Maya civilization

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This article is about the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. For a discussion of the modern Maya, see Maya peoples. For other meanings of the word Maya, see Maya.
Classic period royal palace at Palenque

The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilization, noted for Maya script, the only known fully developed writing system of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems. Initially established during the Pre-Classic period (c. 2000 BC to AD 250), according to the Mesoamerican chronology, many Maya cities reached their highest state of development during the Classic period (c. AD 250 to 900), and continued throughout the Post-Classic period until the arrival of the Spanish.

The Maya civilization shares many features with other Mesoamerican civilizations due to the high degree of interaction and cultural diffusion that characterized the region. Advances such as writing, epigraphy, and the calendar did not originate with the Maya; however, their civilization fully developed them. Maya influence can be detected in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and western El Salvador to as far away as central Mexico, more than 1,000 km (620 mi) from the central Maya area. The many outside influences found in Maya art and architecture are thought to have resulted from trade and cultural exchange rather than direct external conquest.

The Maya peoples survived the Classic period collapse and the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and 16th-century Spanish colonization of the Americas. Today, the Maya and their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Maya area; they maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs resulting from the merger of pre-Columbian and post-Conquest ideas and cultures. Millions of people speak Mayan languages today. In 2005 the Rabinal Achí, a play written in the Achi language, was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.


Maximum extent of the Maya civilization

The Maya civilization occupied a wide territory that included southeastern Mexico and northern Central America; this area included the entire Yucatán Peninsula, and all of the territory now incorporated into the modern countries of Guatemala and Belize, as well as the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.[1] In Mexico, the Maya occupied territory now incorporated into the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatán.[2]

The Yucatán Peninsula is bordered by the Caribbean Sea to the east and by the Gulf of Mexico to the north and west. It incorporates the modern Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Campeche, the eastern portion of the state of Tabasco, most of the Guatemalan department of Petén, and all of Belize.[3] Most of the peninsula is formed by a vast plain with few hills or mountains and a generally low coastline. The northwestern and northern portions of the Yucatán Peninsula experience lower rainfall than the rest of the peninsula; these regions feature highly porous limestone bedrock resulting in less surface water.[4] In contrast, the northeastern portion of the peninsula is characterised by forested swamplands.[5] The northern portion of the peninsula lacks rivers, except for the Champotón River – all other rivers are located in the south.[6]

The Petén region consists of densely forested low-lying limestone plain,[7] crossed by low east–west oriented ridges and is characterised by a variety of forest and soil types; water sources include generally small rivers and low-lying seasonal swamps known as bajos.[8] A chain of fourteen lakes runs across the central drainage basin of Petén.[9] The largest lake is Lake Petén Itza; it measures 32 by 5 kilometres (19.9 by 3.1 mi). A broad savannah extends south of the central lakes. To the north of the lakes region bajos become more frequent, interspersed with forest.[10] To the south the plain gradually rises towards the Guatemalan Highlands.[11] Dense forest covers northern Petén and Belize, most of Quinatana Roo, southern Campeche and a portion of the south of Yucatán state. Further north, the vegetation turns to lower forest consisting of dense scrub.[12]

Chiapas occupies the extreme southeast of Mexico; it possesses 260 kilometres (160 mi) of Pacific coastline.[13] Chiapas features two principal highland regions; to the south is the Sierra Madre de Chiapas and in central Chiapas are the Montañas Centrales (Central Highlands). They are separated by the Depresión Central, containing the drainage basin of the Grijalva River, featuring a hot climate with moderate rainfall.[14] The Sierra Madre highlands gain altitude from west to east, with the highest mountains near the Guatemalan border.[15] The Central Highlands of Chiapas rise sharply to the north of the Grijalva, to a maximum altitude of 2,400 metres (7,900 ft), then descend gradually towards the Yucatán Peninsula. They are cut but deep valleys running parallel to the Pacific coast, and feature a complex drainage system that feeds both the Grijalva and the Lacantún River.[16] At the eastern end of the Central Highlands is the Lacandon Forest, this region is largely mountainous with lowland tropical plains at its easternmost extreme.[17] The littoral zone of Soconusco lies to the south of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas,[18] and consists of a narrow coastal plain and the foothills of the Sierra Madre.[19]


The history of Maya civilization is divided into three principal periods: the Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic periods.[20] Modern scholars regard these periods as arbitrary divisions of Maya chronology, rather than indicative of cultural evolution or decadence.[21] The Preclassic lasted from approximately 2000 BC to approximately 250 AD, this was followed by the Classic, from 250 AD to roughly 950 AD, then by the Postclassic, from 950 AD to the middle of the 16th century.[22] Each period is further subdivided:

Maya chronology[22]
Period Division Dates
Preclassic Early Preclassic 2000–1000 BC
Middle Preclassic Early Middle Preclassic 1000 BC-600 BC
Late Middle Preclassic 600 BC-350 BC
Late Preclassic Early Late Preclassic 350 BC – 1 BC
Late Late Preclassic 1 BC - AD 159
Terminal Preclassic AD 159 - AD 250
Classic Early Classic AD 250–550
Late Classic AD 550–830
Terminal Classic AD 830–950
Postclassic Early Postclassic AD 950–1200
Late Postclassic AD 1200–1539
Contact period AD 1525-1697[23]

Preclassic period

Main article: Preclassic Maya
Structure 5 at Takalik Abaj was built during the Middle Preclassic.[24]

The Maya developed their first civilization in the Preclassic period.[25] Scholars continue to discuss when this era of Maya civilization began. Discoveries of Maya occupation at Cuello, Belize have been carbon dated to around 2600 BC.[26] Settlements established around 1800 BC in the Soconusco region of the Pacific Coast, and were already cultivating the staple crops of the Maya diet, including maize, beans, squash, and chili pepper.[27] This period, known as the Early Preclassic,[27] was characterized by sedentary communities and the introduction of pottery and fired clay figurines.[28]

