Compare and Contrast Ancient Egyptian and Mayan civilisations, can archaeology help account for these differences?
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Kris Breadner Compare and Contrast Ancient Egyptian and Mayan civilisations, can archaeology help account for these differences? The legends and myths of both the Egyptian and, to a lesser extent, Mayan civilisations have always been a point of fascination for the peoples of the developed world. It is perhaps a testament to our own cultural arrogance that we grapple to comprehend the technological and cultural achievements of these great civilisations. However, it would be all too easy to group all of these wonderful and inactivating cultures together, and look only to the similarities which they share. This would be to ignore the fact that these cultures were, geographically, nearly antipodean, and also that these cultures reached perhaps their 'golden eras' roughly 3,000 years apart from each other. This is what makes a comparative study of the two cultures so interesting, as undoubtedly they both shared similarities, which seem particular to only a handful of societies, yet they did this in different corners of both the earth and time. It is important, in order to carry out a comparative analysis of these great races, to obtain a feeling of perspective over the periods and areas with which we are dealing. To begin with, it is important to point out that when looking at Mayan civilisation, we are dealing with what is considered the most historically interesting and culturally important, that is the period between 300 and 900 A.D. This period, known as the 'Classic Period' is the most interesting to historians and archaeologists as it was at the point where technological development and cultural progression was at its zenith.
The idea that Mayan agriculture was of a simple slash and burn nature is indeed a direct fault of archaeologist's reluctance to let go of certain theses and theories. This idea of the primitive nature of Mayan agriculture is part of the Swidden theory; something which many who studied in the field clung to despite overwhelming evidence to suggest that Mayan agriculture was far more developed than the theory allowed for. In fact a study of the Mayan lowlands shows use of raised fields or bajos, whose use in other developed parts of Mesoamerica has been widely emphasised, whereas their existence in the Maya territories has been ignored. There is also evidence for the use of terraced farming in the region, and also complex irrigation networks, which was almost certainly omitted from archaeological reports, as they did not fit in with the widely accepted Swidden theory. It would seem that the conservative nature of a few archaeological studies is accountable for many of the differences that we see between the great ancient civilisations. It is however, necessary that the study of archaeology should be carried out in this particularly conservative fashion, for if we were to accept all theories as possibly correct then it would be almost impossible to carry out historical analysis of archaeological theses. It is for this reason that some of the apparent differences between Mayan and Egyptian cultures appear, the advancement of agriculture is just one of those domains. Yet this is not entirely surprising considering the conditions in which studies must be carried out, for the rainforests of Guatemala are considerably harder to study than the land of the Nile Valley.
For example, in Mayan civilisation there was no room for social movement; whereas it was reasonably common for men of lowly birth to rise in the Egyptian social structure. Although it is also true that the Egyptians differed greatly from the Mayans in their organisation, having made almost a modern capital from Memphis, in which a bureaucracy operated outside of the Pharaoh's appointment. The Mayans used a much more traditional system of feudalism that operated on a less bureaucratic level. Archaeologists have tried to account for this development in Egyptian culture by the claim that they were visited by what were known as 'newcomers' around 3,400 B.C who brought new enlightened ideas which were incorporated into Egyptian thinking. This arrival is depicted on the ivory sword handle of Gebel el-Arak, which shows the arrival of a race similar to the Mesopotamians. It is inevitable that between to cultures in such differing parts of the world, there will exist certain differences and similarities. To look at the two cultures, it would appear that the Egyptians, by western standards were further developed than the Mayans who still practised sacrifices and blood letting even at the end of their period. Yet archaeologists have little difficulty in explaining the reasons for these differences, as there is no reason why the two cultures should emerge in a way that resembles the other. I believe that what causes the most controversy and the most interesting argument is the existence of deep similarities between these ancient and extinct peoples. It is more the archaeologists task to present an account for these similarities than it is to ponder on the differences.
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