Upon seeing Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" I became fascinated with Mayan Culture. With My background as a cultural anthropology minor in college I decided to do some research into Mayan Civilization particularly from a cultural perspective.
The first thing that struck me was how far back the Mayan Civilization goes. It is believed that they came to our part of the world in the 4th ice age via the Bering Strait. My research has led me to believe that they originally descended from Egypt migrated through Asia and then onto Siberia, Alaska and what we call North America. As the Ice melted they migrated south. Most researchers are split with the Egyptian theory. I find that many of the cultural practices including the building of pyramids and their hieroglyphic language closely mirrored the Egyptian culture at various points of pre-historic and historic history.
As soon as the ice age came to an end we see a shift from humans being total carnivores to include plants in their diets. The early Mayan Descendants started agricultural villages as far back as approximately 9000 BC. Stone tools as well as pottery were found in Guatemala dating back to 9000 BC.
The Mayan Empire was not one homogeneous country. It was a series of independent states that were connected by a common culture that unified them. The root of the Mayan culture was based on the Olmec, to which the Mayan adopted, adapted and expanded upon.
Religion and politics went hand and hand in Mayan Civilization. Kings were born to throne and secondary rulers by nepotism. New Kings were the eldest of the male children to the previous kings. Many time priests and kings were one and the same. The king was usually the head priest also. The ruling class was also either hand chosen or born into the royal family, as were priests. In Mayan belief it was the King and his reigning powers that ensured the continuation of the universe as with the Egyptian belief System. The Mayans were big on bloodletting and the higher the rank in class the more blood one was expected to sacrifice. It was not uncommon for the king to pierce his penis or tongue with the blood being part of the sacrifice.
The Mayan Civilization was the only Mesoamerican pre-Columbian culture to have a written language. They also developed complicated calendar systems as well as astronomy and mathematics. The Mayans did practice human sacrifice in times of extreme difficulty. No one really knows why the Mayan Civilization collapsed even before the arrival of the Spaniards. It is speculated that natural things like natural disasters, disease as epidemics and climate change were part of the environmental factors to help the decline of Maya Civilization. Non-Environmental factors included foreign invasion and warfare, peasant revolt and trade break down. With these factors already present it was easy for the Spanish to come in and finish off the Mayan Civilization.