Native Americans Project #2:
The Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas

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The Mayans

This section will tell you about the ancient Mayans.  Later sections will tell you about an ancient people called the Aztecs, as well as a civilization called the Incas.

Mayan Music And Dance

The Mayas loved music and dance.  They had over 5,000 dances.  Dancing was a huge part of religious ceremonies.  Musicians played wooden flutes and trumpets made from wood, seashells, or clay, and drums made from turtle shells.



Mayan Games

The Maya had a ball game called Pok-A-Tok.  It was played by trying to hit a rubber 5 lb. ball with their padded hips, knees, and forearms into a vertical hoop about 30 feet above their heads. Sometimes it took hours or even days just to complete one game.  The losing team was usually sacrificed!

 Click here to play Pok-a-Tok


It is known that the Mayas enjoyed chocolate.  They had it in many forms from a frothy drink to a pulpy mush. The Mayas referred to chocolate as "The Drink of the Gods."  They had other food such as cornmeal, maize, black beans, roasted meat, rabbit  stew, turkey and meat.


Language and Writing


"a" is "ah"        "x" is "sh"
"e" is "eh"        "i" is  "ee" 
"o" is "oh"      "oo" is a longer "oh"
"u" is "oo"      "c" is "k" 

Mayan           English
Bix a belex?      Hi, how are you?
Maloob            I'm fine,OK.
Yum Botic       Thank you.
Mixba              You're welcome.
Tu'x ka binex?  Where are you going?


Maya words were in hieroglyphs, each picture with its own meaning.  Unlike other ancient central American civilizations, the Maya could write in full sentences and even stories.  A story could be made by drawing several pictures together.  The Maya covered their cities and buildings with hieroglyphs carved into the stone.  Most Mayas could read some hieroglyphs although priests and nobles were probably the only people who knew the whole language.  Maya also wrote in books made out of the soft inner bark of a type of fig tree.  They would take one strip of bark and fold it over and over to make pages.  The Maya would write with quills made from turkey feathers.




The Mayas wore many different forms of jewelry.  The most common was jade.  Jade was worn in beads, bracelets, earrings, and ear spools.  Jade was also one of the materials that the Mayas traded.  The Mayas also wore gold.





Everyday Life

Maya women rose and started the fires before 4:00 AM.  Women made breakfast toasting leftover cornmeal pancakes.  By 5 AM men had finished eating and left for the fields with their sons.  There they harvested their maize. The women and children would do household chores, such as washing clothing and linens.  Mayans would often locate their cities near "Cenotes," which are natural waterholes. Cenotes are circular sink-hole created by the collapse of limestone caves. The water in cenotes is filtered through limestone and constituted one of the primary sources of water for the Maya. At midafternoon men and boys would return from the fields and sometimes hunt or check their traps along the way.  They would kill birds with blowpipes and clay pellets.  Sometimes they also hunted with spears.  When the men got home they had hot baths waiting for them.  (Some cities had community baths) After bathing men had dinner but the woman didn't eat with the men.  The women served the men and then ate their dinner later.  Dinner could include cornmeal, black beans, meat, maize,  rabbit and turkey.  After dinner men usually worked at making wooden and jade things which were sometimes used in trade.  Women would spin cotton and weave.




Farmers had their own  plots of land as well as gardens as next to their houses. Each village also had a plot of communal land which everyone would help to tend. Farmers drained swampy areas, and enclosed with earth banks to keep the water out and the farmers would plant crops there. Then they built irrigation canals, which brought  water from the swamps to the crops growing in the fields. Mayans made use of several  kinds of trees. Cocoa beans from cocoa trees were considered valuable and sometimes used as money.  People chewed the leaves of the sapodilla tree, and the resin from copal trees was used in religious ceremonies.



To measure passages of time, priests studied the sun, the moon, and Venus.  Mayas had a calendar with 18 months with 20 days, plus 5 unlucky days which made up the days in a year.

The Mayas also had a religious calendar which had 260 days in it.  Each  day was give a name and a number.