During the Middle Preclassic Period, small villages began to grow to form cities.[29] By 500 BC these cities possessed large temple structures decorated with stucco masks representing gods.[30] Nakbe in the Petén Department of Guatemala is the earliest well-documented city in the Maya lowlands,[31] where large structures have been dated to around 750 BC.[29] Nakbe already featured the monumental masonry architecture, sculpted monuments and causeways that characterised later cities in the Maya lowlands.[31] The northern lowlands of Yucatán were widely settled by the Middle Preclassic.[32] By approximately 400 BC, near the end of the Middle Preclassic period, early Maya rulers were raising stelae that celebrated their achievements and validated their right to rule.[33]

Murals excavated in 2005 have pushed back the origin of Maya writing by several centuries, with a developed script already being used at San Bartolo in Petén by the 3rd century BC, and it is now evident that the Maya participated in the wider development of Mesoamerican writing in the Preclassic.[34] In the Late Preclassic Period, the enormous city of El Mirador grew to cover approximately 16 square kilometres (6.2 sq mi).[35] It possessed paved avenues, massive triadic pyramid complexes dated to around 150 BC, and stelae and altars that were erected in its plazas.[35] El Mirador is considered to be one of the first capital cities of the Maya civilization.[35] The swamps of the Mirador Basin appear to have been the primary attraction for the first inhabitants of the area as evidenced by the unusual cluster of large cities around them.[36] The city of Tikal, later to be one of the most important of the Classic Period Maya cities, was already a significant city by around 350 BC, although it did not match El Mirador.[37] The Late Preclassic cultural florescence collapsed in the 1st century AD and many of the great Maya cities of the epoch were abandoned; the cause of this collapse is as yet unknown.[30]

Kaminaljuyu emerged as a principal centre in the Late Preclassic, linking the Pacific coastal trade routes with the Motagua River route, as well as increased contact with other sites along the Pacific coast.[38] Kaminaljuyu was situated at a crossroads and controlled the the trade routes westwards to the Gulf coast, north into the highlands, and along the Pacific coastal plain to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and El Salvador. This gave it control over the distribution networks for important goods such as jade, obsidian and cinnabar.[39] Within this extended trade route, Takalik Abaj and Kaminaljuyu appear to have been the two principal foci.[40] The early Maya style of sculpture spread throughout this network.[41] Takalik Abaj and Chocolá were two of the most important cities on the Pacific coastal plain during the Late Preclassic.[42] Komchen grew to become an important site in northern Yucatán during the Preclassic.[43]

Classic period

Chichén Itzá was the most important city in the northern Maya region

The Classic period (c. AD 250–900) is largely defined as the period during which the lowland Maya raised dated monuments using the Long Count calendar.[44] The period was one the peak of large-scale construction and urbanism, the recording of monumental inscriptions, and significant intellectual and artistic development, particularly in the southern lowland regions.[45] The Classic period Maya political landscape has been likened to that of Renaissance Italy or Classical Greece, with multiple city-states engaged in a complex network of alliances and enmities.[46]

During the Classic Period, the Maya civilization achieved its greatest florescence.[30] During the Early Classic, cities throughout the Maya region were influenced by the great metropolis of Teotihuacan in the distant Valley of Mexico.[47] The people developed an agriculturally intensive, city-centered civilization consisting of numerous independent city-states – some subservient to others.[48] At its height during the Late Classic, Tikal had expanded to have a population of well over 100,000.[49] Tikal's great rival was Calakmul, another powerful city in the Petén Basin.[50] In the southeast, Copán was the most important city.[50] Palenque and Yaxchilán were the most powerful cities in the Usumacinta region.[50] In the highlands, Kaminaljuyu in the Valley of Guatemala was already a sprawling city by AD 300.[51] In the north of the Maya area, Coba was the most important Maya capital.[52] Capital cities of Maya kingdoms could vary considerably in size, apparently related to how many vassal cities were tied to the capital.[53] Overlords of city-states that held sway over a greater number of subordinate lords could command greater quantities of tribute in the form of goods and labour.[54] The most notable forms of tribute pictured on Maya ceramics are cacao, textiles and feathers.[54]

Altar 13 at Caracol. AD 830

The social basis of this exuberant civilization was a large political and economic intersocietal network (world system) extending throughout the Maya region and beyond to the wider Mesoamerican world. The political, economic, and culturally dominant ‘core’ Maya units of the Classic Maya world system were located in the central lowlands, while its corresponding dependent or ‘peripheral’ Maya units were found along the margins of the southern highland and northern lowland areas. But as in all world systems, the Maya core centers shifted through time, starting out during Preclassic times in the southern highlands, moving to the central lowlands during the Classic period, and finally shifting to the northern peninsula during the Postclassic period. In this Maya world system, the semi-peripheral (mediational) units generally took the form of trade and commercial centers.[55]

The most notable monuments are the stepped pyramids they built in their religious centers and the accompanying palaces of their rulers. The palace at Cancuén is the largest in the Maya area, but the site has no pyramids. Other important archaeological remains include the carved stone slabs usually called stelae (the Maya called them tetun, or "tree-stones"), which depict rulers along with hieroglyphic texts describing their genealogy, military victories, and other accomplishments.[56]

The Maya civilization participated in long distance trade with many of the other Mesoamerican cultures, including Teotihuacan, the Zapotec, and other groups in central and gulf-coast Mexico. In addition, they had trade and exchanges with more distant, non-Mesoamerican groups, for example the Taínos of the Caribbean islands. Archeologists have found gold from Panama in the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza.[57] Important trade goods included cacao, salt, seashells, jade, and obsidian.

