abundance and elaborate detail of art and building in these communities.  This all ended very suddenly and without any obvious explanation.  One by one, life in the cities ceased as no more monuments were erected and no more temples were built.  In many cases, work was actually stopped before completion which suggests the deed of a sudden catastrophe.  Several speculations have been made as to what caused the collapse of the Mayan civilization but discrepancies have been found in each hypothesis.  Certain people have tried to blame disease but epidemics such as malaria and yellow fever were only introduced with the Spanish.  Others criticize the Mayan agriculture procedure of cutting and burning the forest and suggest a lack of food as the reason for the culture’s end.  Good soil fertility found at one of the first cities to stop functioning helps to refute this explanation.

            The theory that makes the most sense to historian, J. Eric S. Thompson, is that the cities were not actually abandoned with the end of cultural activities.  Excavation has shown that burials and sacrifices were still made in cities even after building had stopped.  Most likely a series of peasant revolts against the upper class of priests and nobles was the cause of the empire’s demise.  As the demand for labor in construction and food production grew at the peak of the civilization, the underclass probably rebelled and drove out or killed the ruling group.  This would explain the abrupt cessation of art and monument erection, along with the continuation of religious ceremonies.  The buildings presumably slowly began to deteriorate with the peasants half-heartedly tried to keep their cities in shape and failing.



            The modern day Maya still live within the boundaries of their old empire in Central America.  The region that makes up this area now consists of the countries of Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and five states in Mexico.  Guatemala is considered to be the birthplace of the Mayan civilization and consequently still has a very active Mayan population.  Tikal, often named the greatest Mayan city to ever exist, lies in the northern part of the country near the border of Mexico.  Of the approximately six million Mayas left today, the majority live in Guatemala (July 1995 estimate).

            Despite half a millennium of European dominance in this country, much of the native and historical Maya tradition has remained with its people.  When the Spaniards arrived in Guatemala 500 years ago many of the indigenous people were living out in recesses in mountainous areas.  This kept them isolated from the many missionaries eager to convert them to Catholicism and also allowed them to keep much of their own culture.  Despite the inevitable repression suffered due to the Spanish invasion, the Mayans’ secret to keeping their Indian culture alive seems to be their adaptability.  Although the culture could not help but be influenced by the invaders, it managed to keep many traditional foundations.

            A very important part of this culture is associated with the Mayan language.  Although the language of the ruling minority (sixty percent of Guatemalans are of Mayan descent) is Spanish and this is the official language, forty percent of the approximately eleven million Guatemalan people today have managed to stay with an Indian language.   This category consists of twenty-three Mayan dialects that the indigenous people use as their first language.  Many of the Maya today speak Spanish as a second language because of contact through trade and tourism, but remain native dialect speakers.

Again in religion, the Maya have fought to keep much of their own tradition and blended it with Spanish influences.  The result is that the Maya have their own brand of Christianity which consists of characteristics of old tribal religions and Roman Catholicism.  One can for example often see Catholic Maya performing ceremonies that have obvious characteristics of shaman rituals.  Chicken sacrifices and food offerings are witnessed in some churches.  In addition, some Mayans still worship old deities like the corn god for good luck with the harvest.

            Other things have also remained the same.  The majority (more than sixty percent) of the Mayan people work in agriculture.  The main crops are still beans and corn; the fields are still prepared and cleared by cutting and burning as was done by the ancient Mayans so long ago.  Much of the traditional dress and weaving is also still established custom.

However, only ten percent of the Guatemalan people live a totally Mayan lifestyle compared to the sixty percent that have Mayan ancestors. Only two percent of the Guatemalan population own as much as seventy percent of the land.  As has been true since the arrival of the Spanish, the people of Mayan descent lack basic human rights.  Despite the fact that Guatemala won its independence from Spain in 1821, the Spanish invasion still greatly affects the indigenous people.

