2.2—The Olmec & Maya (15 min video)
The following transcript was automatically generated and may contain errors in spelling and/or grammar. It is provided for assistance in note-taking and review.
Well, welcome back. Take a stretch if you need to. You might have just eaten breakfast. You might still be in your pajamas. After all, this is a homeschool class. So therefore, get ready though, because you’re going to have to take some notes today. We’re going to be taking a look at two civilizations of Mesoamerica. First of all, the Olmecs. Second of all, the Mayans. In order to understand these people, let’s kind of get a picture of them. Let’s take a look here at a map of North America. And if you look all the way up in the northwest corner where Alaska is– hope you know where Alaska is– you’ll notice that Alaska is actually very close to Russia. In fact, there’s a sea that goes in between them. It’s called the Bering Sea. And one of the big mysteries of history is how did people get over to the Americas to people them well before the Europeans? In other words, how did all the Native American cultures first come here? And one of the ideas that’s been prevalent is that since the world as we know it does go through climate change and it does go through seasons of warming and it goes through seasons of cooling as well, it’s quite possible that in some far distant ice age, that Bering Sea, which is somewhat narrow and not terribly deep, actually froze over on top and it froze over enough that people could just walk across a Bering Strait land bridge to get here and they actually kept coming down.
Now that’s true, that means they came from Asia and they were wandering towards the east. What’s really interesting is that we don’t know exactly when that would have happened, but it’s quite possible that these people were coming from that Tower of Babel dispersal. In other words, that’s why these peoples in Mesoamerica built cultures so similar to peoples in Mesopotamia, or peoples in Egypt, or peoples in India, because they were all coming from a common background.
What’s also interesting about this is all of these civilizations, as we’re gonna see, Civilizations always borrow from each other. There’s really not that many new ideas out there. In fact, Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” So as you study antiquity, which we’re actually looking at American history this year, but as you look at antiquity at other years in your studies, you’ll see that often cultures do a lot of the same things, and they pursue and build things often in the same way. In fact, we still build fake mountains. We still build towers to heaven. They’re called skyscrapers. Well, the Olmec people are the first people we’re going to look at. Go ahead and see how the word is spelled here. It’s right here on the screen. And the Olmec peoples lived in roughly south-central Mexico. And they had a capital called San Lorenzo. And the Olmecs, from what we can tell from archaeology and there aren’t really many written records that we can read, but what we can tell from piecing together history, we most likely think the Olmecs were the oldest peoples in Mesoamerica.
And they probably settled down in Mexico sometime around the days of, say, Gideon or Samson. And they were a people there until the days of Plato. So if you can think on your timeline where Samson is and where Plato is, you have a rough idea of when the Olmec actually lived.
What’s incredible about the Olmec as a civilization is they were the first culture over here in Mesoamerica to actually develop a writing system. In other words, they use what we call pictographs. These little pictures that actually mean words, but actually look kind of like what they’re talking about. The Egyptians did something simpler. They had hieroglyphs, which is a little bit different. The Chinese also have something similar. They have something called characters, which is very similar to what the Mesoamericans or the Olmecs actually put down. What’s interesting about this language is not only was it the first language, but like most other pictographic languages, it was very difficult to learn.
See, in our language, you’d have to learn 26 letters, and then you’d have to learn what they mean in terms of sounds, and you can read. But in these ancient languages, you would have to learn hundreds, or sometimes thousands of characters or pictographs, which meant that to learn how to read took years often, and it took a very specialized and expensive education.
They didn’t have free schools back then. They didn’t have this whole idea of homeschooling where your parents could just teach you what they already know. In fact, in the ancient cultures, like the Mesoamericans, most people couldn’t read. Part of that was because most people were slaves, and so nobody was going to train them to actually read. And so what’s interesting about these cultures is that they understood that reading and the control of information is a way to control power. And so only the nobles and only the scribes or the priests typically knew how to read. Most of the middle class, if there even was a middle class, and like I already mentioned, slaves, they were never taught how to actually read.
