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The Mayan civilization was located in parts of what are now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. It flourished between AD 300 and 900, and is known to have existed as long ago as 2000 BC. It was at its peak about the same time as the Roman empire was crumbling. More than half the population of Guatemala today are Maya Indians.

The calendar system was one of the major achievements of the Mayans; they devised two, one of which was a highly accurate yearly calendar of 365 days, based on the orbit of the earth around the sun. In specially-built observatories, Mayan priests noted the way in which the position of the Sun, Moon, stars and planets changed. This is how Mayan astronomers calculated the exact length of the solar year and lunar month, and knew how to predict eclipses. BC 3372 was the first date in this calendar. The other calendar was of 260 days - a sacred calendar used to foretell the future and avoid bad luck. Only priests trained in astrology could read it, and people would consult them before an important event, such as a birth or marriage. If a child was born on a day that was considered unlucky, his important naming ceremony could be postponed until a luckier date.

They developed advanced mathematics, and were the first people to invent a symbol for the number zero. Their numerical system counted in twenties and used only three symbols: a bar for 5, a dot for each unit up to 4, and a shell for 0. They used an arrangement of knotted strings, called a quipu, to record numerical information. The type and position of knot and the length and colour of string were all significant.

The Mayans wrote in hieroglyphs, which were found on huge stone monuments and in books they made from bark paper. The writing system was controlled by a caste of scribes of very high rank, who had their own patron deities, including Itzamna, the creator god and legendary inventor of writing, and the monkey-man gods. Their carvings, done without metal tools, combine the hieroglyphs with ornate human figures, which often show richly dressed people. Many marvellous wall-paintings in tombs and temples, remarkable stone carvings and decorated clay pots have been found in and around the ruins of their cities. They made pots by coiling long strips of clay into pots, then turning them round with their feet.

Over the centuries the Mayans became successful farmers and created hundreds of great cities out of stone, each with its own character and artistic style. From the third century BC to about AD 800, the Maya began a great building programme, and created large cities containing temple-pyramids, palaces, ballcourts, and community houses. The major cities were Tikal, Copan, and Chichen Itza. Each city-state was independent with no overall ruler or government. The rulers of these separate city states often fought each other. They fought for prisoners to offer up as sacrifices to please their gods. Only nobles, priests, rulers, officials and their servants inhabited the cities. The Mayas built a network of roads to encourage trade.

Most of the Mayas were farmers who lived in forest huts and only came to the cities to attend markets or religious festivals. The farmers cleared forest land and grew maize, vegetables, tobacco, and cocoa, and kept turkeys, ducks, and bees in hives made from hollowed logs. The farm produce fed the country people, and also supported the urban dwellers. The basic item of diet was maize, but the Maya also ate beans, chillies, and meat stews.

They played a form of basketball that was half religious ceremony, half sport. Anyone who scored had the right to demand the property of any spectator they managed to catch. Players could only use hips, elbows, and ankles to control the ball, aiming for a hoop in the side wall.

Religious ceremonies played a central part in Maya life. Many of the city states were governed by priests as well as lords. The style of the temple-pyramids, the most important buildings in the cities, may have been copied from the temples at Teotihuacan. Leading men were often buried inside them. In the 1950s, a stone-lidded sarcophagus was found at the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque in the south of Mexico. Inside were the bones of a man. He was wrapped in a cotton shroud and covered with jade and mother-of-pearl ornaments, indicating his importance during his lifetime.

Another temple in Palenque is the Temple of the Foliated Cross, which stands at the ceremonial centre of the city. It was built during the reign of Chan-Bahlum II, in about 683. One of the finest stepped pyramids in the world is the Mayan pyramid, known as the Giant Jaguar, built before AD 800 in the ceremonial complex at Tikal, Guatemala. Stepped pyramids were crowned with temples. The Mayans prayed to rain, earth, wind, plant and animal gods. They built magnificent temples and shrines in honour of these gods and placed them high above the ground on the pyramid platforms. Only priests and a favoured few could enter the temples.

The Maya, like the people of Teotihuacan and many other South American cultures, worshipped the mysterious jaguar, or cat-god. In the Maya civilization, he was master of the underworld and the symbol of bravery in war. The Maya worshipped many other gods too. They believed that they could please their gods by making offerings of human blood. They could either cut themselves, collect the blood, and offer it to a god, or they could make human sacrifices. Bloodletting was thought to be purifying. Sometimes, several people would be killed and placed near the body of a great man who was buried in a temple-pyramid, so that their spirits could guard his in the afterlife.

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