Classic Maya collapse

Main article: Classic Maya collapse
Presentation of captives to a Maya ruler, c. AD 785

During the 9th century AD, the central Maya region suffered major political collapse, marked by the abandonment of cities, the ending of dynasties and a northward shift of population.[47] This decline was coupled with a cessation of monumental inscriptions and large-scale architectural construction. No universally accepted theory explains this collapse, but it is likely to have resulted from a combination of causes, including endemic internecine warfare, overpopulation resulting in severe environmental degredation, and drought.[58] During this period, known as the Terminal Classic, the northern cities of Chichen Itza and Uxmal show increased activity.[47] Major cities in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula continued to be inhabited long after the cities of the southern lowlands ceased to raise monuments.[59]

Non-ecological theories of Maya decline are divided into several subcategories, such as overpopulation, foreign invasion, peasant revolt, and the collapse of key trade routes. Ecological hypotheses include environmental disaster, epidemic disease, and climate change. There is evidence that the Maya population exceeded the carrying capacity of the environment including exhaustion of agricultural potential and overhunting of megafauna.[60] Some scholars have recently theorized that an intense 200-year drought led to the collapse of Maya civilization.[61] The drought theory originated from research performed by physical scientists studying lake beds,[62] ancient pollen, and other data, not from the archaeological community. Newer research from 2011, with use of high-resolution climate models and new reconstructions of past landscapes, suggests that converting much of their forest land into cropland may have led to reduced evapotranspiration and thus rainfall, magnifying natural drought.[63] A study published in Science in 2012 found that modest rainfall reductions, amounting to only 25 to 40% in annual rainfall, may have been the tipping point to the Maya collapse. Based on samples of lake and cave sediments in the areas surrounding major Maya cities, the researchers were able to determine the amount of annual rainfall in the region. The mild droughts that took place between AD 800 and 950 were enough to rapidly reduce open water availability.[64][65] A further paper in the same journal supports and extends this conclusion based on isotope analysis of minerals in a stalagmite. It argues that high rainfall between 440 and 660 CE allowed the Maya to flourish in the first instance, and that while mild droughts in the following years led to extensive warfare and the decline of Mayan civilization, it was a prolonged period of drought between 1020 and 1100 AD that was ultimately fatal.[66]

Postclassic period

During the succeeding Postclassic period (from the 10th to the early 16th century), development in the northern centers persisted, characterized by an increasing diversity of external influences. The Maya cities of the northern lowlands in Yucatán continued to flourish for centuries more; some of the important sites in this era were Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Edzná, and Coba. After the decline of the ruling dynasties of Chichen and Uxmal, Mayapan ruled all of Yucatán until a revolt in 1450. (This city's name may be the source of the word "Maya", which had a more geographically restricted meaning in Yucatec and colonial Spanish and only grew to its current meaning in the 19th and 20th centuries). The area then degenerated into competing city-states until Yucatán was conquered by the Spanish.

The Itza Maya, Ko'woj, and Yalain groups of Central Peten survived the "Classic Period Collapse" in small numbers and by 1250 reconstituted themselves to form competing city-states. The Itza maintained their capital at Tayasal (also known as Noh Petén), an archaeological site thought to underlay the modern city of Flores, Guatemala on Lake Petén Itzá. It ruled over an area extending across the Peten Lakes region, encompassing the community of Eckixil on Lake Quexil.[67] The Ko'woj had their capital at Zacpeten. Postclassic Maya states also continued to survive in the southern highlands. One of the Maya nations in this area, the K'iche' Kingdom of Q'umarkaj, is responsible for the best-known Maya work of historiography and mythology, the Popol Vuh. Other highland kingdoms included the Mam based at Huehuetenango, the Kaqchikels based at Iximche, the Chajoma based at Mixco Viejo,[68] and the Chuj based at San Mateo Ixtatán.

Contact period

Shortly after their first expeditions to the region, the Spanish initiated a number of attempts to subjugate the Maya who were hostile towards the Spanish crown and establish a colonial presence in the Maya territories of the Yucatán Peninsula and the Guatemalan highlands. This campaign, sometimes termed "The Spanish Conquest of Yucatán", would prove to be a lengthy and dangerous exercise for the conquistadores from the outset, and it would take some 170 years and tens of thousands of Indian auxiliaries before the Spanish established substantive control over all Maya lands.

Unlike the Aztec and Inca Empires, there was no single Maya political center that, once overthrown, would hasten the end of collective resistance from the indigenous peoples. Instead, the conquistador forces needed to subdue the numerous independent Maya polities almost one by one, many of which kept up a fierce resistance. Most of the conquistadors were motivated by the prospects of the great wealth to be had from the seizure of precious metal resources such as gold or silver; however, the Maya lands themselves were poor in these resources. This would become another factor in forestalling Spanish designs of conquest, as they instead were initially attracted to the reports of great riches in central Mexico or Peru.

The Spanish Church and government officials destroyed Maya texts and with them the knowledge of Maya writing, but by chance three of the pre-Columbian books dated to the post classic period have been preserved.[69] These are known as the Madrid Codex, the Dresden Codex and the Paris Codex.[70] The last Maya states, the Itza polity centred on Nojpetén, and the Ko'woj city of Zacpeten, were continuously occupied and remained independent of the Spanish until late in the 17th century. They were finally subdued by the Spanish in 1697.

King and court

Lady Xoc, aunt-wife of king Shield Jaguar II, drawing a barbed rope through her tongue. AD 709

A typical Classic Maya polity was a small hierarchical state (ajawil, ajawlel, or ajawlil) headed by a hereditary ruler known as an ajaw (later k’uhul ajaw).[71] Such kingdoms were usually no more than a capital city with its neighborhood and several lesser towns, although there were greater kingdoms, which controlled larger territories and extended patronage over smaller polities.[citation needed] Each kingdom had a name that did not necessarily correspond to any locality within its territory. Its identity was that of a political unit associated with a particular ruling dynasty. For instance, the archaeological site of Naranjo was the capital of the kingdom of Saal. The land (chan ch’e’n) of the kingdom and its capital were called Wakab’nal or Maxam and were part of a larger geographical entity known as Huk Tsuk. Interestingly, despite constant warfare and eventual shifts in regional power, most kingdoms never disappeared from the political landscape until the collapse of the whole system in the 9th century AD. In this respect, Classic Maya kingdoms are highly similar to late Post Classic polities encountered by the Spaniards in Yucatán and Central Mexico: some polities could be subordinated to hegemonic rulers through conquests or dynastic unions and yet even then they persisted as distinct entities.[citation needed]

Mayanists have been increasingly accepting a "court paradigm" of Classic Maya societies which puts the emphasis on the centrality of the royal household and especially the person of the king. This approach focuses on Maya monumental spaces as the embodiment of the diverse activities of the royal household. It considers the role of places and spaces (including dwellings of royalty and nobles, throne rooms, temples, halls and plazas for public ceremonies) in establishing power and social hierarchy, and also in projecting aesthetic and moral values to define the wider social realm.

