The Mayan Civilization

The impressive creativity of the ancient Mayans made them one of the best documented ancient civilizations we know about. Thanks to many drawings, we can corroborate several stories that have been told from fathers to sons through generations of oral tradition.

The Maya were an indigenous people who built a dominant civilization in Mesoamerica. Most of them were concentrated on or near the Yucatan Peninsula and in the countries now known as Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize and Honduras, as well as the states of Chiapas and Tabasco in Mexico.

The earliest evidence of the Mayans dates to about 1800 B.C., but the Mayan civilization reached its peak between 250 and 900 A.D..

Map of Mayan Reach

© Simon Burchell - Reach of the Mayan Civilization

Mayans During the Preclassic Period

Archaeologists consider the Preclassic Period in Mesoamerica as lasting from approximately 2000 B.C. to 300 A.D.. Prior to 2000 B.C., the area was home to a variety of hunter-gatherers. Around 1800 B.C., the Maya began establishing permanent, densely populated villages. These early villages revolved around farming. The most important crop was maize, but the Maya also cultivated squashes, peppers and beans.

It was during this period that the Mayans began developing a complex society. Ruling hierarchies became more formalized as did religious beliefs. The first true cities appeared, including Mirador, classified as one of the greatest pre-Columbian cities ever built in Mesoamerica. As cities grew in importance, scholars, craftsmen and traders became more numerous.

Mayan Village in Xcaret, Mexico

© Leonora Enking - Mayan Village in Xcaret, Mexico

Mayans During the Classic Period

The Classic Period was the golden age of the Mayan civilization. Archaeologists define this period as lasting from A.D. 250 to A.D. 900.

During this period, the Mayans were building massive stone monuments marked with Long Count dates. The Mayan Long Count calendar determines how many days had passed since the creation date identified by the Maya.

The period was also a time of great change for the Mayan civilization. Cities evolved into independent city-states, each of which was ruled by a king who claimed kinship with one of the Mayan gods. Surrounding farmlands supported each city-state. Despite frequent rivalries and wars, an extensive trade network existed among the city-states. The most famous cities of this era were Tikal, Palenque, Quirgua, Calakmul, Teotihuacan and Copan.

Palenque, Mexico

© Dennis Jarvis - Palenque, Mexico

Although cities did not use a universal plan, certain elements were common. The Maya were prolific pyramid builders, so every city had at least one. A palace provided housing for the aristocracy as well as areas for conducting official business. Many cities included a ball court, but the rules of the game are not clearly understood by archaeologists. Steles were also quite common throughout the cities.

The Maya made significant advances in art during this period. Palaces and other buildings featured expansive murals and decorative carvings. Statuettes, jewelry and other goods were produced from jade, wood and obsidian. Pottery forms became more refined and typically featured intricate painted designs.

Mayan Temple Art

© Avery Studio - Mayan Temple Art

Since the 3rd century B.C., the Maya used a hieroglyphic script to inscribe the walls of their temples, steles and other objects. Around 400 A.D., they began producing a type of bark paper that they used to create codices or folding books. Only four Mayan codices are known to have survived the Spanish invasion. The monks and priests accompanying or following the conquistadors could not interpret the Mayan hieroglyphs and viewed the codices as pagan objects that needed to be destroyed.

Mayans During the Post-Classic Period

Around 900 A.D., the Maya began to abandon most of their great cities. Some cities, such as Chichen Itza, thrived for another 300 years before the Maya abandoned them as well. There is no consensus among archaeologists regarding the precise reason for the collapse of the Mayan civilization. Theories include:

  • Overpopulation, resulting in the exhaustion of natural resources
  • Drought, making it impossible for farmers to grow sufficient crops to support the large populations residing in the cities
  • Warfare among competing cities that caused complex trade and family alliances to break down
  • Religious upheavals that reduced the importance of ceremonies, undermining the authority of the aristocracy

Most archaeologists feel that the decline of the Maya was the result of a combination of these causes rather than a single factor. What is known is that most Mayans abandoned their great cities for farming villages long before the Spanish arrived.

