Exploring The Fascinating Ancient Maya Civilization

Illustration image of a mayan woman

The ancient Maya civilization is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic civilizations in the world.

This enigmatic culture flourished in Central America from around 2000 BCE to 1697 CE, leaving behind an impressive legacy of monumental architecture, sophisticated artwork, and a complex writing system.

Despite the fact that the Maya people have been extinct for centuries, their culture and legacy have left an indelible mark on the world.

This guide aims to provide

  • a comprehensive overview of the ancient Maya civilization
  • from its emergence in the Pre-Classic period to its fall in the Post-Classic period

This guide will provide readers with an in-depth understanding of this remarkable ancient civilization!

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What is the Mayan civilization?

The Maya civilization was a group of people who lived in Mesoamerica (Central America) from about 2000 BC to 1600 AD.

Mesoamerica is a cultural area in which agrarian cultures and various advanced civilizations (Maya, Teotihuacan, Aztec, etc.) with common characteristics flourished in a region that roughly overlaps with Mexico and northwestern Central America.{alertInfo}

A brief summary of the features of the Maya civilization is as follows:

  • They built temples and developed a writing system and art.
  • They also had a complex calendar and astronomy system.
  • They were good at farming, making art, and building cities.

They had different cultures and languages, but they all lived in the same place.

They did not have one big leader, but were made up of many smaller groups.

They also used Stone Age technology and believed in powerful gods.

They had relationships with other cultures, like the Olmecs and Aztecs.

Maya civilization history

The Maya Civilization was an ancient civilization that occupied a wide territory in

  • Southeastern Mexico
  • Northern Central America
  • Parts of Honduras
  • El Salvador

They had three periods of time that were called the Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic.

  1. Preclassic period (c. 2000 BC – 250 AD)
  2. Classic period (c. 250–900 AD)
  3. Postclassic period (c. 950–1539 AD)

Preclassic period

The Maya developed their first civilization in the Preclassic period a long time ago.

The preclassic period is characterized by the following:

  1. They built cities.
  2. They had cities like Nakbe and El Mirador.
  3. They used pottery and fired clay figurines.
  4. They wrote with a special script.

The civilization collapsed in the 1st century AD, but the reason why is still unknown.

Classic period

The Classic period was a time when the Maya people built many monuments and temples and were very creative in art and writing.

They had many cities with big populations.

Teotihuacan, a city in Mexico, had a lot of influence over the Maya people.

Two of the most powerful cities were Tikal and Calakmul, and they were rivals.

They had many allies and vassals.

One city, Copán, was the home of a king, Uaxaclajuun Ubʼaah Kʼawiil, who was admired for his art and writing.

The Maya civilization collapsed because of a combination of factors like

  • war
  • overpopulation
  • drought

This led to the end of dynasties and the abandonment of cities in the Maya region.

  • People in the northern Yucatán Peninsula continued to live in cities.
  • The cities in the south and central areas were mostly abandoned.
The Yucatan Peninsula is a peninsula that spans Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize and juts out between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.{alertInfo}

There are such differences in each region.

Postclassic period

In the Postclassic period (c 950-1539 AD), there were still some Maya people living in the area.

They moved to places near lakes and the sea, and some cities were built in these places.

People made new trade networks and some cities were moved to safer places.

The cities of Chichen Itza and Mayapan were very important, and the K'iche' people had a small kingdom in the Guatemalan highlands.

In the 1500s, there were still many cities and people living in the Maya area.

Spanish conquest

The Spanish explored the Caribbean in 1511 and eventually conquered the Yucatán Peninsula and the Maya people living there.

They battled with the Maya and eventually took over their cities and lands.

This process lasted until 1697, when the last independent Maya city fell to the Spanish.

Persistence of Maya culture

The Maya people have kept their culture alive even though the Spanish tried to take it away.

  • They still eat the same food.
  • They do the same crafts.
  • They go to their markets.
  • They speak their language.

Even though the Spanish tried to make them do things differently, the Maya people have been able to keep their culture going.

Investigation of Maya civilization

Scientists have been studying the Maya civilization for many years.

In the 1960s, scientists thought the Maya were peaceful people.

However, more recent discoveries show that the Maya were actually warriors.

Maya civilization life

Maya society was divided into two groups: the elite and the commoners.

  • The elite included high-ranking priests and officials, merchants, and soldiers.
  • The commoners were farmers, servants, labourers, and slaves.

The land was held communally by noble houses or clans.

In the Maya world, kings ruled the land and had a special relationship with the gods.

They were the most important people in the court and the oldest son was usually the one to take over for the king when he died.

Kings had special ceremonies where they were given special items, like a headband, to show their power.

Other people in the court included

  • scribes
  • warriors
  • priests

They would often have to perform special dances or offer sacrifices to show their loyalty to the king.

Commoners were most people in Maya society.

They lived in houses made with materials that don't last long and can't be seen easily.

Commoners had different jobs like

  • farming
  • making things
  • hunting

They also paid taxes to the elite and could become important if they worked hard.

