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Mayans: Overview of the Civilization and History

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The Mayans are Mesoamerican civilizations developed by their people called the Maya. It is known for its advanced and beautiful writing system, culture, arts, math, calendar, and astronomical system. Click here to see more posts in this category.


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250 to 900: The Mayan Classic Era

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During the Mayan classic era, A.D. 250 to 900, millions of Maya lived in dozens of great city-states. The Mayan culture reached its zenith in culture, monumental architecture, great trading networks, the arts, mathematics and calendrics, astronomy and cosmology, engineering, a fully developed writing system, intensive agriculture, and sophisticated religious ceremonies. The classic era is divided into the early (250 to 600), late (600 to 800), and terminal (900 to 1100).

925: Chichen Itza Becomes The Most Powerful City-State In The Region

(See Main Article: Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization Over 3,000 Years)

The 9th century saw a change in location for major Maya sites as they moved from the lowlands to the Yucatan peninsula. Gradually the Maya once again began building, establishing cities such as Chichen Itza, Tula, Uxmal, Edzna, and later, Mayapan. The Yalain, Ko’woj, and Itza Maya peoples remained in Guatemala’s Peten district. Their main sites include Tayasal, Zacpeten, and Q’umarkaj, the city of the K’iche (or Quiche) Maya who produced the Popol Vuh, a fascinating collection of historiography and Mayan myths. The Post-Classic era continues through the coming of the Spanish until the conquistadors finally subjugated the Yucatan in 1697.

Mayans: Overview of the Civilization and History

(See Main Article: Mayans: Overview of the Civilization and History)

Mayan Symbols

(See Main Article: Mayan Symbols: What Were They And What Did They Mean?)

Mayan symbols are a rich source of material culture for the Central American civilization and are among the most important archeological finds that have helped piece together their economics, farming methods, politics, and social practices.

Symbols carry the heart of every culture, and every culture’s symbols represent its inner reality to the people of that culture. Symbols can be anything, a gesture, a song, a phrase or an image. They often carry many layers of meaning that everyone in the culture understands intuitively.

Hundreds of Mayan symbols can be found carved on stone, which allows archeologists and other researchers to gain an understanding of their culture. In fact, Mayan writing consists of symbols called glyphs. Of the hundreds of Mayan symbols, some appear more often on the carved stelae and temple walls in Mayan cities, revealing their importance to the culture. Glyphs of animals were powerful symbols to the Mayans, especially the jaguar and the eagle. The following shortlist describes a few important Mayan symbols.

The Mayans


The Mayan feathered serpent deity Kukulkan was known to other Mesoamerican cultures like the Aztecs and Olmecs who worshipped the god under different names. The myth surrounding this deity mentions the god as a creator of the cosmos in the Popul Vuh, the Kiche Maya sacred book. The serpent god is also called the Vision Serpent. Feathers represent the god’s ability to soar in the heavens while as a serpent the god can also travel the earth. Kukulkan cult temples during the Post-Classical era can be found in Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Mayapan. The serpent cult emphasized peaceful trade and good communication among the cultures. Since a snake can shed its skin, it symbolizes renewal and rebirth.


The jaguar, to the Mayans, was a powerful symbol of ferocity, strength, and valor. Since the big cats can see well at night, it symbolizes perception and foresight. As a god of the Mayan underworld, the jaguar ruled the celestial forces of night and day. As such, it represents control, confidence, and leadership. Mayan warriors wore jaguar skins into battle as a sign of honor and courage. The Mayans held the jaguar second only to Kukulkan in religious importance.

Hunab Ku

In the Yucatec Mayan language, Hunab Ku means one god or the only god. The term appears in the 16th-century texts such as the Book of Chilam Balam, written after the Spanish had conquered the Mayans. Hunab Ku is associated with Itzama, the Mayan creator god. Mayan scholars believe the concept of a supreme god over all the others was a belief that Spanish friars used to convert the polytheistic Mayans to Christianity. Hunab Ku was popularized by a modern Maya day-keeper, Hunbatz Men, who considered it a powerful symbol associated with the number zero and the Milky Way. He calls it the sole giver of movement and measurement. Scholars of the Maya say there is no pre-colonial representation of Hunab Ku, but New Age Mayans have adopted the symbol to represent universal consciousness. As such it is a popular design used for modern Mayan tattoos.

