Ancient Mayan Cultures Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Ancient Mayan Cultures

1 Conversation

A carved Mayan image.

The cultures of Central America1 are recognised as one of the great early centres of human civilisation, on a par with Mesopotamia and the valleys of the Nile, Ganges and Yellow Rivers. Several civilisations arose in the region, sharing some common elements. The Mayans were not the first of these, but, along with the Aztecs, they are among the best known.

Early Mesoamerican Cultures

The first true civilisation in the Americas was that of the Olmecs, on the Caribbean coast of what is now Mexico. From the Olmecs developed the Toltec civilisation, which in turn influenced the Aztecs in arid central Mexico.

Meanwhile in the south of Mexico and the regions of Central America that are today Guatemala, Honduras and Belize more fertile conditions supported a different culture: that of the Mayans. Although these areas are now largely rainforest, at the time they would have been fertile plains and light woods. The Mayans (or simply the Maya) appear to have developed alongside other Mesoamerican cultures during this Pre-Classic period, sharing religious and architectural developments with them, particularly the Aztecs.

Maya legends place their origin in 3,113 BC at the creation of the world, although modern archaeologists first identify the Maya as a distinct group in around 2,600 BC. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers for a long time, with their first cities being founded around 300 BC. It was not until much later that they reached the heights now known as their Classic period.

One notable difference between the Mayan and Old World classical civilisations is that the former did not arise around a major water-course. Instead, the Maya obtained their water primarily from underground sources, via naturally occurring sinkholes known as cenotes in the limestone rock.

Classic Period, 300 - 900 AD

Rather like the Greeks, but unlike the Inca or Aztecs, the Mayans had a series of city-states that were politically independent, with similar (but not identical) cultures. Cities such as Tikal, Palenque, Yaxchilán, Copán and Quirigua traded and fought with each other, and seem to have been heavily influenced by the culture of Teotihuacan in central Mexico.

Mayan politics was hugely complex, with trading alliances, royal marriages, wars and feuds taking place between all the cities. The collapse of Teotihuacan in around 650 AD had a knock-on effect on Mayan politics, with dramatic shifts in the power relationships between the various cities. This also seems to have heralded the peak of Mayan culture in terms of arts, science and population; their cities were larger and their astronomy - particularly with regard to the movements of Venus - more accurate than anything in Europe at the time.

The Mayans had a complicated calendar, and a system of writing using distinctive rounded hieroglyphs. They shared with other Mesoamerican cultures a fondness for monumental architecture, and their ziggurat-like temples are particularly well-known. Sites such as Palenque show that some of their palaces were equally imposing, although the majority of people would have lived in wooden suburbs that have left no visible trace 2.

Mayan artworks were among the most beautiful of the Mesoamerican peoples, often using gold and jade. Painted murals, inked codexes and carvings in stone had an elaborate, stylised quality, often so dense with detail that it can be hard to make out the subject matter. There is often little distinction between art and writing, with publicly visible obelisks covered in inscriptions.

A network of raised roads (sacbes) connected the cities to each other and with the cenotes. These allowed easy travel through the forests and farmland that made up the Mayan territories, which was essential to supply food to cities of any great size.

The Mayans were noted traders. Mayan goods are found throughout ancient Mesoamerica; and Columbus encountered a boatload of Mayan traders in the Caribbean in 1502. We know from archaeological finds that Mayan jade and obsidian were widely traded, and it is likely that salt and perishables such as food (primarily maize but also honey and cocoa), wax, furs, cloth and slaves were too. Trade certainly brought Mayan civilisations into contact both with each other and neighbours such as the Teotihuacans. It is very likely that conflicts also ensued, although we have little historical evidence of this.

There is good evidence that some cities specialised in certain products - for example, agriculture in the lowlands, or various crafts. Other cities such as Tikal appear to have been 'middlemen' where traders could exchange goods from different regions - in the case of Tikal, food from the Petén lowlands for salt from the coast and stones (mostly obsidian and jade) from the highlands.

