Mayan and Aztec Civilizations

In recent decades, a huge interest was fixed on the ancient civilizations because of their enigmatic heritage and still undisclosed secrets of their cultural and scientific achievements. The Maya and the Aztec people were two cultural groups, which left a visible trace in the history of Central America. Being the native inhabitants of the land before the European invasion, they contributed greatly to the development of the local civilization until the arrival of Spanish colonizers. The two civilizations have similarities in religion, calendar and letters, yet there are several differences between the two. The Mayan people focused more on science, especially astronomy, and were a heterogeneous group with several leaders. In contrast, the Aztecs were more united, yet they were involved in wars as their major activity.

The Maya is one of the most enigmatic cultures of pre-Columbian America. It still raises a lot of controversial questions concerning their origin, thrive and decline period. In fact, the Maya were not a single nation but consisted of several ethnic groups linked to each other by the same language. The Maya civilization is full of contrasts, meaning that they were very advance in some areas compared to other European civilizations. Thus, they lived in conditions similar to the Stone Age, as they did not use metal before the 10th century AD, nor they knew a plough, a wheel or beasts of burden. At the same time, they created a very precise sun calendar and complicated hieroglyph writing, used the concept of zero in mathematics before the Arabs and Hindu, and could predict sun and moon eclipses. Besides, they managed to calculate Venera’s movement with a mistake of just fourteen seconds per year, which underlines how far astronomy has gone under their study.

Apart from their genuine interest in sciences, the Maya are known to be exquisite artisans. They achieved striking perfection in architecture, sculpture, painting, and ceramics. Moreover, the Maya worshiped their gods and, at the same time, subdued their rulers and priests. They built temples and palaces under their command, carried out the rituals, sacrificed themselves, and led wars with the neighbors. However, the Maya did not focus on war as much as the Aztecs. The Maya created magnificent cities using only human physical power as they did not have any special construction devices. It is still a mystery for scholars, why their cities were destroyed and under which circumstances. Today, about two hundred ruins of the Mayan cities are known.

In antiquity, the Maya represented different subgroups, which had a common historical tradition. Because of this, they are claimed to have similar appearances and speak languages of the same linguistic group. It is interesting that the decay of the great civilization began long before the invasion, yet the reasons are still unknown. All in all, colonization just finished the process, which was already on the way. The colonial period lasted exactly for three centuries – between 1521 and 1821 and meant a total collapse of once great culture. The local feuds combined with invasion led to the destruction. Besides, the colonizers brought such diseases as measles and smallpox. Yet, it was difficult for the invaders to conquer the Maya, because they were not united, and each city lived its own life independently. That is why conquering one city did not help conquer others

In contrast, the Aztecs were a more integrated ethnical group, which had centralized authorities. The Aztecs are a living culture in central Mexico, and their population is about one and a half million people. Like the Maya, the Aztecs had a rich cultural heritage and their great civilization existed between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Thus, they existed for a shorter period than the Maya. The ancient capital of the state was located exactly in the area of today’s Mexico City, the modern capital of the country. The word “Aztec” appeared later, while the people named themselves “mexica”, a word, which etymology is still debated. Some believe it to be a name for the word “sun”, while others claim that its origin is connected with the name of the local chief. Yet, it is remarkable how this gave name to the whole country.  Like the Maya, the Aztecs were formed from several cultural groups, which later merged into a more integrated community. The tribes came from the north place named Aztlan and belonged to the culture named Nahua. The exact place of their origin is unknown; this is why there is a lot of mythology about them.

Like the Maya, the Aztecs had a similar mythology about creation and destruction of the world. Although they had different deities and were practicing human sacrifice, they still had a lot in common with the Maya. One of the most illustrative aspects is having cycles to which every sphere of life is pertained. Thus, they were very different from the linear cultures, to which Christianity can be referred. Therefore, the world could not just end forever, and Apocalypse theories of the Maya and the Aztecs presupposed that the destruction of one civilization leads to the beginning of another one.

 The Aztecs did not have wheels, carriages and cattle to carry them, yet the roads were being built just for walking. The people took care of the roads to make them comfortable for the travelers, and even women could travel on their own. The travelers could have a rest on their way, get some food and even visit specially constructed toilets every ten to fifteen kilometers. Besides, the messengers were continuously going by to inform them about the latest events in the area. 

As it was mentioned above, the Aztec’s power was more centralized than that of the Maya. The emperor was at the head of the state, and in many ways had analogous functions as compared to the Roman Empire. In the same way, the title was not inherited by a son, so he had to be elected. Socially, there were two layers: peasants and nobility, and the status was not initially inherited either. However, in the course of time, the position in a social ladder became more determined since one’s birth, thus the system of castes was formed. The warriors were respected and even robbery at war was not banned. When a man took a captive, he automatically entered a higher caste. Taking five captives gave an outstanding position. Therefore, the Aztecs were clearly more inclined to participate in wars that were cultivated and worshiped. Because of the war trophies, the third caste of traders appeared.

Ritual sacrifice was another aspect that was a distinctive feature of the Aztecs. Other nations in Middle America had a similar practice but it was not used as broadly and actively as the Aztecs did. They put people on the altar of gods on every of the eighteen sacred fests, and even a game with a ball ended with a sacrifice of the best player or captain of the winners.

In conclusion, it is worth saying that the Mayan and the Aztecs’ ancient civilizations had a lot in common. They had advanced calendars that dealt with cycles. They were also the exquisite builders. Their religious practices were similar, but the Aztecs had different gods and practiced sacrifice. Besides, the Maya were keen on astronomy and other sciences, while the Aztecs were skilled warriors, and this status was the most honorable in the society.

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