What did the Mayans 'do for us'? A couple of words... Chocolate, Rubber and the number Zero! The Mayans were a highly sophisticated people who made some significant discoveries about the world around us.
Although now long gone, their descendants can still be found in the region that was once one of the most advanced cultures in Meso-America - they can even still understand the Mayan language!
In the following article, we'll take a quick look at this once magnificent civilization and highlight some of their major inventions.
Who were the Maya and the origin of their name
The Maya are a series of indigenous people in Mexico and Central America. Although often mistakenly thought to have long died out, their ancestors still inhabit much of the lands we now refer to as Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas in Mexico and southward through Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras.
The term Maya derives from the last Capital City of one the oldest known civilizations, the Mayan Kingdom (in the Post-Classical Period 900-1519 AD), in Yucatan called Mayapan. Although we know them as the Maya's surviving descendants, these people prefer to call themselves the Quiche or Yucatec depending on whether they live in the North or South of the lands that once comprised the old Mayan Kingdom.
Evidence of their existence was 'discovered' by John Loyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in the 1840s. These explorers brought the wonder of the Mayan's great cities like Chichen Itza, Bonampak, Uxmal and Altun Ha into the public eye.
These sites still intrigue and entice us as much today as they did our Victorian counterparts. Interestingly, many of these long lost kingdom''s descendants still practice several of their ancestor's rituals (though often in a modified form) today.
Why were the Maya important?
The "Mysterious Mayan's" have fascinated generations of people since their 'discovery' in the 1800s. Their 'lost' cities in the depths of the jungles of Mexico and Central America are filled with strange pyramids and astronomical and mathematical wonders that we are just beginning to comprehend.
Seemingly alien yet familiar to us, their intricate architecture, cuisine, language, and mythology inspire countless professional and amateur explorers to visit and study their ancient sites and artefacts every year.
Today we are still not entirely sure who the Mayans were, how they lived, what they thought or why their great civilization eventually collapsed. But, what we have gleaned, or believe we have, does seem to indicate that they were an impressive and sophisticated people who developed some very interesting technologies.
Like the study of all long lost civilizations (and history in general), every little revelation we make about our past enriches our species as a whole and helps us recover long lost 'knowledge' from our long and fascinating past.
Afterall, as the famous quote goes:-
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana.
If we can understand how such a sophisticated civilization collapsed we may glean some useful information to prevent it from happening again.
What did the Mayans develop?
The Mayans made some interesting developments completely independently of the more ancient civilizations of the 'Old World'. Despite their relatively 'late' invention of some technologies and mathematical concepts, the fact that they reached the same conclusions practically isolated from the wider world is a true testament to their sophistication.
Here are just a few examples of what the Mayans contributed to the world as well as some major Mayan achievements.
1. The Mayan's developed the concept of zero independently
"The Indian [or numerical] zero, widely seen as one of the greatest innovations in human history, is the cornerstone of modern mathematics and physics, plus the spin-off technology," said Peter Gobets, secretary of the ZerOrigIndia Foundation, or the Zero Project.
In the 'old world', and around the world in general, people have understood the idea or concept of nothing or having nothing. But, amazingly, the fundamental concept of zero (that we take for granted today) is a relatively new 'invention'.
In the 'old world' zero was, according to current understanding, fully developed in India around the 5th Century AD (458 AD). Although there are disputes as to whether this knowledge was inherited from the Babylonians.
Whatever the case, the modern concept of 'zero' was well defined by 628 AD by the great Brahmagupta. It did not arrive in Europe until around the 12th Century.
Amazingly the Mayans were able to develop their own concept of 'zero' at least 100 years earlier than in India, in about 350 AD. Frankly, this is incredible given that the continents of America were held back from the 'old world' not just because of their geographical isolation but also by their relatively recent occupation of the lands relative to 'old world' civilizations.
Before this, scholars had trouble performing simple arithmetic calculations. It truly was a 'roadblock' that prevented the development of advanced mathematics such as Calculus, complex equations, and the eventual development of computers.
Although some older civilizations, like the Sumerian's, had developed a 'zero' as a placeholder as early as the 3rd Century BC (i.e. to denote no units in the hundreds, tens etc). It was a true use of 'zero' as a number.
For instance one of the oldest civilizations we know about, the Mesopotamians, appeared roughly in 3500 BC compared to early estimations of the start of the Mayan Civilisation to about 2600 BC.
2. The Mayans were the first to vulcanize rubber and play football and basketball (sort of)
Although it is widely acknowledged that rubber did not become useful until one Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process in around 1840, this might not be entirely true.
The Mayans and other Mesoamerican societies managed to devise their own process around 1600 BC. They appear to have been able to make a form of elastic from normal latex by blending it with other vegetative substances.
The process appears to have used juice from vines to make their form of elastic. Using this they made things like 'bouncy balls' to play a particularly violent ballgame in specially built and designed ballcourts.
