Lynn V. Foster’s Handbook To Life in the Ancient Maya World is a historical drama showing a very precarious beginning, remarkable academic achievements, and chaotic downfalls. Many different areas around the Mesoamerican cultural area rose to prominence under the Mayan influence of 1000 B.C.E. -1524 C.E.
Some of the first complex civilizations appeared during the Late Preclassic Period (300 B.C.E.-250 C.E.), most impressive for sheer architectural monumentality is El Mirador. This location was home to the Danta complex, the largest structure ever constructed by the ancient Maya which covered the equivalent of almost 200 football fields and stood 231 feet. This complex was connected to El Tigre which covered three football fields in area and stood 181 feet. Another major city is Edzna, which carried out the construction of a vast system of canals covering more than 14 miles that were wide and deep enough for canoe travel. These incredible undertakings show a hefty amount of resources available even this early in their history.
With the majority of the people now living in cities, quality of life began to rise and specialization led to great advancements in Arithmetic, Astronomy and their calendar. The Maya invention of the zero concept was among the earliest in world history, and their way of writing large numbers was more efficient than their Roman counterparts. Instead of adding more symbols for larger numbers as with Roman Numerals, they integrated a system for place value where larger numbers are written with characters in certain positions as an alternative to
sheer quantity of the characters.
During the Classic Period the Maya were celebrated students of measured time, calculating the lunar and solar cycles, lunar and solar eclipses, and the movements of Venus and Mars with extraordinary accuracy. In many cases the Mayans calculations were more accurate than those used by their contemporaries in the Old World. This is shown as their solar calendar was more precise than the Julian calendar. They perceived the calendar to be so important as to dictate everyday life by it. Certain ceremonial performances, divination practices and observance of feasts were all linked precisely with specific periods of time. Anyone fortunate enough to possess knowledge of how the calendar operated and understanding the timing of these rituals held a special status within the community.
The Maya were excellent astronomers as well. While there were no telescopes or other powerful tools to aid in observing the night sky they found ways of enhancing their naked-eye observations. Some images from ancient codices illustrate wooden devices utilized as tools to observe the skies. These devices appeared as a pair of crossed sticks that would be gazed through helping to track the movements of the stars. A great accomplishment using this method was calculating the 584-day cycle of Venus to within a two hour margin of error. This great motivation for tracking and recording the heavens with immense precision was fueled by the belief that they could discover favorable times for coronations and wars, and predict dangerous times that would require special ritualistic consideration. Venus was closely related with war and the movements of this planet were thought to be a warning of disasters to come. Maya rulers specially planned for wars to occur on the days when Venus rose for its first time in conjunction with the sun. Eclipses were met with anxiety as they were believed to be extremely dangerous and threatening omens.
Fossil remains indicate that city plazas were often used as gardens, and many household orchards were created on the stone plazas of the buildings, with fertile soils being hauled in from the nearby wetlands. These orchards typically included maize, beans, squash, tomatoes, chili peppers, herbs-many used as remedies for stomach ailments-agave plants, and gourd trees. The orchards sometimes may also include cacao, avocado, pineapple, papaya, guava, and other tropical fruit trees, as well as wild berries, tomatoes and cotton. These gardens were also used in growing items useful during droughts, such as root plants like the sweet potato and Ramon trees which yield breadnuts, which can be ground down creating a flour. Groves of more valued trees were also found just outside of the cities, which may have been used for a more commercial purpose.
Domesticated animals were not really seen in this civilization except for dogs. There were no herds of sheep, cattle, or goats. While the Muscovy duck was possibly domesticated by the Late Post classic Period (1524 – 1400 B.C.E.), wild game was the major staple for meats. Turtles and iguanas were trapped, and favored for both their skins and their eggs. Turkeys, quail, and deer were hunted with blowguns, spears and bow & arrows, while fish, lobsters, shrimp, conch, and other shellfish were caught with nets and hooks made of bone.
Many items such as wild herbs and roots were able to be foraged from nearby forests and ravines. Epazote, similar to cilantro, was a favorite as well as allspice and oregano. Many different types of mushrooms were plentiful during the rainy season, some of them hallucinogenic. Honey was a prized amenity and was a powerful tool in trade making it very important in the overall economy. Many wild fruits and barks, when fermented, created alcoholic beverages usually to be consumed during ceremonial feasts and rituals. Tobacco was also scavenged but not something considered for routine consumption. It was instead used for its hallucinogenic properties in religious ceremonies and as an offering given to the gods. Documents suggest it was also used as a cure for various ailments.
Spanish conquest led to the demise of the Ancient Maya civilization, beginning with the defeat of the Aztec capital by Hernan Cortes in 1521. Diseases such as malaria and measles were spread by the Spaniards, which debilitated the native peoples who had no natural immunity to them. In 1542 the first permanent Spanish town was founded signifying the end of the conquest. Following several more uprisings lasting some five or more years the Maya were nonetheless defeated, bringing the age of the conquest to an end.
This book to life in the ancient Maya civilization had a clear and concise flow and was easy to read and enjoy. The author seemed very well informed on the subject and capable of writing an enjoyable and entertaining book on this time period and society, with no apparent bias or agenda other than informing with facts. The layout of the book was one of its strengths. With a timeline in the front of the book to show a chronological order to the evolution of the society, and everything categorized after that such as astronomy or religion, this created a very straightforward informative book. A weakness to this method is again that the timeline was only in the front of the book so many different astronomical achievements were all lumped together with little information on which period it first happened or was achieved. Altogether the book has an overall ease of readability and is therefore intended for all ages. It is self explanatory and does not require a doctorates degree to understand, making it a useful resource to all interested in learning about the ancient Maya.