The Maya civilization

The Mayans built an ancient civilization in central America with advanced writing, mathematics and astronomical systems. They brought Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilization to its height, and therefore have an iconic role in world history.

The high point of Maya civilization is usually regarded as being between about 250 CE and 750 CE; its roots, however, go back at least to 200 BCE.

history map of the Mayan civilization
History map of the Maya civilization



The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilization, noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems. The Maya civilization shares many features with other Mesoamerican civilizations due to the high degree of interaction that characterized the region. Advances such as writing, and the calendar did not originate with the Maya; however, they brought these technologies to full development. Maya influence can be detected from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and as far as central Mexico, more than 1000 km from the core Maya area. Many outside influences are found in Maya art and architecture, which are thought to result from trade and cultural exchange rather than direct external conquest.


The Maya civilization extended throughout the present-day southern Mexican states, Guatemala, Belize, Northern El Salvador and western Honduras.

The Maya area is generally divided into three loosely defined zones: the southern Maya highlands, the central lowlands, and the northern lowlands. The southern Maya highlands include all of elevated terrain in Guatemala. The southern lowlands lie just north of the highlands, and incorporate the Mexican states of Campeche and Quintana Roo and northern Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador. The northern lowlands cover the remainder of the Yucatán Peninsula.



Like the Aztec and Inca who came to power later, the Maya believed in a cyclical nature of time. The rituals and ceremonies were very closely associated with celestial and terrestrial cycles which they observed and inscribed as separate calendars. The Maya priest had the job of interpreting these cycles and giving a prophetic outlook on the future or past based on the number relations of all their calendars. They also had to determine if the heavens were propitious for performing certain religious ceremonies.

The Maya practiced human sacrifice. In some Maya rituals people were killed by having their arms and legs held while a priest cut the person’s chest open and tore out his heart as an offering. This is depicted on ancient objects such as pictorial texts. Much of the Maya religious tradition is still not understood by scholars, but it is known that the Maya believed that the cosmos had three major planes, the Earth, the underworld beneath and the heavens above.

There is a massive array of supernatural characters in the Maya religious tradition, only some of which recur with regularity. Good and evil traits are not permanent characteristics of Maya gods, nor is only “good” admirable. The life-cycle of maize lies at the heart of Maya belief. This philosophy is demonstrated on the belief in the Maya maize god as a central religious figure. The Maya bodily ideal is also based on the form of this young deity, which is demonstrated in their artwork.


Maya architecture spans many thousands of years yet, often the most dramatic and easily recognizable as Maya are the stepped pyramids. There are also cave sites that are important to the Maya. There are also cave-origin myths among the Maya. Some cave sites are still used by the modern Maya in the Chiapas highlands.

As Maya cities spread throughout the varied geography of Mesoamerica, site planning appears to have been minimal. Maya architecture tended to integrate a great degree of natural features, and their cities were built somewhat haphazardly, as dictated by the topography of each independent location. For instance, some cities on the flat limestone plains of Mexico grew into great sprawling municipalities, while others built in the hills used the natural loft of its surroundings to raise their towers and temples to impressive heights.


Maya art has been considered to be the most sophisticated and beautiful of the ancient New World. We have only hints of the advanced painting of the classic Maya; mostly what has survived are funerary pottery and other Maya ceramics, and a building at Bonampak holds ancient murals that survived by chance. A beautiful turquoise blue color that has survived through the centuries due to its unique chemical characteristics is known as Maya Blue. The use of Maya Blue survived until the 16th century when the technique was lost. Late Pre-classic murals of great artistic and iconographic perfection have been recently discovered. With the translation of the Maya script it was discovered that the Maya were one of the few civilizations where artists attached their name to their work.

Writing and Literacy

The Maya writing system, often called hieroglyphs from a superficial resemblance to the Ancient Egypt writing system. It is the only writing system of the Pre-Columbian New World which is known to represent the spoken language of its community. In total, the script has more than a thousand different glyphs, and many appear only rarely or are confined to particular localities. At any one time, no more than around 500 glyphs were in use.

Since its inception, the Maya script was in use up to the arrival of the Europeans, peaking during the Maya Classical Period. Although many Maya centers went into decline during or after this period, the skill and knowledge of Maya writing persisted amongst segments of the population, and the early Spanish conquistadors knew of individuals who could still read and write the script. Unfortunately, the Spanish displayed little interest in it, and as a result of the dire affects the conquest had on Maya societies, the knowledge was subsequently lost.


In common with the other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya used a base 20 and base 5 numbering system. The Maya and their neighbors independently developed the concept of zero by 36 BCE (before any society in the Eastern Hemisphere, so far as we know: it was not until the period of the Gupta empire of Ancient India that the concept of zero was first used). Inscriptions show them on occasion working with sums up to the hundreds of millions and dates so large it would take several lines just to represent it. They produced extremely accurate astronomical observations; their charts of the movements of the moon and planets are equal or superior to those of any other civilization working from naked eye observation. In common with the other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya had also measured the length of the solar year to a high degree of accuracy, far more accurately than that used in Europe as the basis of the Gregorian calendar.


A typical Classic Maya polity was a small hierarchical state headed by a hereditary ruler. Such kingdoms were usually no more than a capital city with its neighborhood and several lesser towns, although there were greater kingdoms, which controlled larger territories and extended patronage over smaller polities. Each kingdom had a name that did not necessarily correspond to any locality within its territory. Its identity was that of a political unit associated with a particular ruling dynasty. Interestingly, despite constant warfare and eventual shifts in regional power, most kingdoms never disappeared from the political landscape until the collapse of the whole system in the 9th century CE.

Mayanists have been increasingly accepting a court based system of Classic Maya societies which puts the emphasis on the centrality of the royal household and especially the king. This approach focuses on Maya monumental spaces as the embodiment of the diverse activities of the royal household. It considers the role of places and spaces in establishing power and social hierarchy, and moreover in projecting aesthetic and moral values to define the ways in which society should conduct itself.


The ancient Maya had diverse and sophisticated methods of food production. It was formerly believed that a temporary system of agriculture provided most of their food but it is now thought that permanent raised fields, terracing, forest gardens, managed fallows, and wild harvesting were also crucial to supporting the large populations of the Classic period in some areas. Indeed, evidence of these different agricultural systems persist today: raised fields connected by canals can be seen on aerial photographs, and pollen records in lake sediments suggest that corn, sunflower seeds, cotton, and other crops had been cultivated in association with the deforestation in Mesoamerica.

Contemporary Maya peoples still practice many of these traditional forms of agriculture, although they are dynamic systems and change with changing population pressures, cultures, economic systems, climate change, and the availability of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

The Maya Collapse

The Maya centers of the southern lowlands went into decline during the 8th and 9th centuries and were abandoned shortly thereafter. This decline was coupled with a cessation of monumental inscriptions and large-scale architectural construction. There is no universally accepted theory to explain this collapse.

Non-ecological theories of Maya decline are divided into several categories, such as overpopulation, foreign invasion, peasant revolt, and the collapse of key trade routes. Ecological ideas include environmental disaster, epidemic disease, and climate change. There is evidence that the Maya population exceeded capacity of the environment including exhaustion of agricultural potential and overhunting of large animals.


The Maya peoples never disappeared, neither at the time of the Classic period decline nor with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and the subsequent Spanish colonization of the Americas. Today, the Maya and their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Maya area and maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs that are the result of the merger of pre-Columbian and post-Conquest ideas and cultures. Many Mayan languages continue to be spoken as primary languages today.