Mayan History and Culture the Term Paper

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The Mayas sense of beauty was very different from other peoples in Mesoamerica (Hooker pp). They prized a long, backward sloping forehead, which was attained by bounding the skulls of infants with boards (Hooker pp). Moreover, crossed-eyes were also important, and this was achieved by dangling objects in front of the infants' eyes in order to permanently cross the eyes, a practice that is still used today (Hooker pp).

The Maya number system was a base 20 system (Mayan pp). Most likely the reason for base 20 came from ancient people who counted on both their fingers and their toes (Mayan pp). And although it was a base 20 system, called a vigesimal system, the number five also played a major role, probably again relating to five fingers and toes (Mayan pp). They used a system of bar and dot as a sort of "shorthand" for counting written from bottom to top, a dot represented 1 and a bar represented 5 (Maya pp). This system probably arose from using a pebble and a stick for counting (Mayan pp). A surprising and advanced feature of their system is the "zero," represented by a shell for reasons that cannot be explained and the positional nature of the system (Mayan pp).

In a true base twenty system the first number would denote the number of units up to 19, the next would denote the number of 20's up to 19, the next the number of 400's up to 19, etc. However although the Maya number system starts this way with the units up to 19 and the 20's up to 19, it changes in the third place and this denotes the number of 360's up to 19 instead of the number of 400's. After this the system reverts to multiples of 20 so the fourth place is the number of 18-202, the next the number of 18-203 and so on (Mayan pp).

The Maya had a highly complex writing system, using pictographs and phonetic or syllabic elements (Maya1 pp). These symbols were carved into stone, however, the most common place for writing was books make from bark paper that was coated with lime to make a fresh white surface which were screen-folded and bound with wood and deer hide (Maya1 pp). These books are called codices, codex is singular, and due to their perishable nature and zealous Spanish book burning, only four codices remain today (Maya1 pp). The contents of these books varied and probably contained information used by priests or the noble class to determine dates of importance or seasonal interest and perhaps dynastic information (Maya1 pp).

The Maya were accomplished astronomers whose primary interest were Zenial Passages when the Sun crossed over the Maya latitudes (Maya2 pp).

Annually, the sun travels to its summer solstice point, a latitude of 23-1/3 degrees north, and most of their cities were located south of this latitude which means they could observe the sun directly overhead during the time that the sun was passing over (Maya2 pp). This happened twice a year, evenly spaced around the day of the solstice, and the Maya could easily determine these dates because at local noon, there was no shadow (Maya2 pp). The Diving God was the Mayan god who represented this position of the Sun (Maya2 pp).

Today, the Maya can be found in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and the five Mexican states of Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo (Maya3 pp). There are approximately thirty different indigenous Mayan languages, however, the majority of the Maya also speak Spanish (Maya3 pp). The present day Guatemalan Mayas have preserved much of their culture and religion (Maya3 pp). However, there can be found a mixture of Mayan and Western European traditions, an aspect most obvious in religious practices, in which the modern Maya have created their own brand of Christianity, a blend of Catholic tradition and ancient ritual (Maya3 pp). The Mayans are still traditional traders and farmers, and most of the farming is subsistence agriculture with the main crops being beans and corn (Maya3 pp). Moreover, they still use the "slash and burn" method of clearing the fields just as it was done by the Mayans two thousand years ago (Maya3 pp).

The handicrafts of the modern Mayas are still produced using ancient techniques and still hold great importance within the Maya culture (Maya3 pp). Weaving has become one of their best-known features, using textiles made from cotton just as were used by the ancient Maya (Maya3 pp). They also make baskets, pottery and woodcarvings of animals, saints, and brightly-painted toys and chests, as well as ceremonial masks (Maya3 pp).

The customs and traditions of the ancient Maya are still very much a part of the fabric of Guatemalan life, and while there are various ethnic communities, such as K'iche, Kaqchiquel and Achi, each with its own language and folklore, they share a common ancestral heritage that is expressed in religion, music, dance, foods and even social organization (Our pp). While the Spanish and Indian cultures integrate into the country's "mestizaje," the purest of the Maya influences can be found in both the performing and design arts (Our pp). Mayan art is found in weavings, hammocks, masks, clothing, sculptures, paintings, belts and jewelry (Mayan1 pp). Today, for example, the Chiapan women sell their wares in the square in Merida or on the streets of Playa del Carmen, some of which are embroidered purses or purses made from old hiupiles, and hammocks can be found most everywhere in the Yucatan (Mayan1 pp). However, the less portable art objects, such as masks, sculptures and paintings, are not transported to the Yucatan, but can be found in a few shops on the Yucatan Peninsula (Mayan1 pp).

Sculptures and masks are created as part of traditional ceremonies that Mayas participate in throughout the year to honor their saints and ancestors (Mayan1 pp). The sculptures are generally created as an object of worship, and most every Mayan home has some corner reserved for an altar (Mayan1 pp). Masks are carved only for special occasions and have been worn for ceremonies and dances for years and "are a physical manifestation of the fascinating history and legends that are still very much a part of Mayan life" (Mayan1 pp).

The art of painting is only practiced in a few pueblos throughout the Mayan world, the famous painters of which belong to the Tzutujil tribe, most of whom live in Chiapas or Guatemala (Mayan1 pp). The Tzutujil are one of the smallest Mayan tribes and have managed to preserve many of their pre-Columbian traditions (Mayan1 pp). Mayan contemporary painting began during the 1920's with Juan Sisay from Santiago Atitlan and Rafael Gonzales y Gonzales from San Pedro la Laguna, who were inspired by travelers who came to paint their village (Mayan1 pp).

Works Cited

Mayan1 Arts Today.


Our Living Maya Culture.

Maya2 Astronomy.

Maya1 Writing.

Maya Mathematics.

Mayan Mathematics.

Jaguar: Icon of Power Throughout Mayan History.

Hooker, Richard. The Mayas[continue]

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