            As of 1995, Guatemala had been involved in a thirty-some year civil war which had led to more than 100,000 civilian deaths, and 40,000 civilian disappearances for political reasons.  Activists supporting the indigenous people had repeatedly been threatened by death squads, military groups, and the police.  Excavations of mass graves are evidence of many of the atrocities that have gone on in the past decades and that the government so painstakingly aimed to hide.  Many Guatemalans fled to neighboring countries such as Mexico and did not begin returning until 1993.  Foreign military aid, also from the United States, was sent to the Guatemalan government during this period and in this way supported the horrible acts. 

            Much of the conflict dealt with indigenous rights and land distribution.  Many modern Maya live at or below the poverty level.  The most fertile land of the country is used for mass production of coffee and cotton which leaves the indigenous population with the land scraps.  The Maya are mainly used as a labor force to work on the main plantations and are treated equal to slaves.  During the civil war, Mayans had no political representation and civil guerilla groups were feared by the government and put down with force as were people suspected of being supporters.

            In 1993 after negotiations to resolve the conflict, the first Guatemalan refugees returned home. As late as October of 1995, the government had broken promises and shot down families in a returned refugee camp.  Peace Accords that ended the then thirty-six year civil war were signed in December of 1996.  Now that the internal conflict is over the country needs to be put back together again.  First of all, the many guerillas need to be reintegrated into a Guatemalan society of which they have never been a part.  A second problem lies therein that many of the criminals of the war have been acquitted of their crimes or are still not sure of being convicted.  However on a positive note, the guerillas now exist as a political party and the government is being pressured by the country itself and by international powers to carry out its commitments to the Mayan people.

            The Mayan people once had an ancient civilization comparable to that of the Greeks in the Old World.  While the empire crumbled and no longer exists, its children still inhabit Central America and have a heritage of great wealth.  In Guatemala, this heritage has been repressed and beaten down and is hopefully now getting a chance to stand on its own.









            The World Heritage Center has established 582 cultural and natural sites in the world.  This is the result of the encouragement they’ve given to many countries, such as Guatemala, to join the Convention and nominate sites within their territory for World Heritage status.  The nominating procedure can begin only if the country has joined the World Heritage Convention and formed States parties.  Then the World Heritage Center will verify that the nomination is complete.

             Within the Mayan Empire, UNESCO has named three sites to its World Heritage list.  The first, Antigua, is the capital of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala.  It was built in the sixteenth century on earthquake prone land high above sea level.  An earthquake in 1773 destroyed it, however many of its monumental structures remain today.  The second protects the Archaeological Park and Ruins of Quirigua which contains many Mayan carved stele and sculpted calanders from the second century.  A closer examination of the final site, Tikal National Park, reveals the cultural and natural themes UNESCO explores when assuming a site.  For this paper, it will be used as a case study of sorts to forther understand the intentions of the World Heratige group.

            Tikal National Park is in north-eastern Guatemala and is accessable by bus from the nearest town of Santa Elena.  Surrounded mostly by jungle and lush vegetation, it is an area that has not been inhabited since the tenth century AD.  For upto fourteen hundred years prior to this it was a ceremonial center containing multiple temples, palaces, and public squares.  Some dwellings have been uncovered around the surrounding countryside, but the main source of cultural interest is its ceremonial structures.  While it was declared a national park in 1955, it was not officially adopted onto the World Heratige list until 1979.             

            This process of adoption can be attributed to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  This is the main group behind the World Heritage list who signed an international treaty called the “Convention” in 1972 to protect world heritage sites.  Their stated mission is to “encourage the identification protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”.  There is an important difference made between sites of natural merit and sites of cultural merit.  Tikal National Park is listed as a site of both. 

            The types of things that will qualify as a cultural heritage site include monuments, groups of buildings, or sites.  Monuments cover architectural structures, sculpture, painting, archaeological objects, and things of general outstanding value from an historical, art historical or scientific perspective.  Groups of buildings that are homogenous in nature such as dwellings meet the criteria, as do man made sites of aesthetic or ethnologic interest.  If the site falls under one of these three categories it must then be determined that it represents a masterpiece of human creative genius, exhibits an important interchange of human values, or bears a unique testimony to a civilization which is living or has disappeared.