Map of Classic and Post-Classic Mayan Settlements

© Kmusser - Map of Classic and Post-Classic Mayan Settlements

It is important to remember that the Maya did not simply disappear after their cities fell. Like many indigenous tribes in the Americas, the diseases brought by Europeans proved disastrous for the Mayas. The attempts to convert them to Christianity destroyed many of their artifacts, such as their codices. However, the descendants of the ancient Mayas number in the millions today and live in Mexico, Central America and other countries around the world.

Major Achievements of the Mayans

The Mayan culture and legacy has impressed scholars since the early 19th century when they first began to study the civilization extensively. Most modern archaeologists feel that the Mayan civilization reached the highest level of any Mesoamerican culture.

The Maya demonstrated an advanced understanding of mathematical concepts. They developed a 20-base system of math that included the concept of "zero." Their architecture showed their adeptness with geometry as well as their ability to make very precise measurements.

Mayan Architecture, Mexico

© Dennis Jarvis - Mayan Architecture, Mexico

One of the areas that is often associated with the Maya is astronomy. The Maya built numerous observatories and charted the movement of heavenly bodies long before these practices were common in Europe. Archaeologists believe that the interest in astronomy served two purposes:

  1. They used astronomy to help track the passage of time for agricultural purposes.
  2. Astronomy was a crucial part of astrology, which the Maya used to determine the will of their gods, foretell the favorable times to wage war and similar purposes.
Mayan Calendar

© Michael Kwan - Mayan Calendar

Scholars often express admiration that the Maya could achieve so much given their location in a rainforest. Most great civilizations have developed in "kinder" environments that offered fewer challenges. That the Mayans could forge an empire and build the massive monuments they constructed in the rainforest without the benefits of metal tools or the wheel is truly astounding.


Mayan Hieroglyphs

© Paul Huber - Mayan Hieroglyphs


Relationship to other Mesoamerican Cultures

The earliest complex culture in Mesoamerica was the Olmec civilization. Olmec sites were located primarily along the coast of Veracruz and were occupied from approximately 1200 to 400 B.C. Archaeologists believe that the Olmec influenced the Maya, with the latter acquiring many of their religious beliefs and societal traits from the former. Many scholars believe that the Olmec actually originated the calendar and number system that the Maya used.

Olmec Art

© Dennis Jarvis - Reliefs, Olmec Art

The Maya had an extensive trade network with several other Mesoamerican cultures. They traded with the Olmec prior to the classical period, but over the centuries, they also traded with the Aztec, Zapotec and Totonac cultures.

Another civilization that had a profound influence on the Maya was the Teotihuacan culture. Between 400 and 650 A.D., Teotihuacan was the most powerful civilization in Central Mexico. The exact nature of the relationship between the Maya and Teotihuacan cultures is unclear, but scholars believe that Teotihuacan increasingly meddled in Mayan politics to the point of occasionally fanning the flames of war between rival Mayan cities.

Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacan

© Sharron McClellan - Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacan

Both the Teotihuacan and Mayan cultures thrived during the period in which they were interacting, inferring that the relationship was mutually beneficial. However, the collapse of the Teotihuacan civilization around 650 A.D. left a power void that the Maya were quick to fill. Mayan astronomy, religion and art all reached greater heights than at any other time, cities expanded and the population grew substantially.

Archaeologists believe that the Maya maintained peaceful relationships with other cultures. War appears to have been relegated to conflicts between Mayan cities rather than between cultures.

Mayan Ruins in Mexico

Mayan ruins are found in the South-Eastern states of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Some of the most famous sites are listed below.

Chichen Itza:

© David Stanley - Chichen Itza

Located in Yucatan State, Chichen Itza is one of the most popular Mayan sites, attracting more than a million visitors annually. It was one of the largest cities built by the Maya and one of the last to be abandoned. Chichen Itza is famous for its architectural diversity and scope.


