The Maya, Inca, and Aztecs built great civilizations in Mexico and in Central and South America between 1,800 and 500 years ago. The first of these was the Maya civilization. About 2,800 years ago, people known as the Maya lived in farming villages on the Yucatan Peninsula and the highlands to the south.
From about A.D. 250 to A.D. 900, they built city-states in Central America that included great pyramid temples and public plazas featuring huge stone columns that recounted their history. Excavations at Tikal, Guatemala, one of the greatest and oldest Maya centers, have revealed thousands of structures and artifacts. The findings include temples, pyramids, ball-playing courts, stone monuments, tools, ceremonial objects, and a great many pottery fragments.
The limestone of the Yucatan Peninsula was easily quarried and used for building and tool making. In the south, volcanoes stretched over the highlands and yielded valuable resources. The fertile volcanic soil allowed the people to grow crops.
The Maya built their great cities between A.D. 250 and A.D. 900. Their accomplishments included the development of complex writing and mathematical systems and impressive advances in astronomy. They used two calendars. One calendar was based on a solar year, while the other was a kind of sacred almanac. A sophisticated three-symbol numerical system allowed the Maya to record numbers into the millions.
The Aztec civilization, which emerged beginning in the 1200s, is considered the greatest of the civilizations that developed in Mesoamerica, the area extending from central Mexico to Honduras. Settling first on an island in Lake Texcoco, the Aztecs expanded their control to most of central Mexico. Like the Maya, the Aztec used a sacred calendar and a 365-day agricultural calendar. The Aztec writing system was based on glyphs, symbols that stand for sounds or words. The few remaining Aztec books, called codices, provide rich depictions of Aztec legends, beliefs, and daily life.
At about the same time that the Aztecs flourished in Mexico, the highly developed Incan Empire flourished in the Andes Mountains and along the west coast of South America. The vast Incan Empire had a central government that established laws, developed a complex road system, planned cities, and created farmlands along the sides of mountains. Unlike the Aztecs and the Maya, the Inca did not develop a writing system. Records of inventories were kept on bundles of knotted cords called quipus.
What really set the Mayans apart was there very scientific temperament. They studied stars and in fact had come up with a very scientific calendar comparable to the modern one. They had an obsession with time and tried to measure it by studying astronomy and correlating it with their current events. The Aztecs on the other hand were a very warlike people who waged war against their neighboring tribes forcing them to pay tribute. The male warrior had the pride of place in the Aztec society. Among the Mayans who consisted of many city states, each with their own sovereign ruler, the ruler’s prestige mattered the most. The Aztecs on the other hand were ruled by one supreme ruler.
The Aztecs and Mayans were at different geographical locations as well. While the former ruled the roost in Central America the latter held sway in the western South America. The Mayans are an older people and were around a thousand years before the Aztecs even arrived in Central America. The Aztecs were the dominant culture in Mexico at the time of Cortez’s arrival in Mexico in the 1500s. The Mayans by then had deteriorated into a decadent and decrepit race living on past glory.
Clues and evidence support the idea the Maya possessed superior knowledge in mathematics and astronomy. The keen observation of the night’s sky and its relation to their calendar and monuments must have had significant meaning in their way of life. For the time and effort it would have taken to advance to the level of knowledge they processed, it seems this information must have had important meaning to them. Some of this wisdom would take decades of observation and the use of very sophisticated mathematics to calculate the astronomical cycles which take thousands of years to complete, such as precession. How did the buildup of this knowledge completely disappear without someone passing it along unless something happened to the entire culture, taking their accomplishments with it?
The Maya left behind the evidence to prove their knowledge of mathematics and astronomy was superior but why did they practice sacrificial rituals and bloodletting? Was this their way of population control or to please the Gods of the underworld as most believe? These rituals were a complete mystery until the Bonampak murals were discovered during an excavation in 1949. Before this time it was believed they were a peaceful non-violent culture. The most popular belief, that they performed ceremonies to please the gods, follows the same patterns as other cultures such as the Aztecs.