Maya Culture


Explore the Maya ruins and culture from any angle: Remarkably grand and majestic, their stone Maya temples protrude above the large expanse of green canopy in the tropical Belize Rainforest. The architecture is astounding. Maya Temples like Caracol, Xunantunich, Cuello, Lamanai and Lubantun are just a few of many ancient ceremonial sites that represent the legacy of a highly advanced civilization that once flourished in Belize – The Maya.

The Mayas were direct descendants of nomadic people, who came from Asia to the Americas across the frozen Bering Strait following herds of migrating mammals. In time, these people settled in the Americas.

The region comprising the Mexican states of Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, the lowland areas of the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and western Honduras, became the epicenter of one of the most important chapters of the ancient Maya history. It is here where the Maya civilization flourished.

The Maya civilization emerged between 2500 BC and 1250 AD. They cultivated corn, squash and chili peppers while hunting for game meat. Their water came from the rivers and carefully designed reservoirs. Pottery and jewelry were artistically designed and traded. Huge ceremonial temples boasting impressive and skilled architecture and designs were erected. As populations grew, the Mayas adopted more intensive methods of cultivation – composting, terracing and irrigation. They filled in swamps and carried silt and muck from the bottomlands to fertilize enclosed gardens. Artificial ponds yielded fish, and corrals held deer and other game flushed from the forest.

During a span of six and half centuries from AD 250 to 900, or the Classic Period, the Mayas reached intellectual and artistic heights unmatched in the old world. The Classic Period was like a Golden Age. Large productive populations, a flourishing economy and widespread trade were typical of the Classic Period.

Over the centuries, as the Mayas learned to prosper in the rainforest, the settlements grew into city-states, and the culture became even more refined. The Mayas built elegant multi-room palaces and their temples rose hundreds of feet towards the heavens. Ceramic murals, and sculpture displayed their distinctive artistic style, intricate and colorful.

They developed a complete hieroglyphic writing system and grasped the concept of zero as well as developing a complex mathematical calendar system to co-ordinate various cycles of time and to record specific events on carved stalae. They regularly observed the stars, predicted solar eclipses, worshiped many gods, and angled their ceremonial buildings so that they faced sunrise or sunset at particular times of the year.

Mediating between the heavens and earth were the Maya Kings – the Kuhul Ajaw, or holy lords, who derived their power from the gods. They functioned both as shamans, interpreting religion and ideology, and rulers who led their subjects in peace and war. The Kuhul Ajaw conducted elaborate public rituals to give metaphysical meaning to movements of the heavens, changes of the calendar and royal succession.

Behind the cloak of ritual, the Maya cities acted like states making alliances, trading for goods and fighting wars. Evidence suggests that Belize once waged war against mighty Tikal and won as depicted on a ball court marker at Caracol.

As the Maya society grew forcefully, elite polygamy and intermarriage among royal families swelled in the ruling class. The lords demanded jade, shells, feathers from exotic birds, fancy ceremonies and other expensive ceremonial accoutrements to affirm their rank in the Maya cosmos. Their traditional rivalry status only made matters worse. The Kuhul Ajaw strove to outdo their neighbors, building bigger temples and more elegant palaces and staging more elaborate public pageants. All this required more labor, which required larger populations and, perhaps, more wars to exact tribute in forced labor from fallen enemies. Soon the Maya empire began to wane.

Around the ninth century (AD 790 – 889) the Maya society began to decline at most Central and Lowlands’s sites. There is no clearly defined reason for the collapse of the Maya civilization. Archaeologists tend to believe that the decline of the Mayas was a result of many factors.

The ancient Maya civilization is part of Belize’s rich culture. The Ke’Kchi, Mopan and Yucatec Mayas in southern Belize are direct descendants of the Mayas that go back at least 4,000 years in history. Today’s modern Belize Mayas still retain many of their ancient practices and beliefs. They use universal Maya instruments such as flutes and drums and continue to perform dances at fiestas, including the Deer Dance. This dance is a complex ceremony spanning as many as nine days of music, dance and feasting during the month of August. Modern day Mayas also speak their traditional languages, including different variants of the ancient Mayan languages interspersed with Spanish, English, and Creole words. Today the Mayas make up approximately 11% of Belize’s population. They live in communal lands managed by an “alcalde” (Village Leader) and depend on agriculture, hunting and various arts and crafts for their livelihood.

Maya people take pride in their rich heritage and have begun to confront the challenges that face them as part of the modern global community. Many modern Mayas in Belize, especially in the Toledo district, are embracing ecotourism as an income generator and as a way to protect their ancestral lands. At Chaa Creek a living testimonial to Maya is the Rainforest Medicinal Trail where traditional herbs are on display in their natural forest habitat. Guided tours and a printed reference book teach guests how these herbs have been used over the centuries to prevent and treat disease and to restore failing health. A traditional farming method has been established by developing an organic Maya farm on the Chaa Creek nature reserve.

Within the 365-acre reserve, at Chaa Creek there are over 50 mounds of Maya structures constructed over 1,000 years ago. Chaa Creek is located in an area that was important to the Ancient Maya. Research compiled by the University of California, L.A. suggests that Chaa Creek once functioned as a distribution center of goods in the Belize River Valley area and was an important communication link with the neighboring site of Xunantunich, which was once a powerful Maya settlement. This scientific research is on permanent display at the Chaa Creek Natural History Centre.

The Maya civilization defies analysis: for every doubt resolved, new questions arise. As archeologists continue to delve into its mysteries, new findings continuously emerge to renew their enthusiasm on such a fascinating people. But thanks to that research Belizeans now better understand the importance of a rich legacy passed on to them by their Mayan ancestors, who once flourished here and also called Belize their home.

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