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Mayan civilization

An overview of the Mayan civilization as well as the great city of Teotihuacan.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] The Mayan civilization is one of the most long-lasting civilizations, not just in the ancient Americas, but in the world in general. You can see the rough outline here on this map of where the Mayan civilization occurred. You can see it has the Yucatan Peninsula in the north, the Sierra Madre Mountains in the south, and it covers regions of modern-day southeast Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Western Honduras, and El Salvador. We believe that there were settlements in this region as early as 2000 ... As early as 2000 B.C.E., and then we have the emergence of the first cities around 750 B.C.E.. And even then there are signs of significant cultural advancements. There's evidence that there was a sophisticated base-20 numeral system that included the use of place value as early as 1000 B.C.E.. To put that in context, the Hindu Arabic numeral system which we now use, and most of the world now uses, it wasn't devised, we don't believe, until about 1000 years later, and it wasn't adopted in Europe until about 2000 years after the time where we see the first evidence of this Mayan numeral system, this base-20 system that had place value. Now, around the third century B.C.E., so roughly in this time period right over here, we see the first writing. These are examples of what a Mayan glyph looks like. So that is a Mayan glyph, and you read it in order like this. And once again, this is a very early form of writing, and it's believed to be the first form of writing, well-established writing, in the Americas. Now, on top of their sophisticated numeral system and the writing that they developed, they also had a very sophisticated calendar. Their calendar was more accurate than the Julian calendar, which was adopted by Julius Caesar, and that was the state of the art in the western world until the middle of the second millennium. So their calendar was more accurate than what was used in most of the world until around 1500 or 1600. Now, as we get into 250 in the Common Era, that's considered the classical period. That's when some of their really great cities start to emerge, cities like Tikal and Calakmul. My apologies ahead of time for the pronunciation. It is believed that at their peak, these cities had 50,000 to 100,000 people. Now, what we now believe is that it was not one unified empire, that there wasn't a Mayan empire with a centralized emperor, but rather, it was closer to the Greek city-states, where each of these cities were their own state. Their more powerful cities, like Tikal or Calakmul, might have had influence or sway over others, but it wasn't a unified empire in the sense of the Roman Empire or the Persian Empire or some of the early Indian empires. Now, it is believed that each of these city-states, they did have a king who was not only a political ruler but also a spiritual ruler, considered a divine king, a connection between the natural and the supernatural. We have evidence that they practiced human sacrifice as part of their believe system, as part of their rituals. Now, near the end of the fourth century, there's evidence that there was significant influence or even conquering of some of these cities by another civilization, or maybe we could say another city, and that is Teotihuacan. We know that it was a very powerful city, and that, in the fourth century, it started to really exert significant influence, and just to get a sense of the sophistication of what Mayan cities look like, and I'll show you what we believed Teotihuacan looked like in a second, but this is a construction of what Tikal might have looked like near its peak. And Teotihuacan, we have significant ruins there. Teotihuacan, as you can see, is based near modern-day Mexico City, and these are the ruins from Teotihuacan. Just to get a sense of how sophisticated a city this was, this is a reconstruction of the map of the city. So the vantage point that you have from this picture would have been roughly in that area, so what you're seeing right over here are these ... These buildings, or these little squares here. This pyramid that you see out in the distance, that would have been this pyramid. So you can see from this reconstruction of what the city might have looked like, it was a vast and significant city. Pretty much everything that you can see in this picture was part of this great city. It was believed that it was established around 150 B.C.E., based on our best evidence today, and lasted until about the middle of the sixth century. Now, they name Teotihuacan, we don't ... That's not its original name. It's the name given to it by the Aztecs, but it's believed that at its peak around 400, 450, and remember, this was around the time that it was exerting significant influence over the Mayans, it is believed that it had upwards of 100,000 people living in the city. 100,000 to 200,000. I've even seen some accounts saying 250,000 people, which would have made it, at the time, one of the largest cities in the world. Some accounts have it ranked as the sixth largest city in the world that we know about. Now, one interesting question was, was Teotihuacan an independent city-state by itself, or was it the center of an empire? This is something that historians debate today. Now, some of the evidence for why it was maybe a center of an empire is it's believed it was a multiethnic city. We see its influence over the Mayan cities, especially over Tikal, as we get into the end of the fourth century. We also see this incredible confluence of people and culture and trade at Teotihuacan, which, once again, hints that it probably wasn't a standalone city, but it was probably the center of some type of regional influence, or maybe an empire. We don't traditionally see cities of that size form unless they are the center of a larger empire, and they're able to get tribute or taxation from other states. Now, Teotihuacan ends up declining or falling before the Mayan civilization. You see Teotihuacan in this blue-green line. You see the Mayan civilization in this light blue, and then in the classical period, this slightly darker light blue. And Teotihuacan collapses around 550 in the Common Era, and the best theories we have today is that it might have been some type of an internal uprising, maybe due to some type of drought and famine, and you can imagine, people will revolt if they're not able to get enough food. Now, the Mayan civilization, it is believed, also started to collapse a few hundred years after that. So as we get into the 800s, the Mayan civilization, we believe, might have experienced some similar things, maybe some drought, some famine, that similarly caused uprisings, division, and allowed that to collapse. Now, there is evidence of some of these cities lasting beyond the classical period, all the way up until you have the European colonization of the region. We'll talk more about that and some of the successor states, like the Aztecs, who considered themselves a bit of a successor state to the civilization or to the city of Teotihuacan, and we'll look at that in future videos.