Spanish sources invariably describe even the largest Maya settlements as dispersed collections of dwellings grouped around the temples and palaces of the ruling dynasty and lesser nobles. None of the Classic Maya cities shows evidence of economic specialization and commerce of the scale of Mexican Tenochtitlan. Instead, Maya cities could be seen as enormous royal households, the locales of the administrative and ritual activities of the royal court. They were the places where privileged nobles could approach the holy ruler, where aesthetic values of the high culture were formulated and disseminated and where aesthetic items were consumed. They were the self-proclaimed centers and the sources of social, moral, and cosmic order. The fall of a royal court as in the well-documented cases of Piedras Negras or Copan would cause the inevitable "death" of the associated settlement.


Main article: Maya art

Maya art of the Classic era (c. 250 to 900 CE) is of a high level of aesthetic and artisanal sophistication, from the lay-out and architecture of court towns down to the decorative arts. The stucco and stone reliefs of Palenque and the statuary of Copán, particularly its impressive stelas, show a grace and accurate observation of the human form that reminded early archaeologists of Classical civilizations of the Old World[citation needed], hence the name bestowed on this era. We have a considerable number of examples of the advanced mural painting of the Classic Maya, most completely preserved in a building at Bonampak; Late Preclassic murals of great artistic and iconographic perfection have been recently discovered at San Bartolo. A rich blue color ('Maya Blue') survived through the centuries due to its unique chemical characteristics. Painted, carved, and molded Maya ceramics were ubiquitous; often found in graves, and showing a vast array of subjects, they constitute an important source of information. Of the many folding-books, only three survive, all from the Post-Classic period, of which the Dresden Codex is artistically superior. With the progressive decipherment of the Maya script, it was also discovered that the Maya were one of the few civilizations where artists attached their name to their work.


Main article: Maya architecture
El Castillo, the most iconic Mayan pyramid

Maya architecture spans many thousands of years; yet, often the most dramatic and easily recognizable as Maya are the stepped pyramids from the Terminal Pre-classic period and beyond. There are also cave sites that are important to the Maya. These cave sites include Jolja Cave, the cave site at Naj Tunich, the Candelaria Caves, and the Cave of the Witch. There are also cave-origin myths among the Maya. Some cave sites are still used by the modern Maya in the Chiapas highlands.

It has been suggested[who?] that temples and pyramids were remodeled and rebuilt every fifty-two years in synchrony with the Maya Long Count Calendar. It appears now that the rebuilding process was often instigated by a new ruler or for political matters, as opposed to matching the calendar cycle. However, the process of rebuilding on top of old structures is indeed a common one. Most notably, the North Acropolis at Tikal seems to be the sum total of 1,500 years of architectural modifications. In Tikal, Yaxha and Ixlu there were twin pyramid complexes. There were nine in Tikal and one each in Yaxha and Ixlu; at Tikal they were used to commemorate the end of a 20-year k'atun cycle. Through observation of the numerous consistent elements and stylistic distinctions, remnants of Maya architecture have become an important key to understanding the evolution of their ancient civilization.

Urban design

Main article: Maya city
North Acropolis, Tikal, Guatemala

As Maya cities spread throughout the varied geography of Mesoamerica, site planning appears to have been minimal. Maya architecture tended to integrate a great degree of natural features[citation needed], and their cities were built somewhat haphazardly as dictated by the topography of each independent location. For instance, some cities on the flat limestone plains of the northern Yucatán grew into great sprawling municipalities, while others built in the hills of Usumacinta utilized the natural loft of the topography to raise their towers and temples to impressive heights. However, some degree of order, as required in any large city, still prevailed.

Classic Era Maya urban design could easily be described as the division of space by great monuments and causeways. Open public plazas were the gathering places for people and the focus of urban design, while interior space was entirely secondary. Only in the Late Post-Classic era did the great Maya cities develop into more fortress-like defensive structures that lacked, for the most part, the large and numerous plazas of the Classic.

At the onset of large-scale construction during the Classic Era, a predetermined axis was typically established in a cardinal direction. Depending on the location of natural resources such as fresh-water wells, or cenotes, the city grew by using sacbeob (limed causeways or "white roads") to connect great plazas with the numerous platforms that created the sub-structure for nearly all Maya buildings. As more structures were added and existing structures re-built or remodeled, the great Maya cities seemed to take on an almost random identity that contrasted sharply with other great Mesoamerican cities such as Teotihuacan and its rigid grid-like construction.

Ballcourt at Tikal, Guatemala

At the heart of the Maya city were large plazas surrounded by the most important governmental and religious buildings, such as the royal acropolis, great pyramid temples and occasionally ball-courts. Though city layouts evolved as nature dictated, careful attention was placed on the directional orientation of temples and observatories so that they were constructed in accordance with Maya interpretation of the orbits of the heavenly bodies. Immediately outside of this ritual center were the structures of lesser nobles, smaller temples, and individual shrines; the less sacred and less important structures had a greater degree of privacy. Outside of the constantly evolving urban core were the less permanent and more modest homes of the common people.

Building materials

A surprising aspect of the great Maya structures is their lack of many advanced technologies seemingly necessary for such constructions. Lacking draft animals necessary for wheel-based modes of transportation, metal tools and even pulleys, Maya architecture required abundant manpower. Yet, beyond this enormous requirement, the remaining materials seem to have been readily available. All stone for Maya structures appears to have been taken from local quarries. They most often used limestone which remained pliable enough to be worked with stone tools while being quarried and only hardened once removed from its bed. In addition to the structural use of limestone, much of their mortar consisted of crushed, burnt and mixed limestone that mimicked the properties of cement and was used as widely for stucco finishing as it was for mortar.