Daily Life for a Maya Commoner

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Maya commoners made up the widest but lowest part of their society’s social pyramid. As in most of the Mesoamerican cultures, daily life depended on social class. At the top were the king and noble families. Most nobles were elite warriors, priests, scribes or government officials. In the middle were the artisans, traders, weavers, potters and warriors. Since Maya culture depended on agriculture for food and trade, most Mayas were farmers during the growing season. After harvest, many of them would turn to work on building the incredible Maya cities.

Life for Maya commoners involved hard physical work. That doesn’t mean their lives were unhappy or unsatisfied. Farming families lived simply but ate well. Their work that provided food for the family and the surplus fed everyone else. Women worked daily in their homes, cooking, grinding corn, raising the children, tending gardens, checking beehives and weaving cloth for their own clothes and the market. Men and boys went off to tend fields called milpas where maize or corn, beans and squash grew together. The central crop was maize but they also grew chili peppers, sweet potatoes, avocados, tomatoes, papaya, onions and garlic. Some families kept livestock like dogs, ducks and turkeys. Men also hunted deer and a wild pig known as a peccary and fished in the rivers, lakes and oceans.

Besides farming, Maya commoners, called memba uinicoob, might work as porters, limestone quarriers or servants to the noble class, but most were farmers. There were no draft animals such as horses or oxen to help with plowing or carrying. Manpower alone did all the work. The Maya had no metal, but obsidian and flint provided the sharp edges needed for many daily tasks.

A Maya farming family would start their day early. The extended family all slept together in their one-room house, sleeping on reed mats.Breakfast consisted of a porridge called saka that was made of cornmeal mixed with water and flavored either with chilies or honey. Men and boys wore simple loincloths and added a cape if they were cold. Women and girls wore blouses and long skirts. After breakfast, women started weaving or making pottery. Men and boys went to the fields.

6 Reasons Why the Mayans Were an Awesome Civilization

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Over the last few decades, the Mayan civilization has deeply captured our interests and imaginations. Generations of curious explorers have dived headfirst into the deep jungles of Central America and discovered buried cities, remarkable pyramids, spiritual mysteries, and astronomical and mathematical wonders that caused our fascination with this ancient culture to grow.

They left behind intricate architecture, unique cuisine, and languages that have had a tremendous impact on our modern world. Yet, the deeper we dive into the Mayan universe, the more obscure our vision of it becomes. After years of research and excavations, historians are still unable to tell us who these people really were, where they came from, and how their great empire collapsed. However, the little that we have learned reveals that the Mayans were an impressive, sophisticated and awesome civilization.

The Mayans

They Invented the First Organized “Ball Game”

When we think of sports, some of the first things that come to mind are ball games such as football and basketball, cheerleaders, and expensive halftime shows. We rarely think about the origins of these organized games, which date back thousands of years to the subtropical regions of Central America. Today’s sports fans have nothing on the Mayans. These people were serious about their games, deadly serious. Matches were life or death competitions accompanied by complex religious rituals.

Tikal National Park in Guatemala, the largest excavated site in the entire American continent, houses five ancient ball courts that date back more than 3000 years. Researchers believe that the first organized team ball game in history was held there by the Mayans. Forget about golden medals and million-dollar contracts – the Mayans competed for their right to live. The winning team kept their lives, and the losing team was sacrificed to the gods and got to spend eternity in the Underworld.

Ballplayers wearing jade necklaces, little protective gear, and scary face paint would step out into hard stone courts seeking victory. They used a heavy eight-pound rubber ball with a human skull in the center of it. The game consisted of passing this ball around without it touching your hands, and then getting it to pass through a small basketball-like hoop. That is some serious ball!

