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Question: Who are the Maya, and how might they be related to the Nephites or Lamanites?
To simply say that Book of Mormon civilizations are associated with "the Maya" is an over-simplification of the facts
In order to fully understand the relationship, it is necessary to understand who "the Maya" actually are. There are three distinct cultural periods associated with the rise and fall of the ancient Mayan civilization:
- The Preclassic period: Approximately 2000 B.C. to 250 A.D.
- The Classic period: 250 A.D. to 900 A.D.
- The Post-Classic period: 900 A.D. to approximately 1600 A.D.
The Classic period of the Maya is from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D., and does not correlate with the period of the Nephites and Lamanites
Many make the simple assumption that Latter-day Saint scholars associate the Nephites and/or the Lamanites with the Classic Maya. Indeed, the circumstantial evidence present in Church materials indicates that this is often the case with the general Church membership. Since the Classic period occurred between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D., this period does not correlate well with the period covered by the Book of Mormon between approximately 600 B.C. and 400 A.D. Those who investigate the issue, however, will find that much of the LDS research centers on the Maya of the Preclassic period.
During the early part of the Preclassic period, the Maya were simple village-based farmers
During the early part of the Preclassic period, the Maya were simple village-based farmers. The late-Preclassic period marked the transition from a simple society to a much more complex society, and initiated the era of large cities, temples and high culture that we now associate with the Maya. According to Dr. Michael D. Coe, one of the world's foremost experts on the Maya, the Preclassic period marked "the first really intensive settlement of the Maya land. More advanced cultural traits like pyramid-building, the construction of cities, and the inscribing of stone monuments are found by the terminal centuries of the Preclassic.":33
Effective farming centered around densely inhabited villages appeared during the Preclassic period, with evidence indicating that the change began in the area of Chiapas, Guatemala and western El Salvador.:46 This change also marked the expansion into the highlands and lowlands, which occurred between 1000 B.C. and 300 B.C. The nearby Olmec civilization reached its peak during this period of time before its sudden collapse. According to Dr. Coe, the Olmec influence was found throughout Mesoamerica, "with the curious exception of the Maya domain—perhaps because there were few Maya populations at that time sufficiently large to have interested the expanding Olmecs.":49-50 It seems that the Maya population was too small during this period time to have interacted much with the Olmec prior to the demise of the Olmec civilization.
The reason for rather sudden transition of the Maya from a simple agrarian society to a higher level of culture and expansion is not known
Dr. Coe states:
The all-important questions are, what happened during the intervening time covered by the Late preclassic period, and how did those traits that are considered as typical of the Classic Maya actually develop?
There have been a number of contradictory theories to account for the rise of Maya civilization. One of the most persistent holds that the previously undistinguished Maya came under the influence of travelers from shores as distant as the China coast; as a matter of interest to the lay public, it should be categorically emphasized that no objects manufactured in any part of the Old World have been identified in any Maya site, and that ever since the days of Stephens and Catherwood few theories involving trans-Pacific or trans-Atlantic contact have survived scientific scrutiny.
The possibility of some trans-Pacific influence on Mesoamerican cultures cannot, however, be so easily dismissed...As oriental seafaring was always on a far higher technological plane than anything ever known in the prehispanic New World, it is possible that Asian intellectuals may have established some sort of contact with their Mesoamerican counterparts by the end of the Preclassic.:57
Something happened in the late-Preclassic period sometime between 1000 B.C. and 300 B.C. which became the catalyst of the cultural change from the Preclassic to the Classic Maya civilization
In other words, something happened in the late-Preclassic period (sometime between 1000 B.C. and 300 B.C.) which became the catalyst of the cultural change from the Preclassic to the Classic Maya civilization. It was also during this period that the famous Maya calendar system began to be employed, with the earliest recorded date being 36 A.D. The location of the beginning of what Dr. Coe calls the "cultural efflorescence" in the late Preclassic period was centered in the Maya highlands and the Pacific Coast in the area around the ancient city of Kaminaljuyu, located near the present day site of Guatemala City.:66-72
- Michael D. Coe, The Maya, 6th edition, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999).