Later improvements in quarrying techniques reduced the necessity for this limestone-stucco as the stones began to fit quite perfectly, yet it remained a crucial element in some post and lintel roofs. In the case of the common Maya houses, wooden poles, adobe and thatch were the primary materials; however, instances of what appear to be common houses of limestone have been discovered as well. Also notable throughout Maya architecture is the corbel arch (also known as a "false arch"), which allowed for more open-aired entrances. The corbelled arch improved upon pier/post and lintel doorways by directing the weight off of the lintel and onto the supporting posts.

Notable constructions

  • Ceremonial platforms were commonly limestone platforms of typically less than four meters in height where public ceremonies and religious rites were performed. Constructed in the fashion of a typical foundation platform, these were often accented by carved figures, altars and perhaps tzompantli, a stake used to display the heads of victims or defeated Mesoamerican ballgame opponents.
  • Palaces were large and often highly decorated, and usually sat close to the center of a city and housed the population's elite. Any exceedingly large royal palace, or one consisting of many chambers on different levels might be referred to as an acropolis. However, often these were one-story and consisted of many small chambers and typically at least one interior courtyard; these structures appear to take into account the needed functionality required of a residence, as well as the decoration required for their inhabitants stature.
  • E-Groups are specific structural configurations present at a number of centers in the Maya area. These complexes are oriented and aligned according to specific astronomical events (primarily the sun's solstices and equinoxes) and are thought to have been observatories. These structures are usually accompanied by iconographic reliefs that tie astronomical observation into general Maya mythology. The structural complex is named for Group E at Uaxactun, the first documented in Mesoamerica.
Temple of the Cross at Palenque; there is an intricate roof comb and corbeled arch
  • Pyramids and temples. Often the most important religious temples sat atop the towering Maya pyramids, presumably as the closest place to the heavens. While recent discoveries point toward the extensive use of pyramids as tombs, the temples themselves seem to rarely, if ever, contain burials. Residing atop the pyramids, some of over two-hundred feet, such as that at El Mirador, the temples were impressive and decorated structures themselves. Commonly topped with a roof comb, or superficial grandiose wall, these temples might have served as a type of propaganda. As they were often the only structure in a Maya city to exceed the height of the surrounding jungle, the roof combs atop the temples were often carved with representations of rulers that could be seen from vast distances.
  • Observatories. The Maya were keen astronomers and had mapped out the phases of celestial objects, especially the Moon and Venus. Many temples have doorways and other features aligning to celestial events. Round temples, often dedicated to Kukulcan, are perhaps those most often described as "observatories" by modern ruin tour-guides, but there is no evidence that they were so used exclusively, and temple pyramids of other shapes may well have been used for observation as well.
  • Ballcourts. As an integral aspect of the Mesoamerican lifestyle, the courts for their ritual ball-game were constructed throughout the Maya realm and often on a grand scale. Enclosed on two sides by stepped ramps that led to ceremonial platforms or small temples, the ballcourt itself was of a capital "I" shape and could be found in all but the smallest of Maya cities.

Writing and literacy

Writing system

Main article: Maya script
Pages from the Paris Codex, one of the few known surviving Mayan books in existence, shows the Mayan writing system in use
This small lidded vessel features a dedicatory inscription, demonstrating an intersection between text and art. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

The Maya writing system (often called hieroglyphs from a superficial resemblance to the Ancient Egyptian writing) was a combination of phonetic symbols and logograms. It is most often classified as a logographic or (more properly) a logosyllabic writing system, in which syllabic signs play a significant role. It is the only writing system of the Pre-Columbian New World which is known to represent the spoken language of its community. In total, the script has more than a thousand different glyphs, although a few are variations of the same sign or meaning, and many appear only rarely or are confined to particular localities. At any one time, no more than around 500 glyphs were in use, some 200 of which (including variations) had a phonetic or syllabic interpretation.

The earliest inscriptions in an identifiably Maya script date back to 200–300 BC.[72] However, this is preceded by several other writing systems which had developed in Mesoamerica, most notably that of the Zapotecs, and (following the 2006 publication of research on the recently discovered Cascajal Block), the Olmecs.[73] There is a pre-Maya writing known as "Epi-Olmec script" (post Olmec) which some researchers believe may represent a transitional script between Olmec and Maya writing, but the relationships between these remain unclear and the matter is unsettled. On January 5, 2006, National Geographic published the findings of Maya writings that could be as old as 400 BC, suggesting that the Maya writing system is nearly as old as the oldest Mesoamerican writing known at that time, Zapotec.[74] In the succeeding centuries the Maya developed their script into a form which was far more complete and complex than any other that has yet been found in the Americas.

Since its inception, the Maya script was in use up to the arrival of the Europeans, peaking during the Maya Classical Period (c. 200 to 900). Although many Maya centers went into decline (or were completely abandoned) during or after this period, the skill and knowledge of Maya writing persisted among segments of the population, and the early Spanish conquistadors knew of individuals who could still read and write the script. Unfortunately, the Spanish displayed little interest in it, and as a result of the dire impacts the conquest had on Maya societies, the knowledge was subsequently lost, probably within only a few generations.

At a rough estimate, in excess of 10,000 individual texts have so far been recovered, mostly inscribed on stone monuments, lintels, stelae and ceramic pottery. The Maya also produced texts painted on a form of paper manufactured from processed tree-bark, in particular from several species of strangler fig trees such as Ficus cotinifolia and Ficus padifolia.[75] This paper, common throughout Mesoamerica and generally now known by its Nahuatl-language name amatl, was typically bound as a single continuous sheet that was folded into pages of equal width, concertina-style, to produce a codex that could be written on both sides. Shortly after the conquest, all of the codices which could be found were ordered to be burnt and destroyed by zealous Spanish priests, notably Bishop Diego de Landa. Only a few reasonably intact examples of Maya codices are known to have survived through to the present day, including the Madrid, Dresden, and Paris codices.[76] A few pages survive from a fourth, the Grolier Codex, whose authenticity is disputed. Further archaeology conducted at Maya sites often reveals other fragments, rectangular lumps of plaster and paint chips which formerly were codices; these tantalizing remains are, however, too severely damaged for any inscriptions to have survived, most of the organic material having decayed.

