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Cultural Achievements of the Ancient Maya

It was in the lowland areas of Central America that Maya civilization reached its cultural pinnacle. 

As a testimony to their achievements are the many splendid cities with towering temple pyramids, large palaces, courtyards, monuments and shrines that are found in the jungles of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and southern Mexico.  These centers were all constructed without beasts of burden or wheeled vehicles and many were connected by roads known as sacbeobs.  The longest sacbe currently known extends more that 100 kilometers and connects the sites of Coba and Yaxuna in the Yucatan.  Within the center of the large cities lived the elite rulers of ancient Maya society.  The right to rule was hereditary and power was predominantly passed from father to son.  There are, however, records of occasional female rulers at some lowland sites.  Most members of the community lived beyond the city centers.  This support population generally lived in large thatched buildings that were constructed above masonry platforms.  Like the elite, their buildings also enclosed a quadrangular courtyard or plazuela.  At times, large underground chambers, known as chultunes, were constructed near the plazas and used for cisterns, storage or other purposes.

Recent archaeological discoveries have noted that Maya social and political structure was far more complex than previously believed.  There was extensive interaction between cities: intermarriage among elite families, economic as well as military alliances.  Certain major cities served as regional capitals as well as religious centers.  These would exert considerable control over smaller neighbouring principalities.

altArchaeologists working at Caracol and other sites believe that Maya society was not simply divided into two classes (the nobility and peasantry) but that they had a large middle class.  They argue that the middle class included artisans, craftsmen, merchants, administrators, warriors and overseers who also had the means to acquire many of the fine objects that the aristocratic elite enjoyed.  At the bottom of the social ladder were commoners and slaves.  The latter were predominantly individuals captured in battle or poor families who were unable to support themselves.