The interesting thing about the Olmec is they had a very complex calendar system. In fact, they were one of the first ones in Mesoamerica to actually develop a calendar and to put it to use. What’s also interesting about the Olmecs is the Olmecs were one of the first people we know of, especially over here, to develop and invent the wheel.
Now, it sounds kind of funny, but they actually realized, oh, if you have a round object, it can roll. And therefore, you would think, they would attach it to something like a cart to make things easier to move. Now they understood that if you attach it to a cart, it would make things easier to move. But here’s a key concept with the Olmecs. The Olmecs didn’t apply what they knew to be true to what they knew to be right. After all, they had thousands of slaves to move things around for them. And so therefore, they just figured, “I’d I’d rather have this slave and this slave move my stuff around or move my building blocks around or move my supplies and my groceries around than actually have a cart to do it.
And I don’t care if his job is harder because he’s a slave and because he’s low on that chain of being and he was fated to be a slave, it doesn’t really matter what happens to him. So the Olmec, even though they had the wheel, they never used it, never applied it. So in many ways, it doesn’t really matter that they had it because it didn’t mean anything. The other thing about the Olmec is the Olmec, as far as we know, probably were the first to invent a game called Ulama. And the Ulama game is something you’ve probably seen in films or seen pictures of. It was a ball game. It was part basketball, part football, part wrestling, and part survival to the death type of game. It was played on a stone court that usually had seating above it, and there were two teams that played. and usually each team had about four players on it, and there was a vertical basketball hoop, if you can imagine it, and they played with a rubber ball.
In fact, the Olmec actually had all these rubber trees around them, and so that’s how they got the rubber. In fact, Olmec means rubber people. But what they did was they would take these rubber balls that they were able to make, and they would have these two teams play.
One team was supposed to represent the gods of the underworld, and another team was supposed to represent the gods from above. And specifically, the gods of above were supposed to conquer the gods of the underworld by beating them in this game. But this game was a lot harder than basketball. Sure, like basketball, you had to get that rubber ball through the hoop. But unlike basketball, you can’t use your hands. And unlike, say, soccer, you can’t use your feet. In other words, the Ole Meg had to use any other part of their body, their head, their shoulder, their elbow, whatever worked to actually get the ball through the hoop or to pass the ball to a teammate.
And then, of course, what awaited you as the winning team was of course a great feast, and if you happen to be the team that lost, that’s okay. It just meant you would lose your head and be sacrificed to the gods. In fact, what we can tell from history is probably most of the games were rigged. Probably most of the time, those who were on the losing side had been captured from some other civilization and were being forced to play this game with injuries or with their hands tied behind their back or something like that that made it so that it was pretty certain they were going to actually lose.
Another thing about the Olmec is the Olmec left behind all of these giant sculptures, these huge heads of their chiefs. And that’s interesting because we also see that throughout all the world. The Egyptians love to do that. Those statues you see on Easter Island is another example of these gigantic heads that have been left behind. And of course you can kind of hypothesize, “Okay, why might this actually have been?” But what we can tell about most of the time when this was done is usually the chief or or the king or the emperor would leave behind this giant head because it was an image of himself.
And it was a way for him to be recognized by the gods when he went to the afterlife. Another thing about the Olmec, something that’s very key to understand, is the Olmec have these strange statues throughout all of their empire, something called a werejaguar. You’ve probably heard of a werewolf, which is part man and part wolf. Well, a werejaguar is kind of like that, it’s part man and it’s part jaguar. And the idea was these were jaguars were essentially gods that had to be appeased. And the way that we think they were appeased is what we found in the dirt around these statues. We found lots of little skeletons around these statues. In other words, the Olmec peoples sacrificed their children, or the children of civilizations they conquered, to these were jaguar statues. So one of the realities of Mesoamerica and one of the darknesses that ultimately caused them to fall, just from how absurd they actually were.