© Carlos Adampol Galindo - Palenque

Nestled in the foothills of the Chiapas highlands, Palenque is the burial site of Pakal the Great. The Temple of the Inscriptions, built as a monument to Pakal, has provided scholars with a wealth of information, including detailed information about the previous rulers in Pakal's dynasty.


© Richard Weil - Mayapan

Located about 60 miles from Chichen Itza, Mayapan is regarded at the last great city of the Maya. Most of the buildings in Mayapan were constructed after 1200 A.D., and the city thrived until sometime during the 15th century.


© Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar - Tulum

Perched atop a cliff on the Yucatan Peninsula overlooking the Caribbean, Tulum is considered one of the most unique Mayan cities. This walled city was constructed during an era when the Mayan civilization was in decline, so it is not as grand as some other sites. However, many visitors feel that the scenic view makes up for Tulum's lack of elegance.


© Joaquín Martínez - Becan

The ancient name for the site is unknown, but the city was named Becan by the archaeologists who rediscovered it in 1934. Located in what is now southern Campeche, Becan is famous for its enclosed plaza and massive temples.


© Daniel Mennerich - Calakmul

Considered one of the Mayan empire's most important cities, Calakmul lies in the Tierras Bajas of southern Mexico. The site contains nearly 7,000 structures, with a residential section that encompasses approximately eight square miles.


© Jaysmark - Coba

Coba is situated near the Riviera Maya between two lakes. Despite having been a city of great importance for the Maya, Coba remains less famous than many other sites. Many of the buildings have yet to be excavated, making Coba appealing to those who want the feeling of an early explorer.


© Esparta Palma - Uxmal

Founded about 700 A.D., Uxmal was once one of the most important cities on the Yucatan Peninsula. Structures at Uxmal represent the height of Mayan art in the late classical period. Architectural styles differ notably from "typical" Mayan styles.


© yaxchibonam - Bonampak

Although it is a small site located in Chiapas, Bonampak features a series of murals that are among the most impressive examples of Mayan art. Structure 1 at Bonampak has been referred to as the Americas' Sistine Chapel due to the outstanding frescoes it contains.


© Ronaldo Lima, Jr. - Edzna

With its unusual architecture, Edzna in North Campeche experienced relatively slow growth. Its occupation dates to at least 600 B.C., but Edzna did not become a major city until 800 years later. The city's height of importance was from 600 to 900 A.D. although the city remained occupied until the 15th century.

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Facts about the Mayan Civilization

  • Mayans did not vanish. There are still millions of Maya living around the world.
  • The Maya were once considered a peaceful people, but scholars have discovered that wars between city-states were common.
  • The golden age of the Maya was from approximately 250 to 900 A.D.
  • Most of the great Mayan cities were abandoned by about 900 A.D.
  • No one is certain what led to the downfall of the cities and the collapse of the Mayan civilization.
  • The Maya were skilled astronomers and kept detailed records of their observations.
  • The Mayan writing system was fully developed, allowing them to write any word, phrase or idea that they could say.
  • The calendar developed by the Maya was one of the most accurate calendars produced until modern times.
  • The Maya built more pyramids than the Egyptians; pyramids played an important role in the Mayan religion.
  • Mayan scribes produced many books, but the Spanish burned most of them and only four are known to have survived.
  • Scholars do not believe that the Maya ever developed the wheel or metal tools.
  • The Maya were never unified under a single king. Instead, territories similar to the ancient Greek city-states were independent, with each ruled by a different king.
  • Maya population is believed to have been approximately 2 million at the civilization's peak.
  • European diseases brought by the Spanish conquistadors had a devastating impact on the Maya population.
  • There were approximately 40 cities in the Maya empire, and some cities had populations of 50,000, far more than most European capitals at the time.