Mayan civilisation was the predominant culture in the ancient Mesoamerican era. These amazing people faced extreme circumstances and spawned a culture whose many mysteries are still being unravelled today.
The Mayan culture began to develop at around 1000 BCE and was at its peak between 300 AD and 900 AD. They were one of the most advanced people’s in that area at that time, with huge success in various areas, covered in my other articles. The success was partly due to their adaptations to their environment, as there were many different sub-cultures under the umbrella of Maya. The reason for this diversity was the different ways various settlements of people adjusted to the different challenges they had to face to survive.
The Mayan's were scattered over a large area, the heavy rainforest making dense population an impossibility. They also made their homes in swamps, bogs and areas of desert, all areas where more land was required per family to sustain them. This meant that the population had to be widespread to ensure survival. Due to the differences in environment, different foods and materials were available and so the Maya were a versatile people.
Mayan cities were few and far between, and were in fact mainly home to the clergy and prominent nobles. The social strata was complex, and much like the hierarchy of the Tsuarani from the Riftwar series. Anybody who has read those, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. For those who haven’t, I will explain! At the top, you have both the king, called halac uinic (True Man), and the head priest. Under the head priest you then had various levels of clergy that oversaw religious ceremonies and kept the Mayans in line with their gods. Under the king, you had governors from royal families who ruled over large areas of land and whose word was supreme in his own demesne. These in turn conducted the minor nobility, not of royal blood. The minor nobility ruled over each settlement of Maya, settling minor affairs. However, the nobility were not regarded as rulers of the people, but rather custodians; it was their job to rule wisely and justly, to lead their people to victory in battle and to offer minor sacrifices to the gods in order to ensure a good harvest. Beneath the minor nobility you had the freemen, and then you had the slaves. Slaves were usually prisoners of war, or people who committed huge crimes.
Courts of law, as we would call it, were overseen by a council of varying importance depending on the seriousness of the crime. A less severe crime would be judged by the custodian of the settlement and a jury of heads of families, whilst a more serious crime would be judged by a governor. The most serious of crimes would be overseen by the halac uinic himself. Punishments consisted of death, usually by being thrown off a precipice, fines, slavery or imprisonment, though the latter was rare. The law was merciful, even lenient, as even murder could sometimes be resolved with merely a fine. When the king presided over a court, he wore robes of white, with gold and precious gem decoration. He would have worn a circlet of gold, decorated with the plumes of a bird reserved for royalty, and would have been carried on a jewelled and canopied chaise carried by slaves.
As you can see, far from the blood thirsty savages that they were often depicted as, the Maya were an organised and civilised people. In fact, for such a long time ago they were very advanced socially, with the miracle being it worked! Every person knew their place in society, and the lords and government had a duty to protect and feed those who couldn’t look after themselves. Not too bad for such a primitive people! I hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it, and please have a look at the others as they come up!