They Developed Some of Our Favorite Foods

A lot of today’s favorite foods were developed in the ancient Maya world. For instance, the Mayans were the first to take out the seeds of cacao and toast them to make hot chocolate. They didn’t make M&Ms or Snickers bars, nor did they add milk or sugar to make the cacao taste sweeter. Instead, they drank their chocolate straight up as part of religious ceremonies. The Mayans saw cacao as a sacred fruit sent to them by the gods and even used it as currency. When the Spaniards got to Central America, they adapted the drink and added sugar and milk to make it taste better.

They were also responsible for other popular foods such as guacamole, corn tortillas, micheladas, and tamales.

The Mayans

They Used Glitter to Make Their Temples Shine

In 2008, scientists discovered large traces of mica, a shiny glittery material, while analyzing a Mayan temple in Honduras. It is believed that they painted their sacred temples with mica in order to make them sparkle in the sun. The paint would give their holy buildings a mystical appearance during the day.

The Mayans

They Built Pyramids to Reflect Astronomical Events

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The Mayans were probably the most advanced astronomers during their time. Many of their amazing structures, such as the temple of Kukulcan, were built solely to depict astronomical events. During equinoxes, a shadow called the serpent slithers in a snake-like motion along with one of the temple’s staircases. This effect is caused by the sun’s angle, and how its light hits the building terraces.

At the Chichen Itza temple, the front staircase of the building marks Venus’s most northern position. The corners of the building also align with the sun’s position during summer solstice and winter solstice.

The Mayans

They Developed the Concept of Zero

While many historians believe that the idea of zero first originated in Babylonia, the Mayans independently developed it during the fourth century. Zero was represented as a shell-shaped glyph.

The Mayans

They Built a Great Civilization in the Middle of the Rainforest

One of the most intriguing things about the Mayans is how they were able to build, develop, and sustain a great civilization in the middle of the rainforest. Other large civilizations typically built their great empires in dryer climates, where centralized management systems formed the foundation of their cities.

The Mayans took advantage of the area’s natural resources such as limestone, salt, and volcanic rock, and were able to thrive in it despite unstable climates.

Mayans at War

(See Main Article: Mayans at War)

Environmental challenges, disputes with neighbors, and scarcity of resources led to the Mayans being at war. For many years, archeologists thought the Mayans a peaceful people, capable of war, but rarely indulging in it. However, as archeologists explored more Mayan cities and more evidence was uncovered, they realized that Mayans often fought wars, especially during the Late Classical era of 600 to 900 A.D. In fact, during that time a series of misfortunes hit the Mayans:

  • population exceeding the carrying capacity of the land
  • deforestation leading to soil erosion
  • decrease in soil fertility
  • sustained drought
  • malnutrition and disease
  • decreased trust in Mayan rulers
  • growing hostility among city-states as resources became scarce
  • endemic warfare

Earlier wars were fought for captives for human sacrifice, and for land, natural resources, and control of trade networks. City-states might even have arranged battles for captives as the Aztecs did with their Flower Wars.

However, the population growth and environmental destruction of the Late Classical era meant less food to feed the hungry cities. War for resources became endemic with battles fought between big city centers that dragged in many smaller polities. As warfare became more extensive and constant, Mayan societies began to fall apart. Finally, surviving Mayans abandoned their lowland cities and disappeared from that area.

The Mayans were fierce warriors, while not quite at the level of the Mongols, still a deadly threat to their neighbors.

Mayans at War: Long Distance Weapons

The Mayans had both long-distance weapons and melee weapons. The long-distance ones included bow and arrow, blowgun, slings, and throwing spears. When the atlatl or spear-thrower was brought to the Mayans from Teotihuacan around 400 A.D., it was quickly adopted and became the Mayans’ dominant long-distance weapon. The atlatl greatly increased the accuracy, force, and range of the spear; when thrown from an atlatl a spear reportedly could pierce the Spaniards’ metal armor. The blowgun was predominantly used for hunting, but it had some wartime uses as well. Mayan warriors used bows and arrows more during the Post-Classical era.