Remarkably, the Mayans achieved all this without access to metal tools. Although they used metals such as gold for decorative purposes, their tools and weapons were made of obsidian, wood or stone.

Mayan Religion

The Mayans had a complex pantheon, with over 150 named deities known. Some of their gods were more important than others, and the importance of each could vary over time and from place to place. Their gods were related to (but distinct from) the Aztec gods, rather as the Greek gods were to their Roman equivalents, and for similar reasons; although they shared a common origin, they developed independently.

One of the most important gods was Chac, the god of rain. He is represented with distinctive owl-like rings around his eyes. In their earliest form, these were simple loops of clay on the face of a clay model; as the centuries passed, they became incorporated into the face of the god even when carved in stone.

Mayans practised blood sacrifice. For the most part this was non-fatal, although on occasion they did offer human sacrifices like their more bloodthirsty northern neighbours the Aztecs. Usually, men would simply pierce an organ3 to give an offering. It seems likely that people of all social classes made offerings of their blood to the gods in return for divine favour. However, surviving carvings feature only the king and queen being ritually bled on state occasions. Human sacrifice was probably a rare event, restricted to executions of notable figures such as ball players or captured kings.

It has recently been suggested that many temples were erected by individuals or groups, indicating that Mayans had freedom of worship. Although several Mayan religious texts survive in the original Mayan script, the most important source on Mayan myths is the Popol Vuh, written in the 1550s in European characters and based on oral legends. It tells of the Mayan creation myths, the creation of monkeys and men, and the Hero Twins. Other notable texts include the Dresden Codex and the Paris Codex (both named for the European cities whose museums now house them). It is from texts such as these that we know about Mayan ideas of the afterlife: they believed that the dead went to Xibalba, an underground city (complete with ball court), accessed through a cave and ruled over by 12 demons who seem to have delighted in setting vicious traps and tricks for their visitors.

Part of Mayan (and Aztec) worship involved playing a game in which teams competed to pass a rubber ball through stone hoops, using only their hips and elbows. This game - known by many names including pitz and 'the sacred ball game' - resembled a cross between football and basketball. A version known as ulama is still played in parts of Mexico. Carvings from Mayan sites suggest that one team - probably but not necessarily the losers - were ritually decapitated after the game, which must have made league play difficult.

Mayan Glyphs

Most of our knowledge of Mayan society and religion comes from the illustrations and texts they carved onto the sides of buildings or upright stone pillars called stelas. The Mayans had a complex system of writing based around elaborate square bubble-like glyphs. Nearly 800 of these have been identified, both carved in stone and painted on parchment. There is some discussion over whether the Mayans invented this system from scratch or adapted a pre-existing Olmec one. The system is made of a combination of phonetic (letters) and representative glyphs (where a single symbol represents a word). These were read horizontally from the top left, like English, but written in columns only two glyphs wide.

The meaning of a glyph could be modified by adding a smaller glyph above, below, before, after or even within the main symbol. Names, particularly of rulers or lords, were often a single symbol made of a combination of other glyphs. This combined name symbol is known as an 'emblem glyph'. It is possible that the city of origin was indicated in the name, as well as a unique personal identifier and often a number.

The conquistadores4 - and in particular Bishop Diego de Landa - carried out a systematic destruction of Mayan written materials, leading to the death of the written language. Ironically, de Landa would later attempt to preserve the written language he had so effectively destroyed in order to use it as an evangelical tool, although the reduced alphabet he gave his name to bears little resemblance to the complex Mayan writings. It was not until well into the 20th century that linguists (mostly Russians such as Yuri Knorozov) began to piece the system back together enough to roughly translate most texts, starting with astronomical and calendrical writings. We now know enough to understand most of what has been written, but large sections remain unclear.


Temples were step pyramids constructed of limestone blocks, whereas most other buildings were made of wood. Rather than being a single structure, many surviving pyramids have been repeatedly rebuilt, each time the new construction being built over the older one, with the smaller temple preserved inside the newer.