These ballcourts tended to be built at the base of their religious sanctuaries to pay tribute to their gods. The courts had expansive playing regions; each with a stone loop mounted on the divider toward one side.
The game, called 'Pok-A-Tok' wasn't just for recreation and religious devotion it was also used to settle disputes between warring factions and noblemen. The stakes were high, however, as losing could end with the losing team's leader (or entire team) being sacrificed to the gods.
'Pok-A-Tok' was a sort of cross between football and basketball that was played using a rubber ball. The object of the game was to try to get the ball through a stone hoop placed at each end of the court.
However, the ball could only be passed and shot using players thighs and hips.
2. The Mayans invented Chocolate
Everybody's favorite confectionery, Chocolate, was developed very early on in Mayan culture. They were able to develop a form of drink that was made from smashed cocoa beans that was so prized that it was often used as a form of currency.
They noticed, in around 250-900 AD, that cocoa beans tasted very nice indeed when aged, simmered, ground and blended with fixings. They even made a 'fiery' version by mixing in stew peppers and cornmeal.
They tended to pour the liquid from one cup to another until a frothy foam appeared on top.
Although it sounds as delicious as modern derivatives, it would not really be recognizable to us today. In fact, the word ‘chocolate’ is said to come from the Mayan word ‘xocolatl’ which means ‘bitter water.’
Unsurprisingly to us today, the Mayan's thought so highly of Chocolate that they believed it was a form of "food of the Gods". It is not uncommon to find images of cocoa pods painted on walls of stone temples and other Mayan artefacts often showing their gods imbibing it.
Cocoa was often consumed during religious ceremonies and marriage celebrations. All Mayans could enjoy cocoa, regardless of their social status.
4. The Mayans developed an advanced language and writing system as well as books
Like many other great lost civilizations the world over, the Mayans formalized their language into a codified writing system. The utility of this is obvious to us today but at the time in ancient Americas this put them lightyears ahead of other peoples of the American continents.
Their glyphs were used much like those of Ancient Egypt, to represent words, sounds, and syllables through the use of pictures and other symbols. Historians believe that the Mayans used around 700 glyphs to do this and, incredibly, 80% of their language can still be understood by their descendants today.
The Mayans also developed a form of an early book that recorded the exploits of their gods, daily life, news and many more subjects. The Mayans, like any other sensible civilization, were keen to record their history and achievements and went as far as to record notable events on pillars, walls and large stone slabs much like the Ancient Egyptians and Romans.
Their books were written on bark and folded into fan-like structures. Many of these were sadly destroyed by the Conquistadors but thankfully some have survived to this day.
5. The Fabled Mayan Calendar: Their most famous invention
Amongst their most famous inventions is the fabled Mayan Calender (the one that was supposed to predict the end of the world in 2012). It was pretty sophisticated and, like any decent calendar, records repetitive cycles of time based on the movements of the Sun, Moon, and Planets.
As you'd expect, dates go through cycles that repeat whenever the Earth completes one orbit of the Sun. Mayan Calenders are effectively a 'three-in-one' timekeeping system that includes:-
- The Long Count;
- The Tzolkin/Divine Calendar and;
- The Haab/Civil Calendar.
Time is recorded using special glyphs that reoccur in an exact number of days that must occur before any new cycle begins anew. All three of these were used simultaneously with then Tzolkin and Haab identifying days (but not years).
They are supposed to be read with the Long Count first, then the Tzolkin and finally the Haab date. And so "a typical Mayan date would read: 188.8.131.52.0 4 Ahau 8 Kumku, where 184.108.40.206.0 is the Long Count date, 4 Ahau is the Tzolkin date, and 8 Kumku is the Haab date." - timeanddate.com.
The Mayan units of time are as follows:-
- The Kin figures equate to one day and were numbered 0-19;
- The Uinal equate to 20 kin or days and were numbered 0-17;
- The Tun equate to 18 Uinal of one Earth year (365 days) and were numbered 0 -19;
- The Katun equate to 360 Uinal or 7,200 days and were numbered 0-19;
- The Baktun equate to 400 tun or 144,000 days and were numbered 1-13.
"The Long Count has a cycle of 13 baktuns, which will be completed 1.872.000 days (13 baktuns) after 0.0.0.0.0. This period equals 5125.36 years and is referred to as the “Great Cycle” of the Long Count" - timeanddate.com.
6. Mayan astronomy was incredibly accurate
What did the Mayans know about astronomy? Quite a lot as it turns out.
The Mayans are famed for their development, and accuracy, of their astronomical observations and predictions. They made very careful recordings and objective conclusions about those heavenly bodies easily seen by the human eye.
As we have seen the Haab year is 365 days but it seems they knew this was a tiny bit off. According to deciphered records, it appears that they had calculated an Earth tropical year to be about 365.242 days which is very close to the modern 365.2425 that is used as part of the Gregorian year.
Mayan astronomers also noticed that 81 lunar months lasted 2392 days expressing a lunar month as 29.5308 days. Modern-day estimates are 29.53059 days.