Mayans at War: Melee Weapons

When armies clashed in battles, they used melee weapons, including clubs, axes, stabbing spears, and knives. The Mayan war club resembled the Macuahuitl of the Aztecs in that it was lined with obsidian blades on three sides. These 42-in long clubs could stun, break bones, or cut. They were capable of cutting off a horse’s head. Mayans also used axes with heads of stone, obsidian, flint, or bronze. The sharp edge of the ax could kill, but the dull edge could stun. The object of the battle was often to capture, not kill, enemy warriors, making the ax a good weapon. In hand-to-hand combat, the Mayans used the same 10-inch blade knives they used in sacrifices.

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Mayans at War: Defensive Weapons

The Mayans built fortifications around some of their cities. Examples of this include Seibal and Tikal. For defense, warriors carried shields, and elites and veterans wore thick, cotton armor treated with rock salt that could withstand obsidian. Helmets were unknown and warriors wore elaborate headdresses instead. Warriors also used body paint and animal skins to show their status.

Mayans at War: Unusual Weapons

The Popul Voh, the book of the Kiche Maya, tells of hornets and wasps used as defensive weapons. When attackers came, defending warriors had gourds filled with hornets that they threw into the midst of the attackers. Hornets erupted out of the gourds and angrily attacked, killing many warriors. The defenders won the battle.

The Mayan Pantheon: Gods and Goddesses

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With between 166 and 250 named gods, the Mayans had a complex and changeable pantheon. They had gods to oversee every human action and aspect of life: gods for birth and death, for the ball game and gambling, for travel and traders, for pregnant women and infants, for youth, age, health, and suicide, for wild nature and for agriculture, a god of maize and of thunder, creator gods and gods of destruction, death gods and gods of heaven. All of these gods were changeable as well. They could be one sex or both, young and old, good but sometimes evil, depending on the time and circumstance.

Mayans saw their gods act in every event. The late Robert Sharer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in his book “Daily Life in Maya Civilization” (Greenwood Press, 2009) that the ancient Maya believed that everything “was imbued in different degrees with an unseen power or sacred quality,” call k’uh, which meant “divine or sacredness.”

“The universe of the ancient Maya was composed of kab, or Earth (the visible domain of the Maya people), kan, or the sky above (the invisible realm of celestial deities), and xibalba, or the watery underworld below (the invisible realm of the underworld deities),” Sharer wrote.

Because of the complexity, early European observers likely did not fully grasp the Mayan religion and pantheon. However, scholars have deciphered enough of the Mayan codices and hieroglyphics to cite the major Mayan gods. These gods are listed below, but the list is not comprehensive by any means.


Itzamna is a creator god, one of the gods involved in creating human beings and father of the Bacabs, who upheld the corners of the world. Itzamna taught humans the crafts of writing and medicine. Itzamna is sometimes identified with the high god Hunab Ku and the sun god Kinich Ahau.

Yum Kaax

A nature god, Yum Kaax is the god of wild plants and animals, the god of the woods. He is the god venerated by hunters and by farmers, who hunt wild animals or carve their fields out of his forest.

Maize God

The Mayans had both a female and a male maize god and both a simple vegetative god and a more powerful, tonsured male maize god. The tonsured maize god personifies maize, cacao beans and jade. He is a patron god of the scribal arts, dancing and feasting. Mayan kings often dressed as the maize god during rituals of his life, death and regeneration.

Hunab Ku

Hunab Ku is a pre-Columbian god whose name translates as the only God or the one God. Scholars are still debating whether Hunab Ku is an indigenous god or a creation of the Spanish. Most think he is indigenous. The Spanish focused on Hunab Ku in persuading the Mayans of the core belief of Christianity.

Kinich Ahau

Kinich Ahau is the sun god of the Mayans, sometimes associated with or an aspect of Itzamna. During the Classic period, Kinich Ahau was used as a royal title, carrying the idea of the divine king. He is also known in the Mayan codices as God G and is shown in many carvings on Mayan pyramids.