Each city was effectively a separate nation, and consequently would have a slightly different architectural style to the others. Tikal, for instance, had unusually steep pyramids, whereas Uxmal had an obsession with Chac faces. Some cities used exclusively limestone and plaster, whereas others also used brickwork. The Mayans never developed true arches. However, they made extensive use of 'corbeled (or false) arches' - overlapping layers of bricks that form a gently curving roof without giving the structural benefits of an arch.

Ball courts also appear at a number of Mayan cities, varying in size and exact shape, but all roughly H-shaped with sloping sides. Large stone buildings - probably palaces - are also known, and called acropolises. In addition, there are several unique buildings such as the 'observatory' at Palenque and the round temple at Chichén Itzá.


The Classic era of Mayan civilisation came to an end around 900 AD. Why this happened is unclear; the cities were probably over-farming the land, so that a period of drought led to famine. Recent geological research supports this, as there appears to have been a 200-year drought around this time.

The cities seem to have disappeared slowly, rather than all at once. There is no sign of conquest from outside, although there was a period of increased warfare among the city-states - possibly over farming land or prisoners to sacrifice to the gods. It is likely that this had a cumulative effect; warfare over resources was itself a further drain on resources, encouraging further warfare.

Post-Classic Period

Around the 10th century, Mayan civilisation recovered with a shift of power northwards to the Yucatan peninsula. Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Mayapán rose to prominence, although they would never quite reach the heights of their illustrious predecessors. Mayapán in particular ruled the entire Yucatán from around 1221 - 1441.

The revived culture had some differences, notably the apparent Toltec influence at Chichén Itzá. One obvious sign of this was in statuary such as the Chac-Mool (a reclining figure which may have been a sacrificial altar) and colossi resembling those at the Tolec site of Tula. The Toltecs were in the ascendance in central Mexico at this time; however, it is surprising that their influence should be so strongly concentrated in just one Mayan city.

The Spanish Conquest of the Mayans

The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs (1519 - 1521) and Inca (largely 1532 - 1536, with the hidden city of Vilcabamba holding out until 1572) are remembered for their speed and the great wealth they gave to the Spanish empire. The Maya were the third great civilisation that the Spanish conquered in the Americas. Their arrival spelled the end of Mayan civilisation, as well as the undermining of indigenous cultures. However, the Maya held out for much longer than their northern cousins or the more remote Inca.

First contact came in 1511 when a shipwrecked group of Spaniards were washed into what is now Belize. The most significant impact this event had was not realised until much later, however; smallpox, introduced by these mariners, decimated the Mayans.

The right to conquer Yucatan was granted by the Spanish crown to Francisco de Montejo, who launched two expeditions during the 1520s and 1530s. Despite military success and the huge propaganda boost of the destruction of the Aztecs (of which the Mayans were well aware), the Spaniards were hampered by Mayan guerilla tactics. Montejo later passed his rights onto his son, who launched a third (and more successful) expedition in 1540.

In practical terms, the Mayans were subdued by the end of the 1540s. However, due to their decentralised power structure, the inaccessible terrain and lack of precious metals as a motive for conquest, the Mayans held out against the Spanish for far longer than their Aztec and Inca cousins, with the last independent city-state not falling until 1697.

The Mayan peoples survive to this day, but as primarily rural farmers in Yucatán, Guatemala and Belize. Their languages are still spoken, but their unique system of writing has been lost, and archaeologists are only slowly piecing it back together.

1Specifically the area known as Mesoamerica, consisting of the southern half of modern Mexico and most of Honduras, Guatemala and Belize.2The extent of these can be seen from satellite photography, and estimates of total populations thus made.3Yes, that organ. Women would pierce their tongue, and in both cases thorns were dragged through the wound to increase the bleeding.4 Spanish imperialists who conquered the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

Latest Post

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by


Edited by

h2g2 Editors

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more