The Mayans, sometimes known as Mayas, Quiches, Tzeltals, or Tsotzils, are a Native American ethnic group living in southern Mexico and northern Central America. Outside this region there are sizable Mayan communities in other parts of Mexico and in the United States, particularly in California. The name Mayan or Maya is a collective name for the peoples of the region who share cultural and linguistic ties but have their own particular traditions, historical identities, and cultures. The estimated 7–10 million Mayans mostly speak Spanish though some traditional groups often speak one of the Mayan languages as their primary language. Most Mayans are nominally Christian, with a Roman Catholic majority and a growing Protestant minority, though Christian beliefs are often blended with the earlier Mayan belief system.
The origins and early history of the Mayan peoples is not well known, though scholars agree on the existence of three major epochs in the Mayans’ long history—the Pre-Classical Era from about 1500 bce to 300 ce, the Classical Era from around 300 ce to 900 ce, and the Post-Classical Era from 900 ce to 1697 ce. The Pre-Classical Mayan civilization developed in the highlands of present-day Guatemala and El Salvador as a sedentary agricultural society. Its sophisticated arts and sciences included advanced agricultural methods, inventions such as an extremely accurate calendar and a hieroglyphic writing system, and major art forms. In the early Classical period Mayan culture spread over a much larger territory. Large cities were dominated by great stone temples, pyramids, and large central markets. During the Post-Classical Era the centers of Mayan civilization shifted north to the city-states of the Yucatan Peninsula. The Mayan culture, considered the most advanced culture of pre-Columbian America, reached its apex between 600 ce and 900 ce. Discoveries in astronomy and mathematics were comparable to similar achievements in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Mayan developments in ceramics, sculpture, painting, and weaving were often more advanced than those of their European contemporaries. In spite of their brilliant advances, the Mayans never developed machines such as the wheel, which was used for children's toys but was never adapted to any practical application. All labor was done by human manual laborers, overseen and directed by a religious and military elite. Mayan civilization began to decay in the ninth century due to unknown causes. Scientists estimate the Mayan population at that time to have been around 14 million, living mostly south of the Yucatan Peninsula. Two large migrations moved north to settle the Yucatan Peninsula and the highlands of Chiapas. New city-states arose in the region, which enjoyed a long period of stability and prosperity. That stability crumbled around 1440 when a civil war erupted. Whole populations fled, abandoning fields, towns, and cities. When the Spanish began to visit the coast the Mayan civilization was thoroughly in decline, yet they managed to resist subjugation longer than either the Aztecs of central Mexico or the Incas of Peru. The Spanish launched a military expedition against the Mayans during 1531–1535. The last Mayan strongholds fell to the Spanish invaders in 1546 except for the Itzá, the last free Mayan nation, whose people were driven from their capital at Tayasal in 1697, bringing an end to the last important Mayan state. The Spanish authorities and priests systematically destroyed the Mayan culture and religion. Zealous Roman Catholic missionaries gathered and burned all Mayan books and archives; only a few scattered examples survived the disaster. The inventors of advanced mathematics, arts, astronomy, and sciences were relegated to the status of a subject people, many of them enslaved or forced to work on Spanish plantations. European diseases, abuses, and the social disruption of the Spanish conquest wiped out a large portion of the Mayan population during the 16th century. By 1700 the population of millions had declined to fewer than 250,000.
The Mayan culture encompasses a wide area populated by a number of culturally and linguistically related peoples, all descendants of the great Mayan empire. The Mayans of the Yucatan Peninsula were the first to call themselves and their language “Mayan,” which was eventually applied to the related peoples of southern Mexico and Central America. The chief division in Mayan culture is between the inhabitants of the highlands and the lowland groups. Land is the key element in modern Mayan culture, particularly among the 80 percent that still lives in rural areas. Many Mayans have assimilated into the Hispanic culture, often speaking Spanish as a first or second language and participating in their shared Catholic faith. The indigenous Mayan populations in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize are the poorest of a generally relatively poor regional population. Socially the indigenous peoples are considered inferior to those of European or mixed ancestry, and discrimination is rife. Their Roman Catholic faith is often seen as a refuge by some but as part of the problem by others. Elements of their pre-Christian religion remain as important parts of the culture, particularly the ceremonies and rituals that are often mixed with Christian traditions. Belief in the powers of shams or curers and both good and evil spirits is also widespread.
The overthrow of Spanish rule in Mexico and Central America did little to better the lives of the Mayan population though slavery was gradually abolished. Newly independent Mexico claimed most of Central America in 1821, one of the wealthiest regions of Spanish America dominated by plantations worked by Mayan debt slaves following the abolition of slavery. By 1839 the Central American states had broken away from Mexico, including the Yucatan. Mexican troops ended the Yucatan secession in 1843 but failed to recover the other Central American regions. The Yucatan secession roused the downtrodden Mayans against the cruel European and Mestizo (mixed race) landlords. A new rebellion broke out in 1847 and quickly escalated to civil war. Called the War of the Castes, it pitted the poorly armed Mayans against the oppressive landlords and their Mestizo supporters. The war ended in a Mayan defeat in 1848 though part of the Yucatan Peninsula remained under Mayan rule until 1902. Another Mayan revolt broke out in 1910 but after initial successes the rebels fled to the less accessible parts of the region. Revolution and civil war left Mexico without a central government from 1914 to 1919. A separatist revolt again swept through the Yucatan region with widespread Mayan support. A socialist republic was declared in 1916, the first socialist state in the world a year before Lenin proclaimed a socialist state in Russia. The secessionist state was defeated but a renewed Mayan revolt began in 1923. A new Yucatan government declared the Mayan language an official language for the first time since the Spanish conquest. The return of centralized Mexican rule ended the experiment in equality and socialism. The legacy of large estates, both in Mexico and in Central America, effectively excluded most Mayans from participation in the local economies. This remained a well-established mechanism for dominance and subordination well into the 1960s. From the late 1960s military governments, particularly in Guatemala and El Salvador, targeted the Mayan population leaving tens of thousands dead and many more displaced. In the 1990s democracy was restored in Guatemala and El Salvador but violence against the Mayans continued. The Mayans began to cast aside their legendary patience in the early 1990s. Activists led groups demanding the return of stolen lands and cultural rights. The Mayans of the Chiapas region of Mexico were the last to mobilize against centuries of depravation and abuse. In the 2000s Mayans were leading protests and publishing demands for equality and redress of past outrages.
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