Ix Chel

Ix Chel is the goddess of medicine and midwifery, also known as the goddess of making children. She is represented as an aged woman.


Chaac is the goggled-eyed rain god, of prime importance to the Mayans. Chaac has a four-fold aspect, with each aspect representing the cardinal directions and colors. Chaac brought clouds, thunder, lightning and most importantly, rain.


Kukulkan is the feathered serpent god of the Mayans. Kukulkan was worshipped by other Mesoamerican cultures such as the Aztecs, where the god was known as Quetzalcoatl. A Mayan cult grew up around Kukulkan, the priests of which helped peaceful trade and communications among the Mayans. Human sacrifices were offered to Kukulkan.

Mayan Religion and Cosmology

(See Main Article: Mayan Religion and Cosmology)

Much of the Mayan religion is not clearly understood today because of its complexity and rich pantheon of deities. Scholars have been able to decipher some of the major elements of Mayan religion, but other elements may never be known.


To the Mayans, the world was flat with four strong gods at each of the corners representing the cardinal directions. Above the earth was heaven with its 13 layers, each represented by a god. Below was Xibalba or the underworld, a cold, unhappy place divided into nine layers, each with its own Death Lord. When a Mayan died of natural causes, his spirit went to the underworld where it had to work its way up through the layers to get to the supreme heaven. Women who died in childbirth, those who died as a sacrifice and sacrificial victims of the ball court went to the supreme heaven immediately after death.

Spiritual World

The Mayans were animists in their beliefs, that is, they believed that everything was imbued with a spiritual essence or force, including inanimate objects such as rocks and water. These spiritual essences were to be honored and recognized. The gods were the supreme spiritual forces, but even the spiritual essence of a tree or a frog deserved respect. Every Mayan had a spiritual guide, a Wayob that could appear as an animal or in a dream in order to help that person through life. Thus, to the Mayans, the entire world they lived in was filled with spiritual forces. At times, the spirits required appeasement; at other times, they could be helpful.

Cyclical Nature of Time

The Mayan idea of time was cyclical, cycles of creation and destruction, of seasons, of rituals and events, of life and death. When Mayans died, it was believed they had moved on, not ended forever. Maize was of such central importance to the Mayans that the life-cycle of the maize plant is at the heart of their religion as is the Maize God himself. All of Mayan life was intimately bound up in cycles, which tied in to the centrality of the Mayan calendars.

Importance of Calendar/Astronomy

Mayan priests closely tracked all the cycles important to Mayan life. Priests kept the calendars, the solar cycle calendar with its 365 days, the sacred calendar of 260 days and the Long Count Calendar. They also interpreted the cycles, looking for clues to the future and prophetic inspiration. Priests determined the days propitious for religious rituals and ceremonies. The priests who kept track of cycles and calendars were expert mathematicians and astronomers. Planet cycles were tracked in order to recognize patterns, which they then relayed to the king of the city. Mayans believed that the gods imparted meaning to celestial patterns from which their priests could foretell the future.

The Mayan Calendar: How Did It Work and How Long Was It?

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What we call the Mayan calendar is actually a set of three interlocking calendars, the sacred calendar of 260 days called the Tzolkin, the solar calendar of 365 days known as the Haab, and a Long Count calendar of much longer time periods. When the Mayans inscribed a date on a temple wall or a stone monument, they wrote the date using all three calendar notations. Every 52 years, the Tzolkin and the Haab come back in sync with each other. This was called a Calendar Round.

Mayan Calendar – Tzolkin

The Tzolkin or sacred calendar consisted of 20 periods each with 13 days for a 260-day count. Each day had a number and a name, the numbers from 1 to 13 and 20 day names. When the 13 numbers were gone through, they began again, and the 20 day names continued. When the day names were gone through, they repeated, and the numbers continued up to 13. The cycles of 13 and 20 repeated until they came back to the first number, first name again in 260 days. The priests who kept the calendars used the Tzolkin to determine days for sowing and harvest, military triumphs, religious ceremonies and divination.