Maya script on a Cancuen panel depicting King T'ah 'Ak' Cha'an (Dah 'Ag Txhaun)

The decipherment and recovery of the now-lost knowledge of Maya writing has been a long and laborious process. Some elements were first deciphered in the late 19th and early 20th century, mostly the parts having to do with numbers, the Maya calendar, and astronomy. Major breakthroughs came starting in the 1950s to 1970s, and accelerated rapidly thereafter. By the end of the 20th century, scholars were able to read the majority of Maya texts to a large extent, and recent field work continues to further illuminate the content.

In reference to the few extant Maya writings, Michael D. Coe, a prominent archaeologist at Yale University, stated:

"[O]ur knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and 'Pilgrim's Progress')." (Michael D. Coe, The Maya, London: Thames and Hudson, 4th ed., 1987, p. 161.)

Most surviving pre-Columbian Maya writing is from stelae and other stone inscriptions from Maya sites, many of which were already abandoned before the Spanish arrived. The inscriptions on the stelae mainly record the dynasties and wars of the sites' rulers. Also of note are the inscriptions that reveal information about the lives of ancient Maya women. Much of the remainder of Maya hieroglyphics has been found on funeral pottery, most of which describes the afterlife.

Writing tools

Although the archaeological record does not provide examples, Maya art shows that writing was done with brushes made with animal hair and quills. Codex-style writing was usually done in black ink with red highlights, giving rise to the Aztec name for the Maya territory as the "land of red and black".

Scribes and literacy

Scribes held a prominent position in Maya courts. Maya art often depicts rulers with trappings indicating they were scribes or at least able to write, such as having pen bundles in their headdresses. Additionally, many rulers have been found in conjunction with writing tools such as shell or clay inkpots. Although the number of logograms and syllabic symbols required to fully write the language numbered in the hundreds, literacy was not necessarily widespread beyond the elite classes. Graffiti uncovered in various contexts, including on fired bricks, shows nonsensical attempts to imitate the writing system.


Main article: Maya numerals
Maya numerals

In common with the other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya used a base 20 (vigesimal) and base 5 numbering system (see Maya numerals). Also, the preclassic Maya and their neighbors had independently developed the concept of zero by 36 BC. Inscriptions show them on occasion working with sums up to the hundreds of millions and dates so large it would take several lines just to represent it. There were three symbols that formed the numerals: a shell glyph (zero), a dot (one) and a bar (five).


Main article: Maya astronomy

The Maya produced accurate astronomical observations; their charts of the movements of the moon and planets were used to predict eclipses and other celestial events such the heliacal and cosmical risings and settings of Venus.[77] The accuracy of their astronomy and the "theoretical" calendar derived from it was superior to any other known seventeen hundred years ago.[78][79]

Uniquely, there is some evidence to suggest the Maya appear to be the only pre-telescopic civilization to demonstrate knowledge of the Orion Nebula as being fuzzy, i.e. not a stellar pin-point. The information which supports this theory comes from a folk tale that deals with the Orion constellation's area of the sky. Their traditional hearths include in their middle a smudge of glowing fire that corresponds with the Orion Nebula. This is a significant clue to support the idea that the Maya detected a diffuse area of the sky contrary to the pin points of stars before the telescope was invented.[80] Many preclassic sites are oriented with the Pleiades and Eta Draconis, as seen in La Blanca, Ujuxte, Monte Alto, and Takalik Abaj.

The Maya were very interested in zenial passages, the time when the sun passes directly overhead. The latitude of most of their cities being below the Tropic of Cancer, these zenial passages would occur twice a year equidistant from the solstice. To represent this position of the sun overhead, the Maya had a god named Diving God.[citation needed]

The Dresden Codex contains the highest concentration of astronomical phenomena observations and calculations of any of the surviving texts (it appears that the data in this codex is primarily or exclusively of an astronomical nature). Examination and analysis of this codex reveals that Venus was the most important astronomical object to the Maya, even more important to them than the sun.


Main article: Maya calendar

In common with the other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya had measured the length of the solar year to a high degree of accuracy, far more accurately than that used in Europe as the basis of the Gregorian calendar. They did not use this figure for the length of year in their calendars, however; the calendars they used were crude, being based on a year length of exactly 365 days, which means that the calendar falls out of step with the seasons by one day every four years. By comparison, the Julian calendar, used in Europe from Roman times until about the 16th Century, accumulated an error of only one day every 128 years. The modern Gregorian calendar is even more accurate, accumulating only a day's error in approximately 3257 years.

Religion and mythology

Main articles: Maya religion and Maya mythology
Figure of a Maya priest.

Like the Aztec and Inca who came to power later, the Maya believed in a cyclical nature of time. The rituals and ceremonies were very closely associated with celestial and terrestrial cycles which they observed and inscribed as separate calendars.[citation needed] The Maya priest had the job of interpreting these cycles and giving a prophetic outlook on the future or past based on the number relations of all their calendars. They also had to determine if the heavens were propitious for performing certain religious ceremonies.

Although it was not quite as prominent in Mayan culture as the Aztecs, the Maya practiced human sacrifice to an extent. In some Maya rituals people were killed by having their arms and legs held while a priest cut the person's chest open and tore out his heart as an offering. This is depicted on ancient objects such as pictorial texts, known as codices.

Much of the Maya religious tradition is still not understood by scholars, but it is known that the Maya believed that the cosmos had three major planes, the Earth, the underworld beneath and the heavens above.

