A far cry from the temples of palaces of bygone days, Indian houses are essentially crude and rustic. The two main types of construction are distinguished by whether the roof is supported by load-bearing walls or stakes set in the ground. Dwellings were built partially or entirely of perishable materials. Plants such as reeds and palms-in the form of branches, bundles, or sheaves-were used for roofs; wattling and mudbrick were used for walls, wood for palisades and stone for foundations. Today traditional building materials are being replaced by modern materials which, although more expensive and less conducive to comfort, extend the life of the building and make it more likely to withstand bad weather and earthquakes.
For economic, political and social reasons some ethnic groups have abandoned their traditional costume (to which the women have remained more attached) in favor of a western style of dress. Before the Spanish Conquest the costume consisted of a long huipil (a sort of over blouse) and a skirt. The sophistication of the materials and richness of jewelry were an indication of the wearer's social status. Traditional costume fulfills the same function today.
Maya territory covers the eastern part of the Mesoamerica: southeast Mexico (Yucatan Peninsula and the State of Chiapas), Belize, Guatemala and the west of El Salvador and Honduras. It covers an area of around 125,000 square miles divided into highlands and lowlands-the same area inhabited by the Maya at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Today more than three million people (predominantly Quiches and Yucatecans) speak one of twenty-eight Mayan dialects, which subdivide into nine large groups.
In the classic periods, Mayan society was divided into classes and professions such as craftsmen and merchants. It was subject to the authority of a centralized government which ruled a territory whose boundaries were clearly defined. The political authority, headed by the king who represented his community, had an army and administration at its disposal. The emblem glyphs appear to designate the state rather than the city, which would explain why several cities used the same emblem. The classic Maya civilization was essentially urban. Although they did not look like modern-day towns and cities, Maya centers performed the same function and were responsible for important artistic and intellectual achievements.
After the Spanish Conquest of Central America the already declining Maya civilization became the subject of many investigations, particularly with the rediscovery during the 18th and 19th centuries of cities buried deep in the forest. With a few notable exceptions, such as Diego de Landa, the Spanish conquerors had shown little interest in the regions's history. The study of Mayan civilization (or "Mayanism") developed initially as a result of the efforts of European and American travelers and adventurers, and subsequently as professional archaeologists gradually began to solve mysteries of the world of the Mayas.
For a long time the Maya have been contrasted with the bloodthirsty Aztecs. They have been presumed as a non-violent intellectual people who were not given to bloody sacrifices. Although most recent discoveries have shown that, although the number of their victims were lower than their neighbors, human sacrifice played a major role in Mayan religion from the very beginning. Sacrifice was a payment that had to be made to natural and supernatural powers to obtain such favors as rain, a good harvest, victory and universal harmony.
The traditional Indian economy is, first and foremost, agricultural. Maya (meaning "man of corn") peasants are linked by a quasi-genetic and sacred bond to the land, which is the object of all their
The Maya are the only civilization on the American continent to have developed a form of writing capable of expressing all types of thought and language through a combination of signs and symbols. About eight hundred different symbols have been recorded in Mayan texts, and over recent years, much progress has been made in deciphering these texts, due to a better understanding of the true nature of the writing in which certain symbols express concepts while others are a transcription of syllables.
The Maya perfected the discoveries of their post-Olmec predecessors in the fields of positional arithmetic and the calendar, which used independent cycles-their principle cycles being the "divinatory cycle (tzolkin), the solar year (haab), and the great cycle of 5,200 tun or long count. Their mastery of the calculation of time enabled them to write their history and above all, to predict the future by means of a cyclical conception of chronological units, as illustrated by their inscriptions.
The modern state of Yucatan is the result of the successive divisions, begun in the 19th century, of a territory which once covered the entire Yucatan Peninsula. Today it covers a triangular area of 15, 425 square miles bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the North, the state of Campeche to the south, and Quintana Roo to the east. Most of the state's 1,365,000 inhabitants are of Maya origin. The climate is warm and wet virtually all year. From November to March, breezes from the North bring cooler evening temperatures, while from April to September, the streets of the capital, Merida, are flooded by tropical rains.
The family is the basic unit of social organization. It is within the family that most of the productive and domestic tasks are performed. In certain regions the family forms part of a larger group, or lineage, made up of people living in the same village or immediate vicinity, who often share the same name. Such as the calpul, who consist of indigenous groups forcibly regrouped into new communities.
The Maya are also known for their beliefs in fortune-telling and healing. Both play an important part in the complex ceremonies that are central to the religious life of the Maya. They are practiced by traditional priests whose often ambivalent and ambiguous powers are primarily products of their personal talents, revealed in dreams and developed during many years' apprencticeship to their elders. During séances, fortune-tellers answer the questions of those seeking advice by throwing crystals and seeds onto a towel spread on the ground and observing the patterns formed as they fall. Each pattern corresponds to a day on the divinatory calendar and to a specific number-symbol combination whose lucky or unlucky associations predict the success of a particular undertaking, such as marriage, seed sowing or building a house.
After a severe decline during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Maya population is slowly increasing and in the last several decades its population has reached over six million.