The Mayans had a sense of beauty that  would be seen as hideous in our present society.  They practiced skull deformation by tying boards to the forehead  of newborn children.  Mayans had tattooing and body piercing.

They would put body paint on themselves for special occasions.  They filed their teeth to make them pointy and then they put jade in the holes.







Men wore an "ex" which is a loincloth.  Women wore loose sack like dresses.  The clothes of the priests and nobles were made with finer materials and had many shells and beads on them.  For ceremonies they wore wonderful head-dresses.





Mayan Gods

Mayas believed each day was a god that carried the weight of the day on its back. The priests had to figure out how all the gods were linked to a particular time.










Maya rulers carved elaborate monuments that told stories of their ascent to the throne, their lineage, important battles, or other events. The Maya had a sophisticated and accurate calendar and a system of hieroglyphic writing. They dated many monuments and included the names of kings and when they reigned. 





Disappearance of the Maya

Archaeologists have long wondered why the artifacts recovered from Mayan cities suddenly stops around 1000 A.D.  There are many theories about what happened to these ancient people.  One is that they died of malnutrition, with a disease such as anemia.  Anemia is caused by a lack of iron in someone's diet.  80 % of the skulls found at the Mayan city of Copan showed evidence of anemia.  

Here are two examples of skulls from people who had anemia:

Skull #1

This skull shows evidence of severe anemia, which probably killed this Copán citizen. The spongy-looking areas at the back of the skull are caused by a lack of iron in the diet. This person suffered from malnutrition. 80 percent of the skeletons found at Copán show evidence of anemia.


Skull #2

This skull shows evidence that the head was wrapped during childhood to form it into a shape that was pleasing to the ancient Maya. The teeth have also been carved into an intricate pattern, something that was done by Maya of the upper social classes. Spongy-looking areas at the back of the skull show that this Maya noble had anemia.



The Aztecs

Aztec Sports and Games

The Aztecs had two different games - tlachtli and patolli. Tlachtli was a ball game that was played between teams using rubber balls. The court was shaped like a capital I and it was 60 meters long by 10 meters wide. One person on each team would have to shoot the ball into a vertical hoop high over their heads with their knees without using their hands. The hoop was placed on opposite walls at the midpoint of the court. In a way this game combined modern day soccer and basketball. Whichever team made the first basket won the game. Sometimes it took hours to complete a game.

The other game, patolli, was a gambling game that was played with pebbles and dry beans. In this game you are given six pieces to play with and you have ten jade pebbles to gamble. The board you would play on is an "X" divided into squares. Each player has a home base in the middle of the "X". Now you must decide how many jade pebbles you want to gamble on the whole game. You are given five cacao beans with white dots painted on them. These will be used as dice. If you get one white dot you move one square, if you get two white dots you move two squares and so on, but if you get all five white dots you move ten squares. The pieces must move clockwise. To begin the game you must throw a one. When you make it back to home base, you take that piece off the board; your opponent owes you one jade pebble. You keep playing until one player has lost all of his or her beans.

Aztec Food and Drink

Maize, a type of corn, was the Aztec's main food source. The Aztecs also ate tomatoes, avocados, atole (a type of porridge), tortillas made from maize, and tamales, a kind of envelope made from steamed maize stuffed with vegetables or meat.

Aztecs also ate chocolate. In their culture chocolate was reserved for warriors and nobility. A drink of cacao mixed with ground maize was believed to provide stamina and was used in sacred rituals. Chocolate was a drink for the elite.

The Aztecs ate twice a day and the main meal was eaten during the hottest part of the day. Some of the edible things available in an Aztec market were fruit, vegetables, spices, flowers, edible dogs, and birds.

The Aztecs had an alcoholic drink called octli. The Aztecs would drain the sap out of the maguey plant and put it in a large jug. Once the sap rotted, they would drink it. Octli was reserved strictly for nobles, royalty, and warriors. Any nobleman who abused (got drunk from) the divine drink of the Aztecs would be put to death. A good vendor of maguey sap boiled it until it was like honey, while a bad vendor would water it down.

