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Ancient Middle America

Fall 2014 Calendar

 map: topographic
  map: Mesoamerica and Its Cultural Areas
 Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica

OWL logo, Online Writing Lab, Purdue University.
class slides on-line
(free PowerPoint Viewer 2010)


Tuesday, 06-Oct-2015 18:46:56 GMT


Map of Major Mayan Archaeological Sites

Map of the
Mayan World




Spirits of the Jaguar:

"Forests of the Maya"

55 min., 1997, VC 3403 -- episode 2

Abstract Terms / Concepts Notes
Cultures Sites Individuals Bibliography
/ Resources

from the PBC Nature Series


"Using wildlife footage, dramatic recreations and computer simulation, this four-part series explores the great civilizations of the Aztecs, the Maya and the Taino, which dominated the Caribbean and Central America for centuries before disappearing totally."


Terms / Concepts:

  • cenote

  • prehensil tail

  • caves



  • About 4000 ybp hunters turned to farmers

    • used slash-and-burn agriculture, which was the foundation of a new way of life

      • maize, beans, squash were the main domesticates

        • maize eaten alone has little nutritional value

        • when used with lime and water the protein intake is increased

      • by ca. A.D. 800 supported "at least 10,000,000 people"

  • At their height, 1200 years ago, the Mayan astronomers could predict an accurate calendar within 1 day / 6000 years

  • 1100 ybp deforestation led to the decline of Mayan civilization

    • there was little forest left to hunt

  • "Water was Power"

  • caves are important in Mesoamerica

    • caves are the entry to the underworld

    • cenotes are viewed as caves

    • underground rivers flow hundreds of miles under the Maya lands

      • they trap seawater from before the last ice age
    • Origin Myth

      • 1st human was made from clay

      • 2nd human was made from wood

      • 3rd human was made from maize flower and the Gods'

    • Maya = "The Children of the Corn"

      • The Maya owed their existence to the blood of the gods and to their main plant, maize

    • The gods needed blood, and the lands needed water

      • blood and water dominated Maya concerns

      • it was a privilege of the royalty to let blood

        • this was a time of vision

Three Worlds

were united by the ceiba (kapok) tree
(see below)
  • "The Tree of Life"

  • at the center of this world was the ceiba tree, with the roots in the underworld and branches in the heavens

  • the crown of the "Tree of Life" towers above the forest canopy

were also united by the temples which joined all three worlds

Heaven / Sky

-- the eagle is the lord of the sky

(the middle world)

-- has its own vertical divisions, and each layer has its own forms of life


-- snakes could enter the underworld, and were considered guardians of the underworld


Art depicting life: a Mayan pot inspired by the trunk of a Ceiba tree.

Art depicting life: a Mayan pot inspired by the trunk of a Ceiba tree
BBC EarthNews

Ceiba tree roots spread across rainforest floors
Vicki Andersen
    • Rituals were especially important during the spring and autumn equinox

    • The Maya moved into the tropical rainforest from the North

      • they harvested many things from the forest: food, building materials, medicine, chicle (world's first chewing gum)

      • the cocoa bean became currency

    • February to May was a period of long drought

      • the life of the forest revolved around the coming of the rain

    • Animals:

      • animals of the forest appear in art and myth

      • animals became the names of kings, cities, . . .

      • the Maya worshipped animals that could cross boundaries, including the boundary between land and water

        • alligators

        • turtle

          • associated with the chac god (water)
          • and with the maize god
          • was important in Mayan diet
          • were farmed
      • jaguar -- the largest cat of the Americas

        • the jaguar was revered because it could hunt both day and night

        • the marguay, of all forest cats, is best equipped to hunt at night

        • on the inauguration of the 16th kind of Copán 15 jaguars were offered in honor of the first 15 rulers

      • like the jaguar may of the jungle animals are important in Maya folklore and in their spiritual lives

        • monkeys represent scribes

          • often depicted as gifted and industrious

        • hummingbirds symbolize the ritual of bloodletting because of their needle-like bill

        • tapir = the largest animal of the forest

        • bats

          • are the symbol for the fourth month in the calendar

          • a bat is the symbol for the city of Copán

          • in Mayan myth the bat represented the unknown, the night, the dark

          • in the bat god's underworld all who entered were doomed

          • many of the rainforest plants bloom at night and rely on bats for pollination

        • snakes, scorpions, spiders, insects (including army ants)

          • snakes were able to journey between the earth and the underworld below

          • they were the guardian of the underworld

        • the Harpie eagle, the largest in the world, inspired Maya warriors
      • Maya kept bees

        • honey was used to make an alcoholic during important in ritual

    • Architecture

      • built temples / pyramids out of limestone that was soft, but which hardened over time with exposure

    • Myths

      • celebrate cunning and wit

      • animals of the forest appear in art and myth

      • in Mayan myth the bat represented the unknown, the night

        • in his underworld all who entered were doomed
    • The Night was a time of the unknown. It belonged to the spirit world.

      • 2 / 3 of the Mayan jungle animals are nocturnal, and many of these have developed a life in the trees

      • the celestial bodies of the night were gods reenacting mythical events from the beginning of time

      • the night was the time when mortals communicated with the supernatural

    • astronomers, mathematicians, timekeepers . . . were important specialists
    • War, famine, greed, overpopulation . . . all of these contributed to the downfall of the Maya


Sites / Locations:


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