The Maya underworld, called Xibalba (it means "place of fear"), is reached through caves and deep tunnels. It was thought to be dominated by the aged Maya gods of death and putrefaction. The Sun (Kinich Ahau) and Itzamna, an aged god, dominated the Maya idea of the sky. Another aged man, God L, was one of the major deities of the underworld.

The night sky was considered a window showing all supernatural doings. The Maya configured constellations of gods and places, saw the unfolding of narratives in their seasonal movements, and believed that the intersection of all possible worlds was in the night sky[citation needed].

Maya gods had affinities and aspects that caused them to merge with one another in ways that seem unbounded. There is a massive array of supernatural characters in the Maya religious tradition, only some of which recur with regularity. Good and evil traits are not permanent characteristics of Maya gods, nor is only "good" admirable. What is inappropriate during one season might come to pass in another since much of the Maya religious tradition is based on cycles and not permanence.

The life-cycle of maize lies at the heart of Maya belief. This philosophy is demonstrated on the belief in the Maya maize god as a central religious figure. The Maya bodily ideal is also based on the form of this young deity, which is demonstrated in their artwork. The Maize God was also a model of courtly life for the Classical Maya.

In the 19th century, Maya culture influenced the local forms of Christianity followed in Chan Santa Cruz.

Among the K'iche' in the western highlands of Guatemala the same traditions are used to this day, in the training of the ajk'ij, the keeper of the 260-day-calendar called ch'olk'ij.

Main gods


Main article: Maya cuisine

The ancient Maya had diverse and sophisticated methods of food production. It was formerly believed that shifting cultivation (swidden) agriculture provided most of their food but it is now thought that permanent raised fields, terracing, forest gardens, managed fallows, and wild harvesting were also crucial to supporting the large populations of the Classic period in some areas. Indeed, evidence of these different agricultural systems persist today: raised fields connected by canals can be seen on aerial photographs, contemporary rainforest species composition has significantly higher abundance of species of economic value to ancient Maya, and pollen records in lake sediments suggest that corn, manioc, sunflower seeds, cotton, and other crops have been cultivated in association with the deforestation in Mesoamerica since at least 2500 BC.

False-color IKONOS image of a bajo (lowland area) in Guatemala. The forest covering sites of Maya ruins appears yellowish, as opposed to the red color of surrounding forest. The more sparsely vegetated bajos appear blue-green.

Contemporary Maya peoples still practice many of these traditional forms of agriculture, although they are dynamic systems and change with changing population pressures, cultures, economic systems, climate change, and the availability of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Rediscovery of the Pre-Columbian Maya

A Middle Preclassic palace structure at Nakbe, the Mirador Basin.

Spanish clergy and administrators dating to the 16th century were largely familiar with ancient Maya sites, writing and calendar systems. Published writings of 16th-century Bishop Diego de Landa and writings of 18th-century Spanish officials spurred serious investigations of Maya sites by the late 18th century.[81] In 1839 United States traveler and writer John Lloyd Stephens, familiar with earlier Spanish investigations, visited Copán, Palenque, and other sites with English architect and draftsman Frederick Catherwood. Their illustrated accounts of the ruins sparked strong popular interest in the region and the people, and they have once again regained their position as a vital link in Mesoamerican heritage.

However, in many locations, Maya ruins have been overgrown by the jungle, becoming dense enough to hide structures just a few meters away. To help find ruins, researchers have turned to satellite imagery. The best way to find them is to look at the visible and near-infrared spectra. Due to their limestone construction, the monuments affected the chemical makeup of the soil as they deteriorated. Some moisture-loving plants stayed away, while others were killed off or discolored. The effects of the limestone ruins are still apparent today to some satellite sensors.

Maya sites

There are hundreds of significant Maya sites, and thousands of smaller ones. The largest and most historically important include:

