There are many unanswered questions about the Maya but the cause of their decline remains the greatest mystery. Their
civilization was not destroyed by an overwhelming outside force. The Olmec suffered the destruction of San Lorenzo around 900 BC and that of La Venta around 600 BC but no such catastrophe befell the Maya. Similarly, Teotihuacan was destroyed by warfare around 700 and so was Tula around 1000 AD but Maya power disintegrated from within. Many hypotheses have been proposed, overpopulation, famine, epidemics, civil disorder... Some of these factors might have played a role in some places but I tend to think that the common people just stopped believing in the dogma the elites were using to establish their power and justify their excesses. Similarly, the disintegration of the Soviet Empire can largely be explained by the excesses of a corrupt elite and the subsequent disbelief in the supremacy of the communist system by the common people.
ancient hieroglyphs date from the end of the 4th millennium BC and
comprise annotations to the scenes cut in relief- -found on slabs of
slate in chapels or tombs- -that had been donated as votive offerings.
Although by no means all of these earliest signs can be read today, it
is nonetheless probable that these forms are based on the same system as
the later classical hieroglyphs. In individual
cases, it can be said with certainty that it is not the copied object
that is designated but rather another word phonetically similar to
it. This circumstance means that hieroglyphs were from the
very beginning phonetic symbols. An earlier stage consisting exclusively
of picture writing using actual illustrations of the intended words
cannot be shown to have existed in Egypt; indeed, such a stage can with
great probability be ruled out. No development from pictures
to letters took place; hieroglyphic writing was never solely a system of
picture writing. It can also be said with certainty that the
jar marks (signs on the bottom of clay vessels) that occur at roughly
the same period do not represent a primitive form of the script. Rather,
these designs developed in parallel fashion to hieroglyphic writing and
were influenced by it. It is not possible to prove the
connection of hieroglyphs to the slightly older cuneiform characters
used by the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia. Such a
relationship is improbable because the two scripts are based on entirely
different systems. What is conceivable is a general tendency
toward words being fixed by the use of signs, without transmission of
The Maya developed a
sophisticated calendar. The ritual calendar that developed in
Mesoamerica used a count of 260 days. This calendar gave each day a
name, much like our days of the week. There were 20 day names, each
represented by a unique symbol. The days were numbered from 1 to 13.
Since there are 20 day names, after the count of thirteen was reached,
the next day was numbered 1 again. The 260-day or sacred count calendar
was in use throughout Mesoamerica for centuries, probably before the
beginning of writing.
The Maya also tracked a vague
solar year in which they counted 365 days per year. Because they could
not use fractions, the "quarter" day left over every year
caused their calendar to drift with regard to the actual solar year. The
365-day year contained months were also given names. numbers 0-19 before
they changed, so that the count goes Zero Pohp to 19 Pohp, then
continues with Zero Wo.
To the eighteen regular
months the Maya appended a special five-day month called Wayeb composed
of 5 days which were considered unnamed and unlucky. Thus the days were
counted: One Imix, Zero Pohp, Two Ik, One Pohp. When the thirteenth day
was reached the next day was Thirteen Ben, Twelve Pohp; then One Ix,
Thirteen Pohp, Two Men, Fourteen Pohp. After Seven Ahaw, Nineteen Pohp,
the next day was Eight Imix, Zero Wo.
were important to Maya society because of the significance of trade.
Principal interior trade routes connected all the great Classic lowland
centers and controlled the flow of goods such as salt, obsidian, jade,
cacao, animal pelts, tropical bird feathers, and luxury ceramics. In the
early Classic period Teotihuacán in central Mexico emerged as the
greatest city in Mesoamerica, an area that included modern Mexico and
most of Central America. The religious and political power of
Teotihuacán radiated throughout Mesoamerica. One result of Teotihuacán’s
influence was a highly integrated network of trade in which the Maya
Highland Maya from the southern region carried obsidian for tools and
weapons; grinding stones; jade; green parrot and quetzal feathers; a
tree resin called copal to burn as incense; and cochineal, a red dye
made from dried insects. Those from the lowlands brought jaguar pelts,
chert (flint), salt, cotton fibers and cloth, balche, wax, honey, dried
fish, and smoked venison. People either bartered goods directly or
exchanged them for cacao beans, which were used as a kind of currency.
Wealth acquired from trade enabled the upper classes to live in luxury,
although there was little improvement in the lives of the lower classes.