Now the second culture I want you to actually look at today is a culture that’s very famous, a culture you’ve probably read about before or you’ve looked at some of their architecture before, and that of course is the culture of the Mayans. The Mayans were amazing. The Mayans were incredible. The Mayans were centralized in the Yucatan Peninsula, which is right here in Mexico. You can actually see it now on the map that’s being shown to you. And the Mayans were very advanced at mathematics. They had an incredible calendar, for example, that was so accurate that it was the most accurate calendar in all of the world until the year 1752, when we started using the Gregorian calendar instead of the old Roman Julian calendar.
But kind of the funny thing about the Mayans, kind of like the Olmecs, was even though they had this incredible understanding of numbers and how numbers work, they didn’t know what that actually meant. They didn’t actually know how that actually reflected God’s glory. So instead, they became very superstitious. They had certain ideas that some numbers were really good and some numbers were really bad. They were obsessed with number 23, for example. They were also obsessed with number 52 because they believed that the whole world operated on a 52-year cycle. 52 years, things kind of went back to the same way that they were. In fact, the Mayans are most famous because they also had a master calendar based on the number 52 that showed that the whole world would come to an end and then be reborn and it would go through everything exactly the same as it had before.
It’s kind of like a video. You can take this video, you can stop it, you can put it back to the beginning and then play it again and everything that I have said, all the little mistakes I’ve made, is going to happen exactly the same as before. The Mayans believed the same thing, only it wasn’t with video, it was with real life. It was with your life. They actually believed that everything in this world would happen exactly the same again and again and again from here until, well, forever. As a result, the Mayans really didn’t have much actual hope. What’s interesting about the Mayans too, and take a look at this number 52 here. What’s interesting about the Mayans is that they believed that we had a 52-year cycle. Well, that also happens to to be the average lifespan of a nation in Mesoamerica. Or if you lived in Mesoamerica in the days of the Mayans, your average lifespan that you would live to would probably be about 52.
So it’s very interesting that they saw that number because it reflected their actual culture. In other words, their culture reflected what they actually believed. They lived about as long as they thought they would live. Another thing about the Mayans to keep in mind is the Mayans were incredible city builders. They built some of the most, some of the greatest cities in all of the ancient world, cities that supported tens of thousands of people, which was a lot for those days.
They were like Carthage, if you ever looked at the Carthaginians, those Phoenician traders who set along North Africa. If you went to one of their cities, they’d be filled with bustling marketplaces and also lots of government offices. The Mayans liked to control things. They liked there to be a lot of money and a lot of profit for those who were in charge, and they wanted the ability to control that, so they had lots of government officials who made certain that the people in power kept their power and kept their money.
Another thing about the Mayans to keep in mind is the Mayans had a very interesting way of clearing land for these cities. Instead of taking down the trees carefully and digging out the dumps, digging out the–not the dumps, you don’t want to dig out the dumps–instead of digging out the actual stumps to these trees, the Mayans would simply burn it all down. They would set fire to a parcel of land and hopefully have it so it would be controlled and they wouldn’t actually take out a city they’d already built, but they would simply clear the land through fire and then build upon that soil. Now when you do that, the soil that you have underneath you is very good to plant things in. It’ll produce lots of crops right away. But after only a couple of years, the soil is no longer valuable. Not only that, but the Mayans also planted heavily in corn, or what we called back a long time ago, maize. And by doing so much of corn and so much of maize, It allowed them to have very cheap and easy to produce food, but it also meant that they were destroying the soil without replacing anything.
They didn’t practice what we call crop rotation. And so in many ways, the Mayans poisoned the ground below them by not properly using it. So even though they built incredible pyramids, even though they built incredible observatories, because they did not use the soil or use their materials well, and because they regularly sacrificed people and thought that they had to do so to appease the gods, and because the Mayans, even though they had a language, they never really recorded their history.
They never recorded things to remember. As a result, the Mayans disappeared. And the funny thing is, we don’t know what exactly happened to them. They weren’t conquered by the Spanish. We don’t know if a disease wiped them out, or more likely, all of these things together just caused them to die slowly from within. We’ll talk more about other cultures in Mesoamerica in the next lecture.