            Tikal National Park meets these criteria because it is a ruined city of the Maya Indians that reflects an important cultural development.  Its land chronicles their evolution from a community of hunters and gatherers to a sophisticated farming people.  Samples of cotton, tobacco, beans, pumpkins, peppers and a variety of fruits have been recovered on the land.  The park also evidences the intense devotion to religion, the arts and science they pursued until their demise in the ninth century.  There are an astounding 3,000 buildings, such as temples, homes, and religious monuments that date back to as early as the seventh century BC.  Of further cultural interest is the hieroglyphic writing found on many monuments and tombs. 

            In addition to all of this Tikal National Park qualifies as a site of natural heritage. For a site to fall under this category it must have outstanding examples of either the major geological stages of earth’s history or the development of ecological and biological processes in earth’s history.  If a site does not meet these criteria it can qualify if it is deemed a place of exceptional natural beauty or if it contains important natural habitats for biological conservation.  Tikal National Park meets all of these due to the sheer amount of land in the park.  In its nearly 60,000 acres one can find a sedimentary basin with deposits from the Mesozoic and Tertiary periods and what is considered to be the  most extensive wetland system in central America.  One can also find over 22,000 acres of rain forest that boast West Indian mahogony, cedar, and palm trees and over 2,000 plant species.  Present day Mayans exploit the strong woods from the forest for their furniture and use many of the flowers and leaves for medicinal purposes.  An impressive fifty four species of mammals live within the boundaries of the park as well as many reptiles and amphibians.

            Tikal National Park is contained by the Maya Biosphere Reserve which is a natural conservation project to protect and study land in the Mayan parts of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize.  The Reserve covers over one million acres in these countries and was adopted under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program in 1990.  This program is directed at coastal and island countries to help them help their lush environments.  In Guatemala, 10% of the country’s land is part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve which works specifically towards interests of an archaeological and bio/ecological nature.  Therefore its interests correspond well with the cultural and natural interests of the World Heritage sites. 

            UNESCO works with the Instituto de Antropologia e Historia to oversee the management of Tikal National Park.  There are a number of local and national groups who take interest in the park which has encouraged the development of smaller groups to mediate between these interests.  One such group is the Comite Coordinador de la Reserva Maya which coordinates between the administration of the reserve and other authorities.  The people who make up this comittee come from UNESCO, the Instituto, the Centro de Estudios Conservacionistas de la Universidad de San Carlos and the Guatemalan Army.  Although there is no specific requirement for the representation of native Mayan people on this comittee, it claims to have frequent and good relations with the local Mayan communities.

            Besides promoting conservation standards for the natural environment, the reserve strives to promote local participation in land use and management, regional planning and rural development.  The extent to which this integration is achieved is still uncertain, however one cannot dispute the activities and programs that the reserve organize to help the area and the Mayan locals.  They provide environmental education and professional training for locals to work at the site, they teach environmentally sound methods for agriculture and fishing.  This is done through demonstration projects and group seminars taught to and by locals.  However one should remember that the alternative methods for farming and fishing are probably more difficult and expensive and might not be received with as much enthusiasm as UNESCO and the reserve claim them to be.



·        Henderson, John S.  The World of the Ancient Maya.  Cornell University Press.  Ithaca, New York, 1981.

·        LaFranchi, Howard.  “The Wonderful Seclusion of a Mayan City.” The Christian Science Monitor.  Dec 7, 1995:12.

·        Murphy-Larronde, Suzanne.  “Special Report: South of the Border.”  The Denver Post.  Denver:  Feb 28, 1999, T-01.

·        Thompson, J. Eric S.  The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization.  University of Oklahoma Press.  Norman, Oklahoma, 1966.

·        Guatemalan Culture. February 9, 1999.

·        Guatemalan People. February 9, 1999.

·        Modern-day Maya. February 9, 1999.

·        Our Mayan Legacy. March 9, 1999.

·        The Mayan Empire. February 9, 1999.

·        World Heritage Centre. March 3, 1999.