Aztec Military Life

The Aztecs had no professional army but they had professional military officers. When a boy was born his umbilical cord was cut off and dried and then buried on a battle field signifying that his life would be dedicated to warfare. Every able bodied boy was trained to fight.  In readiness for adult life boys learned about fighting and weapons at school. To fight in battle was considered a duty and an honor. Warriors took students to battles and taught them how to take a prisoner captive. A boy became a man after he captured his first prisoner.

The Aztec's courage and strength helped them build their empire and establish themselves as the fiercest of all the tribes in the Valley of Mexico. They easily defeated attacks from neighboring tribes. Declarations of war were greeted with joy; it was seen by Aztec warriors as a time to show their skills in battle. Soldiers dressed in costumes designed to scare their enemies such as the jaguar warriors who wore ocelot skins and eagle warriors who wore a helmet shaped like the beak of a bird of prey. Ordinary troops wore costumes decorated with patterns and had war emblems made from feathers and leather.

A site was chosen for the battle and the armies met. The fighting began after insults and more cries were called out and drums and conch shell trumpets were played. Then the fighting began. The battle was usually short and ended with the surrender of the weaker side and the taking of prisoners.

The plan was to disable an opponent by striking at his leg so he could be easily taken prisoner. Thus, the battles left very little casualties. After the battle the enemies' town was looted and the people were captured. Prisoners were the real war trophies since they were used as sacrifices in religious festivals. Soldiers sometimes demanded death as their right after they had been captured. A soldier became part of a family and was treated like a son until it was time for him to be sacrificed.

Spaniards vs. the Aztec

The Spanish invaded Aztec territory and went to war in the 1500's.  Up until this time, the Aztecs had only fought with their enemies using spears, slings, bows, and arrows to fight at close range. Razor sharp blades were chipped from obsidian and mounted on weapons.  But, obsidian blades soon lost their edge and were easily broken. The Spaniards used steel swords, guns, and cannons that could take out many Aztecs at a time. The Aztecs wore close-fitting breastplates and used wooden shields for protection. The Spaniards armor was better suited for fighting in Europe, the Aztecs' lightweight breastplates were sometimes substituted for their hot and heavy metal armor.

Although many Spaniards were lost in battle, the Spaniards had won. The Aztec capital was finally destroyed on August 31, 1521. The final attack of Tenochtitlan was led by the Spaniards who had 400 men with 150,000 native allies. They returned to destroy Tenochtitlan house by house and built Mexico City on top of the destroyed city.

That's how the Aztec civilization ended.



The Incas


Location and Landscape

The Inca Empire was very large.  It spanned over 4,000 km, including all of the highlands and coast of Peru, most of the highlands of Ecuador, northern Chile, part of western Bolivia, and part of northwestern Argentina.

Because the Incan Empire was so large, there were many different types of land.  There were dry deserts, Amazonian rainforests, and high mountains.  The high Andes Mountains at the center of the empire had some areas that were very vegetated, some areas that had snow-capped mountains, some steep river valleys, and a lot of active volcanoes.

The Incan empire was called Tawantinsuyu.  This means "land of the four quarters."  The land of the Incas was divided into four parts (known as "suyus") coming together at the capital of Cuzco.  Within those four quarters, the Incas ruled over people who used to have their own separate civilizations.  These people were from many different ethnic groups and spoke many different languages.

When did the Incas rule?

The Inca Empire did not last very long.  It lasted just shy of 100 years, from 1438 AD, when the Inca ruler Pachacuti and his army began conquering lands, until the Spaniards conquered the Incas in 1532.  Yet despite the short time span, the Incas created the largest society in the New World prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

How did the Incas control such a large territory?

It is very difficult for an empire to control its people.  If people live a long ways away from the main city, there is no reason for them to obey whoever says they're "the boss."  So, the Incas made a lot of roads and bridges so that they could travel over all the different kinds of land and keep everyone under their control.  Some of their bridges crossed between two cliffs, making the person hundreds of feet above the ground below.  

Also, the Incas created a very good message delivery system to make it easier to communicate with everyone.