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The Great Civilizations of The Americas

 The Olmec Civilization began around ?? BC, and reached its height from 1200 to 600 BC.  The Olmec influenced the rise and development of other great civilizations of MesoAmerica, particularily the Maya.  The Olmec were probably the first to develop large religious and ceremonial areas complete with temple mounds, monumental sculptures, and massive altars.  The Olmec also developed a sophisticated system of drains and lagoons.  The Olmec were also probably the first MesoAmericans to devise glyph writing and the 260-day calendar which the Maya eventually inherited.  However, not much  else is really known about them and only fairly recently are we beginning to learn more.

The Maya are one of the greatest and mysterious of ancient civilizations.  Deep in the jungles of Mexico, and Guatemala, and extending into the Yucatan Peninsula lies the magnificent temples, and cities of the Maya.  While Europe was still in the Dark Ages, the Maya were building some of the most magnificent temples and structures ever seen, and while the Maya were quite advanced; they charted the heavens, evolved a system of writing, and were masters of mathematics and calendrics, however, they managed to do all of this without the advantage of metal tools, work-animals, or the wheel.  They built their cities with the utmost architectural perfection, and to astonishing degree.
The Maya civilization is perhaps the best known of the MesoAmerican civilizations.  It began around 2600 BC, however, they would not truly rise to prominence until around 250 AD in present day Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize, and western Honduras.  It is believed that the Maya built upon and inherited the inventions of an earlier civilization known as the Olmecs.  The Maya developed astronmy, calendrical systems, and a hieroglyhic writing system.  The Maya was known for building temple-pyramids, highly decorated ceremonial architecture, as well as palaces and observatories, which were all built without metal tools!  The Maya were also highly skilled farmers, they cleared huge sections of rainforest, and they developed and built huge underground reservoirs to store rainwater when groundwater became scarce.  The Maya also cleared routes through jungles and swamps in order to foster extensive trade networks and keep contact with distant peoples.  Around 300 BC, the Maya adopted a hierarchical system of government.  The rulers would be the nobles and kings and this system developed into highly structured kingdoms from AD 200-900, which is known as the Classic period.  This society consisted of  independent states, each of which had a rural farming community,  and a large urban site built around ceremonial structures (often the pyramid-temples).  The decline began around 900 AD, and it is still a mystery--no one can figure it out, at least not really--the Maya from the southern regions just abandoned their cities.  The Maya to the Northern regions were still around, however, they were eventually integrated into Toltec society by 1200 AD, and ending the Maya dynasty, although some areas, or centers continued to survive up until the Spanish Conquest of the 16th century.  There are many mysteries which to our knowledge right now, we can not explain.  For example, why did the Maya abandon their cities?  The Maya calendar is more accurate than our current calendar (it is 10,000th of a day more accurate than the standard calendar that the world uses today), the ancient Maya believed in recurring cycles of creation and destruction, in eras that last about 5,200 modern years, and that means that the current cycle, according to the Maya is believed to have begun in either 3114 BC or 3113 BC of our calendar.  According to this (a calendar more accurate than ours, and has predicted countless other events before they have occured) the world will end in either December 2011 or December 2012 AD.  Another mystery is how could the Maya have an advanced knowledge in astronomy, physics, mathematics, and built massive structures with such precission that you can not even slide a piece of paper through the limestone blocks, yet they never invented or mastered the wheel, used metal tools, or used animals to carry the workload?? 
It is said that their great teacher, was someone named Kukulcan, and he was even the calendar's inventor.  Where it gets mysterious though is Kukulcan's description.  He is described in both Mayan myth and artifacts as being a large Caucasian, with a long flowing white beard, and hair, and deep blue eyes.  Yet, the first Caucasians did not set foot on the Yucatan for 500 years after Kukulcan's  departure.  In almost every advanced ancient culture, there appears a similar great wise man that matches Kukulcan's description.  The Egyptians called him Osiris, the Inca called him Viracocha, and the Aztecs called him Quetzalcoatl.  Also of note is the Kukulcan Pyramid in Chichen Itza, and it is a perfect ziggurat of stone.  Each of its 4 sides has 91 steps, and with the Top Platform it equals 365--as in days of the year!!  For over 1,000 years, on each Autumn and Spring Equinox, the afternoon sun creates the shadow of  a giant serpent on the pyramids northern balustrade.  As the sun sets, the body of the serpent appears to descend the steps to meet with its stone head at the bottom.  When Kukulcan abandoned the Maya, his people began barbaric human sacrifices, all in an effort to forestall the end of the world.  Tens of thousands of men, women, and children joined in a procession atop to Kukulcan Pyramid-only to have their hearts cut out (often while the person was still alive) by priests.  it is said that human blood ran down the stone steps like a red river.  The Spanish Conquistador, Cortez, invaded the Yucatan huindreads of years after Kukulcan departed Chichen Itza.  Both the Maya and Aztecs surrendered, even though they greatly outnumbered the Spanish?  Why?  Most would have you believe that it is because they were weaken by diseases brought over by the Spanish, however, that may only be partly true.  They surrendered because they were confused and they believed that Cortez was their bearded wise man Kukulcan, returning to save them.

The Toltecs ruled much of Maya central Mexico from the 10th to 12th centuries AD.  The Toltecs were the last dominant MesoAmerican culture before the Aztecs, and inherited much of the Maya civilization.  The Toltec capital was called Tula, and it was about 80 kilometers north of present-day Mexico City.  The most impressive ruins of the Toltecs, however, lie at Chichen Itza in Yucatan, where a branch of Toltec/Maya culture managed to survive beyond the fall of the civilization in Central Mexico.

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Copyright 2004 Michael Chapman