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The Postclassic Period and the Mayan-Toltec Cities of the Yucatán

The Pirámide del Adivino (Pyramid of the Magician) at Uxmal.

During the Postclassic Mayan Period, between approximately 800 and 1000 A.D., the center of Mayan urban development shifted to the northern Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Here a series of notable cities such as Uxmal, located in the Puuc Hills near modern-day Mérida, arose. The Yucatán cities of the Postclassic period had large central cores containing huge buildings with elaborate carved or plaster motifs repeated over and over on the masonry blocks. The so called Casa del Gobernador at Uxmal is 8 meters high, 12 meters tall and extends for almost 100 in length. It contains 24 chambers. The facade of the Casa del Gobernador is made up of limestone blocks with over 20,000 decorative elements such as the mask of the rain god Chac.  To the east of Uxmal the Post-classic pyramid and its temple at Chichen Itza rises some 30 m above the huge central plaza. It is flanked by various stone buildings and a huge ball court. Cities such as Uxmal and Chichen Itza were smaller than the Classic Period cities such as Tikal and may have had a population of around 30,000.

The monumental architecture of Uxmal, Chichen Itza and nearby Postclassic cities

Toltec architecture and Chac Mool sacrificial altar statue from Chichen Itza

reflects both the original influence of the classical Mayan world and later elements of the massive stone architecture and symbolic carvings of the Toltec Empire, centered in the Valley of Mexico. The Toltecs arose in Mexico after the collapse of Teotihuacan. These Mexican related symbols include representations of the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, crossed serpents and  the Mexican rain god Tlaloc At Chichen Itza the Jaguar Temple contains clear Toltec symbolism including the Toltec Jaguar cult emblem. The precise political relationship between the Toltec Empire and the Yucatán Mayan cities of the Postclassic period is unresolved, but clearly there was a strong Toltec influence on the ruling class and symbolism of the cities.

Why did the Mayan civilization shift its center of gravity to the northern Yucatán during the Post-classic period? What allowed these cities to prosper and grow while the southern lowlands were abandoned? At first glance climate and environment would have seemed to have worked against the northern Yucatán. It has much less precipitation than regions to the south such as Tikal and a drier, less verdant vegetation cover. The limestone bedrock is porous and water quickly disappears from the surface. However, these northern Mayan sites show much evidence of the use of groundwater resources rather than surface reservoirs. These include small water catching subterranean basins and large sink holes – called cenotes.  A prominent feature at Chichen Itza is the Cenote Sagrado (sacred cenote). Perhaps the early adaptation of the Maya here to aridity created by the drier conditions of the northern Yucatán coupled with reliance on ground water, rather than evaporation sensitive above ground reservoirs was important in sustaining Mayan urban culture in the Yucatán?

The Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) at Chichen Itza

The Maya clearly also turned to religion as a defense against drought. The carvings of the Mayan rain god Chac are ubiquitous in parts of Uxmal and other Yucatán Mayan cities. As already mentioned, there are also representations of the Mexican rain god Tlaloc. The cenote sagrado was a

Masks of the Mayan raingod Chac from Uxmal

place of sacrifice – the sacrificial offerings ranged from objects to animals to humans.  In fact even after Chichen Itza had been sacked and burned and was no longer a large and important urban center, Maya came to make offerings at the cenote – right up to the time of Spanish contact in the 16th century.

Like the Classical cities to the south – the great Post-classic Mayan cities of the Yucatán also came to an end.  The cities appear to have engaged in warfare and petty city states arose and fell, in concert with a decline in architectural and construction quality. Imagery of warfare and human sacrifice abound in the carvings found at many Yucatán Mayan sites. Similar gruesome imagery is associated with the Toltec. The great city of Chichen Itza was destroyed by warfare about 1000 to 800 years ago, at about the same time as the Toltec capital at Tula and the Totec empire collapsed. There is evidence that drought and the displacement of nomadic peoples at the northern edges of the Toltec empire in Mexico may have driven this collapse. With the demise of the Toltec empire in Mexico, the influence of the Toltecs receded from the Yucatán. From the ashes of the Toltec legacy would arise the Aztec empire, but it did not reach into the Yucatán at the time of Spanish contact.  Aridity, drought, soil depletion may all have affected the Postclassic Maya, but human conflict appears to have been the critical element at play in the Yucatán during the Postclassical Period.

Warrior with severed head of victim, Chichen Itza

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