Pyramid of the Magician in Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico.

Maya Civilization

The Maya is probably the most famous civilization among the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica. Mesoamerica spans five countries, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras. There are now indications that the Maya people had migrated from North America to the highlands of Guatemala, perhaps as long as 2600 B.C. They rose to prominence around 250 A.D. and lived an agricultural, village-based life. The people of Maya developed logosyllabic scripts, mathematics, astronomy, and calendrical systems. They were known to put a lot of effort into elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including palaces, temple-pyramids, and observatories, all of which were built without metal tools.

Brief History

Ancient Maya Statue
Ancient Maya Statue on the rocks near the ocean. 

The Maya had one of the greatest civilizations of the Western Hemisphere before the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Central America. The rise of the Maya began around 250 A.D. At the height of the Classic Period of Mayan culture, Mayan civilization consisted of more than 40 cities with a population ranging from 5,000 to 50,000. After 900 A.D., the Classic Maya civilization declined, leaving significant cities like Tikal and Bonampak ceremonial centers vacant and overgrown with jungle vegetation. Some scholars think it was due to armed conflicts and exhaustion of the agricultural land. During the Post-Classic Period (950-1539), cities like Uxmal and Itza flourished for several centuries after the great lowland cities had become depopulated. By the time the Spaniards conquered the area in the early 16th century, most of the Maya had become village-dwelling agriculturists.

Maya Society

The Palace Complex in Palenque Mayan ruins
A panoramic view of The Palace complex in Palenque ancient Mayan ruins, Chiapas, Mexico. Editorial credit: Yasemin Olgunoz Berber /

By the Middle Preclassic period, Olmec beliefs about hierarchical methods to organize society had probably influenced the Maya population. The southern Maya in the mountain valleys decided to unite under high-ranking chiefs of kings. On the other hand, most of the lowland Maya resisted the pressure to conform. They preferred tribal confederacies that did not recognize any power above their village patriarchs. However, the late Preclassic period witnessed the rise of ahau, or high kings, and the rise of kingdoms throughout the Maya land. The principles of kingship dominated Maya life for the next thousand years.

Bas-relief carving of Mayan kings
Bas-relief carving of Mayan kings in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. 

Society was organized hierarchically within each Maya Kingdom, including Kings, nobles, warriors, teachers, architects, merchants, administrators, artisans, laborers, and farmers. In addition to the capital, the Maya had outlying subsidiary sites ranging from sizeable towns to hamlets and household compounds occupied by extended families. The Maya had a clear division of labor between men and women. The men cared for the cornfields and looked after building huts while women made clothing, prepared food, and tended to the family's domestic needs.

Mayan pyramid in Yucatan, Mexico
El Castillo (The Kukulkan Temple) of Chichen Itza, Mayan pyramid in Yucatan, Mexico. 

The Maya were skilled farmers. They used the "slash-and-burn" technique to clear the forests and create arable land. They planted different crops, primarily maize, beans, squash, and tobacco. In the highlands to the west, the Maya terraced the slopes on mountainsides while clearing the jungle for planting in the lowlands. The Maya knew how to use the land efficiently, and after a period of two years, they moved their fields to new locations to allow the old fields to lie fallow for ten years before using them again. More arable land was used because of the growing cities due to the increase of people arriving outside. Severe food shortages and malnutrition hit the people due to the increasing population, drought, and crop failure. The people of the southern lowland cities were forced to move elsewhere to survive. Other factors that contributed to the collapse of those cities around 900 A.D. included the high price of increased warfare, the escalation of hostilities later in the Classic period, the expense of maintaining kings and nobles, and the practice of taking commoners for human sacrifice. The northern Maya also came under the influence of their Toltec neighbors and moved into a new phase. This era lasted until the arrival of the Spanish in 1541, which ushered in a dark period that included Maya books burned and attempts to obliterate the Maya religion.

Cosmology of the Maya civilization

Rotunda and Pyramid of the Magician in the ancient Mayan city
Rotunda and the Pyramid of the Magician in the pre-Hispanic ancient Maya city of Uxmal in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. 

The ancient Maya believed in cycles of creation and destruction recurring repeatedly. The current cycle is thought to by the Maya to have begun in either 3113 B.C. or 3114 B.C. of our calendar and was expected to end in either 2011 or 2012 A.D. The cosmology the Maya believed in is not easy to reconstruct from our current knowledge of their civilization. It seems apparent that the Maya believed Earth to be four-cornered and flat. Each corner had a color value: white for north, yellow for the south, red for the east, and black for the west. At the center was the color green.

Some Maya believed that the sky was multi-layered and was supported by four strong gods called "Bacabs." Other Maya believed that the sky was supported by four trees of different colors and species with silk-cotton trees at the center. The Maya thought that heaven had 13 layers. Each layer had its own god with the muan bird, a kind of screech-owl to be the uppermost. As for the Underworld, they believed it had nine layers, with nine corresponding Lords of the Night. The Maya thought that the Sun, the Moon, and Venus pass through the Underworld after disappearing below the horizon every evening.

The Maya Religion

Mayan God carved in the rock
Mayan god carved in the rock. 

The Maya believed in several gods, with at least 166 named deities. This is because each of the gods had many aspects, with some having more than one sex and others could be both young and old. Every god representing a heavenly body had a different Underworld face, which appeared when the god "died" in the evening. The priests' role was closely connected to astronomy and the calendar. Priests were in charge of calculating time, festivals, ceremonies and controlled learning and ritual. The priests' sons often succeeded their fathers as the Maya clergy were not celibate. The 260-day Sacred Round calendar dictated all Maya rituals with symbolic meaning for all the performances.

Cities in Maya civilization

Temple of the Great Jaguar at Tikal
Temple of the Great Jaguar at Tikal, Guatemala.  

In addition to being an agricultural hinterland, Maya cities were the administrative and ritual centers for regions, including the city itself. The largest Maya cities were home to a significant number of people. Tikal, for example, had within its center over 10,000 individuals structures ranging from thatched-roof huts to temple-pyramids. Tikal's population is estimated to exceed 50,000 people giving it a population density several times greater than an average city in America or Europe at the same period of history. Maya architecture was unique for its sophisticated decorations and art, expressed in wall paintings and bas-relief carvings. In some regions, groundwater was scarce, so cities like Tikal would have been equipped with large man-mad reservoirs to service their population during the dry season.

The Maya Today

Today, the Maya is the largest single block of indigenous people, with about six million people. Some of the largest Maya groups are found in Mexico. The most important of these are the Tzotzil, the Yucatecs, and the Tzeltal. The primary division in Mayan cultural types is between highland and lowland cultures. Yucatec belongs to the lowland group. The Huastec, a linguistically and geographically separated group living in Veracruz and San Luis Potosí, who never were Mayan culturally, live in highlands across Guatemala. Most Maya are nominal Roman Catholics. Their Christianity is generally overlaid upon the native religion. The native pre-Columbian religion is observed in domestic rites. Its cosmology is Mayan, and Christian figures are commonly identified with Mayan deities.


More in Society