They were also able to determine that the Venus Cycle took 584-days (583.92027 days) to complete and were off by only 1-2 hours compared to modern calculations of 583.93 days. The Mayans likewise speculated about planets such as Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury, and recorded galactic information like obscurations.
In many ways their level of accuracy, given their lack of modern science, was incredible. It is also amazing to think that all this information would have been lost to us today is they had not kept very detailed written records.
But don't be fooled into thinking the Mayans were genuinely curious about the workings of the cosmos. They appear to have seen it more as a tool to provide an accurate enormous 'clock'.
So much so that 'Venus Rising' was seen by the Mayans as a message that they would be successful in war. Throughout much of the history of Meso-America raids and inter-tribal/civilization warfare was omnipresent.
This might explain their attention to detail when it came to studying the heavens.
Yet we should still admire them for their sophistication in this field.
7. Mayan art was both beautiful and ominous
Mayan artists tended to make good use of materials including wood, jade, obsidian, earthenware production, etched stone landmarks, bone, shells stucco and finely painted wall paintings and textiles. Although rarely preserved, it would also appear they were very fond of woodcutting.
There is a distinct lack of use of silver and gold as these precious and rare metals were never in abundance in Mayan regions. Artisans appear to have been restricted to forging these metals into uniquely Mayan designed jewellery.
Stone sculptures are also very popular amongst Mayan sites. There are some very famous highly intricate stone carvings that are particularly impressive from Copan and Quirigua.
Mayan artisans also tended to decorate building elements in exquisite detail notably lintels found in monumental constructions at Palenque and Yaxchilan. They also created thousands of stone stelae, great slabs of limestone carved into images of kings and nobility and covered with writings describing their lineages and acts of courage.
"From the great public stone works to the tiny molded figurines depicting humans, animals or mythic creatures, the Mayan Classical era produced a huge variety of artworks. Regional styles in ceramics or textiles were traded throughout the Mayan region. Some Mayan cities reveal the influence of other Mesoamerican cultures such as the Toltec or Teotihuacan. Nevertheless, all the artworks of this exuberant culture are distinctly Mayan." - historyonthenet.com.
8. Mayan Medicine was surprisingly advanced
For the Mayans, like other ancient civilizations, medicine was a mixture of religion and science. Medicinal activities tended to be practised by priests who inherited their positions and received extensive training.
For the Mayans, health and ill-health was a matter of balance and imbalance. Balance equalled health and imbalance sickness.
They believed this was always controlled by the diet, gender, and age of a person. They knew about stitches and often used human hair to suture wounds. They also regularly made casts to speed the healing and recovery of fractures and other bone breakages.
By all accounts, they were particularly skilled at dentistry and used iron pyrite as tooth fillings. Mayan 'witch doctors' were also skilled in creating prosthetics made from jade and turquoise and used obsidian for making cuts.
Obsidian is noted for its near-monomolecular edge whose use, when compared to other materials, has the ability to accelerate healing and reduce scarring. It is still in use today by some surgeons performing specialist operations.
"The biggest advantage with obsidian is that it is the sharpest edge there is, it causes very little trauma to tissue, it heals faster, and more importantly, it heals with less scarring," said Dr. Lee Green, professor and chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta. "It makes for the best cosmetic outcome."
The Mayans also had extensive knowledge of their local plant ecosystem and used over 1500 different plants to treat a variety of ailments.
9. Mayan agriculture was highly advanced for the time
Although somewhat limited by their geographical location and local plant species, Mayan farmers were expert agriculturists. Their main crop staples included Corn (maize) but they also cultivated beans and squash, which were often grown together with corn to provide mutual support for each crop.
Recent discoveries also indicate Mayan farmers grew manioc (cassava), a highly nutritious and energy-rich root vegetable and an excellent source of carbohydrate. It turns out that their cultivation of cassava might solve a long-standing mystery as to how they were able to sustain such a large civilization and population given their lack of metal tools and locale.
The Mayans were highly accomplished engineers and employed their skills to develop innovative farming techniques including raised farm beds and terrace farming. These techniques were vitally important in providing means of reducing water runoff and erosion and turning mountainous regions into productive farmlands.
But there is something they failed to invent... The wheel!
Despite their clear sophistication as a civilization, there is something conspicuously absent in the Mayan toolbox - the wheel. That being said, they may have developed rudimentary wheels for toys.
Although ubiquitous in the 'Old World' the wheel appears to have never been developed at all by 'New World' civilizations like the Maya. But how could this be the case, they can develop the concept of zero but not something 'simple' like a wheel?
The answer lies in the fact that the wheel is not actually a useful object when considered in isolation. The wheel is only practical if it comes with the following:-
- Some form of a cart;
- Something to pull it and;
- A flat, or near flat, surface to run on.
Although building a cart was not beyond them and they had an extensive system of roads, the Maya lacked decent draught animals. Llamas 'not a cattle be,' as is said.