See also


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  2. ^ Phillips 2007, p. 47. ITMB 2000.
  3. ^ Quezada 2011, p. 13.
  4. ^ Thompson 1966, p. 25.
  5. ^ Thompson 1966, p. 25.
  6. ^ Quezada 2011, p. 14.
  7. ^ Lovell 2005, p. 17.
  8. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 46.
  9. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, pp. 46-47.
  10. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 47.
  11. ^ Rice and Rice 2009, p. 5.
  12. ^ Quezada 2011, p. 17.
  13. ^ Gobierno del Estado de Chiapas 2014.
  14. ^ Viqueira 2004, pp. 21, 31.
  15. ^ Viqueira 2004, p. 31.
  16. ^ Viqueira 2004, pp. 32–33.
  17. ^ Viqueira 2004, p. 37.
  18. ^ Lovell 2000, p. 400.
  19. ^ Viqueira 2004, p. 21.
  20. ^ Estrada-Belli 2011, pp. 1, 3.
  21. ^ Estrada-Belli 2011, p. 1.
  22. ^ a b Estrada-Belli 2011, p. 3.
  23. ^ Pugh and Cecil 2012, p. 315.
  24. ^ Schieber de Lavarreda and Orrego Corzo 2010, p. 1.
  25. ^ Estrada-Belli 2011, p. 28.
  26. ^ Hammond et al 1976, pp. 579-581.
  27. ^ a b Drew 2004, p.6.
  28. ^ Coe 1999, p. 47.
  29. ^ a b Olmedo Vera 1997, p.26.
  30. ^ a b c Martin & Grube 2000, p.8.
  31. ^ a b Sharer & Traxler 2006, p.214.
  32. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 276.
  33. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, pp. 182, 197.
  34. ^ Saturno, Stuart and Beltrán 2006, pp. 1281–1283.
  35. ^ a b c Olmedo Vera 1997, p.28.
  36. ^ Hansen et al 2006, p.740.
  37. ^ Martin & Grube 2000, pp.25-26.
  38. ^ Love 2007, pp. 293, 297. Popenoe de Hatch and Schieber de Lavarreda 2001, p. 991.
  39. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 232.
  40. ^ Popenoe de Hatch and Schieber de Lavarreda 2001, p. 991.
  41. ^ Orrego Corzo and Schieber de Lavarreda 2001, p. 788.
  42. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 236.
  43. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 275.
  44. ^ Coe 1999, p. 81.
  45. ^ Coe 1999, p. 81.
  46. ^ Martin and Grube 2000, p. 21.
  47. ^ a b c Martin and Grube 2000, p.9.
  48. ^ Acemoglu and Robinson 2012, pp. 143–149.
  49. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, p.1.
  50. ^ a b c Olmedo Vera 1997, p.36.
  51. ^ Demarest 2004, p. 75.
  52. ^ Sharer and Traxler 2006, p. 554.
  53. ^ Martin and Grube 2000, p.19.
  54. ^ a b Martin and Grube 2000, p.21.
  55. ^ Carmack 2003, pp. 71–115.
  56. ^ Schuster 1999.
  57. ^ See Coggins (1992).
  58. ^ Coe 1999, pp. 151–155.
  59. ^ Becker 2004, p.135.
  60. ^ Beeland 2007.
  61. ^ Gill, R. (2000). The Great Maya Droughts. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-2194-1. 
  62. ^ Hodell, David A.; Curtis, Jason H.; Brenner, Mark (1995). "Possible role of climate in the collapse of Classic Maya civilization". Nature 375 (6530): 391–394. doi:10.1038/375391a0. 
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  64. ^ "Classic Maya Civilization Collapse Related to Modest Rainfall Reductions, Research Suggests". Science Daily. 2012-02-23. Retrieved 2012-02-25.  See full Science article citation at the end of the article.
  65. ^ "Mild drought caused Maya collapse in Mexico, Guatemala". BBC News. 2012-02-25. Retrieved 2012-02-25. 
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  67. ^ Kevin R. Schwarz, Understanding the Classic to Postclassic Architectural Transformation of Rural Households and Communities in the Quexil-Petenxil Basins, El Petén, Guatemala, FAMSI (2004) [Abstract].
  68. ^ Love 2007, p.305. Sharer 2006, pp.621, 625.
  69. ^ "The Ancient Maya", Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler Contributor Loa P. Traxler, p126, Stanford University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-8047-4817-9
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  71. ^ Both terms appear in early Colonial texts (including Papeles de Paxbolón) where they are used as synonymous to Aztec and Spanish terms for supreme rulers and their domains – tlahtoani (Tlatoani) and tlahtocayotl, rey or magestad and reino, señor and señorío or dominio.
  72. ^ Saturno, WA; Stuart D, Beltran B (Mar 3, 2006). "Early Maya writing at San Bartolo, Guatemala". Science 311 (5765): 1281–3. doi:10.1126/science.1121745. PMID 16400112. 
  73. ^ Skidmore (2006).
  74. ^ "Earliest Maya Writing Found in Guatemala, Researchers Say". Retrieved 2007-06-06.  The following year saw the publication of research on a tablet containing some 62 glyphs that had been found near the Olmec center of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, which was dated by association to approximately 900 BCE. This would make this putative Olmec script (see Cascajal Block) the oldest known for Mesoamerica; see Skidmore (2006, passim)
  75. ^ Miller and Taube (1993, p.131)
  76. ^ Accessed 17 May 2013
  77. ^ Thompson, J. Eric S., 1974 "Maya Astronomy" recoverable at:, accessed 2012.12.22
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  80. ^ As interpreted by Krupp 1999.
  81. ^ Demarest, Arthur (2004). Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 32–33. ISBN 0-521-59224-0. 


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Further reading

  • Braswell, Geoffrey E. (2003). The Maya and Teotihuacan: Reinterpreting Early Classic Interaction. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-70914-5. OCLC 49936017. 
  • Christie, Jessica Joyce (2003). Maya Palaces and Elite Residences: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-71244-8. OCLC 50630511. 
  • Demarest, Arthur Andrew (2004). Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization. Cambridge, England; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-59224-0. OCLC 51438896. 
  • Demarest, Arthur Andrew, Prudence M. Rice, and Don Stephen Rice (2004). The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands: Collapse, Transition, and Transformation. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado. ISBN 0-87081-739-6. OCLC 52311867. 
  • Garber, James (2004). The Ancient Maya of the Belize Valley: Half a Century of Archaeological Research. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-2685-7. OCLC 52334723. 
  • William F. Hanks, Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2010) (The Anthropology of Christianity).
  • Herring, Adam (2005). Art and Writing in the Maya cities, AD 600–800: A Poetics of Line. Cambridge, England; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-84246-8. OCLC 56834579. 
  • Lohse, Jon C. and Fred Valdez (2004). Ancient Maya Commoners. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-70571-9. OCLC 54529926. 
  • Lucero, Lisa Joyce (2006). Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-70999-4. OCLC 61731425. 
  • Foster, Lynn V. (2002). Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780816041480. 
  • Malstroem, Vincent (1997). Cycles of the Sun, Mysteries of the Moon: The Calendar in Mesoamerican Civilization. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0292751966. 
  • McKillop, Heather Irene (2005). In Search of Maya Sea Traders. College Station, Texas: Texas A & M University Press. ISBN 1-58544-389-1. OCLC 55145823. 
  • McKillop, Heather Irene (2002). Salt: White Gold of the Ancient Maya. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-2511-7. OCLC 48893025. 
  • McNeil, Cameron L. (2006). Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-2953-8. OCLC 63245604. 
  • Rice, Prudence M. (2004). Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos (1st ed.). Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-70261-2. OCLC 54753496. 
  • Sharer, Robert J. and Loa P. Traxler (2006). The ancient Maya (6th ed.). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-4816-0. OCLC 57577446. 
  • Tiesler, Vera and Andrea Cucina (2006). Janaab' Pakal of Palenque: Reconstructing the Life and Death of a Maya Ruler. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-2510-2. OCLC 62593473. 
  • "Painted Metaphors: Pottery and Politics of the Ancient Maya". University of Pennsylvania Almanac. University of Pennsylvania. 2009-04-07. Retrieved 2009-06-17. 

External links