Mayan Calendar – Haab

The solar calendar or Haab has 365 days made up of 18 months of 20 days each, which adds up to 360 days. The remaining five days at the end of the year is an unlucky, dangerous time known as the Wayeb. Mayans stayed home and neglected all activities during this time to avoid disaster. In the Haab calendar, a day is represented by a number in the month, then the name of the month. There were 19 month names, plus Wayeb for the dreaded five-day month, making 20 month names.

Long Count Calendar

In order to keep track of longer periods of time, the Mayans used the Long Count calendar. The Long Count counts all the days since the beginning, which the Mayans marked as August 11, 3114 B.C. The Long Count calendar is cyclical as each period of time will begin again, but it is also linear. Because it is linear, it can take into account dates far in the future or in the past. The basic unit of this calendar is the tun, a year of 360 days, the basic Haab year without the five-day Wayeb. Long Count dates are expressed in five digits. The five digits represent a kin (day), uinal (month), tun (year), katun (20 years) and baktun (20 katuns).

1283: The City-State Of Mayapan Becomes The Capital City Of The Maya Civilization

(See Main Article: The Mayan Post-Classic Era)

Chichen-Itza dominated the Yucatan during the earlier years of the Post-Classic era from A.D. 900 to 1250. After the decline of Chichen-Itza, its rival city Mayapan become dominant. The Mayans might have taken their name from this great Post-Classic city. Maritime trade around the Yucatan grew during the later years of the Post-Classic, from 1250 to the coming of the Spanish.

1517:  The Post-classic Period Comes To An End With The Arrival Of The Spanish

(See Main Article: The Mayan Post-Classic Era)

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The Spanish began their conquest of the Mayans in 1527, but it took them 170 years to finish the process. Each Mayan city-state had to be conquered separately as there was no central Mayan government. As the Yucatan was poor in precious metals, the region was far less attractive to the Spanish than central Mexico. The Spanish finally won against the last Mayan city in the Peten in 1697. In the meantime, European diseases and enslavement demolished the Mayans and ended the Post-Classic era of Mayan civilization.

Mayan Societal Collapses

(See Main Article: Mayan Societal Collapses)

While most readers are aware of the more famous collapse of the Classic era, an earlier Mayan collapse preceded it during the Late or Terminal Pre-Classic era. The reasons for the earlier collapse remain as murky as those for the later, but both emptied out great Mayan cities and resulted no doubt in much death and destruction. Neither, however, ended Mayan civilization, as millions of Mayans remain in their historical homelands even today. Both collapses remain one of archeology’s greatest mysteries.

What caused these societal collapses? There are many theories, but archeological proof for one single cause is lacking. We know, from looking at the downfall of past civilizations such as Rome, that a combination of causes is far more likely than one distinct cause. Scholars today look at the many factors that could lead to the collapse of a vigorous society, both external and internal. Scholars cite environmental degradation as a likely component: soil erosion, decreasing fertility of the soil, volcanic eruption, deforestation and drought were all elements of the ecological disaster for the Mayans. A population that exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment always leads to ecological destruction.

Other scholars look at societal pressures: decreasing natural resources that led to increased competition and endemic warfare over the same shrinking fertile lands. Political strife, the people losing faith in their leaders, elite competition, malnutrition and disease combined with massive environmental problems led to a drastic decline of Mayan populations in the Pre-Classic from A.D. 100 to 250 and at the end of the magnificent Classic era from 900 to 1100.

Mayan scholars put forth a variety of theories regarding the Mayan collapses including endemic warfare, foreign invasion, epidemic diseases, disruption of trade routes, climate change, systemic ecological collapse and long-lasting sustained drought. All of these and more may have contributed to massive declines in population and the abandonment of major Mayan cities. What is more remarkable is that the Mayan have survived it all, still retaining their culture and beliefs on the same land their ancestors held. While most Mayan today are Catholic, many retain elements of their culture and beliefs, even visiting their great cities of old.

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