Maya civilization warfare

The Maya people were known to fight wars for a variety of reasons including

  • taking control of trade routes and tribute
  • raiding to capture prisoners
  • sometimes even completely destroying an enemy state

They had special warriors and leaders who kept track of the battles and even sacrificed defeated rulers.

The result of a war could vary in its effect, but often included

  • taking captives
  • paying tribute
  • even complete destruction

Maya warriors were brave fighters who protected their people and country.

They trained hard, and were called to fight when needed.

Women sometimes provided support roles during wars.

Weapons used by the Maya in wars and hunting animals include

  • spears
  • blowguns
  • bows and arrows
  • swords

The spears were thrown with a stick called an atlatl to make them fly farther and straighter.

Warriors wore body armor made of quilted cotton and carried shields.

Maya civilization economy

The Maya traded goods and ideas with other civilizations in Mesoamerica.

They had cities that controlled access to trade goods like

  • cotton
  • salt
  • obsidian

So, they were able to move goods, people and ideas throughout Mesoamerica, even after the Spanish Conquest.

The Maya were merchants who traded goods and used cacao as money.

Some of them were wealthy and wore fancy clothes.

To move around, they used canoes or put things on their backs.

They even had special gods to protect them on their journeys.

Maya cities had markets where people sold food and other things.

When the Spanish arrived, they saw that

Spanish man image

Maya cities had big markets with lots of people buying and selling.

Marketplaces were important to the Maya and helped their cities thrive.

Maya civilization architecture

The Maya were skilled architects who built many structures.

Their buildings were made of stone and plaster, and it required a lot of people to build them.

It could take months to build a large building, and even bigger cities took millions of man-days to build.

Maya cities were designed to be beautiful places where the ruling elite could show off their power.

The people living in the cities would gather in plazas for public activities and ceremonies.

The elite lived close to the ceremonial centre, while commoners lived further away.

Pyramids and temples were built to honor gods and powerful ancestors.

Language/character/literacy rate

The Maya were an ancient people who spoke one language before 2000 BC.

Over time, this language split into many different forms.

Eventually, there were over 30 different languages spoken by the Maya.

The Maya wrote using the hieroglyphic script of over 800 glyphs, making it the only Mesoamerican writing system to be deciphered.

The Maya had a very advanced writing system.

They used symbols called glyphs to write on stones and pottery.

The characteristics of glyphs are summarized below.

  1. Mayan glyphs are like tiny pictures that are put together to make words or phrases.
  2. They are read left to right, top to bottom, like reading a book.
  3. Each glyph can have a main sign and extra signs that give more information.

They also wrote books called codices.

Unfortunately, many of these writings have been destroyed.

But four codices have been preserved, and we can learn a lot about the Maya from these books.

Scribes were important in Maya society because only they could read and write.

Commoners were mostly illiterate, so scribes wrote down important things for them.

Scribes were usually from the upper classes, and some may have gone to special schools to learn how to write.


The Maya had a special way of counting that used dots and bars to represent numbers.

They were even the first people to use a symbol for zero.

It was a very advanced system and they could use it to record very big numbers.

They could also do simple addition by adding the dots and bars in two columns and writing the answer in a third column.

The Maya developed a very accurate calendar to track the planets etc.

It was important to their religious practices and combined

  • a non-repeating Long Count Calendar
  • three interlocking cycles

Each cycle measured a different length of time, like

  • a day
  • a year
  • 52 years

The Maya used this calendar to predict events in nature and to celebrate special days.

The Maya studied the stars and planets and used that information to make predictions about the future.

They tracked what the sun, moon, Venus, and other stars were doing to help them know

  • when to plant crops
  • when to go to war

They were very accurate in their measurements and even knew when eclipses were coming.

They made sure to do special ceremonies when this happened so the world didn't get hurt.

Maya Civilization Religion and Mythology

The Maya had many gods and supernatural forces that they believed were in charge of the world.

They had special rituals to show respect to the gods.

Priests would help people communicate with the gods.

The Maya also buried their dead with special offerings to their ancestors.

The Maya believed that

People image

Human sacrifice was necessary to please the gods so they could have good luck.

They sacrificed prisoners of war, high status people, and sometimes even their own kings.

They would cut off the head, torture, burn, or take out the heart of the person they were sacrificing.

The Maya people believed in many gods, supernatural spirits and special powers.

They believed

People image

The gods had different roles and that the way they behaved changed with the stars and planets.

Some of the gods included

  • the creator god
  • the sun god
  • the moon goddess
  • the maize god
  • the Hero Twins

The Popol Vuh, an old book, talks about these gods and the story of the Hero Twins.

The Maya also believed in a feathered serpent god who spread across the Yucatán Peninsula and the Guatemalan Highlands.

Famous Mayan Sites

The Maya were an ancient civilization that lived in Central America.

They built hundreds of amazing sites across five countries:

  1. Belize
  2. El Salvador
  3. Guatemala
  4. Honduras
  5. Mexico

These sites have special architecture and sculptures.

Some of the most famous sites are

  • Chichen Itza
  • Palenque
  • Uxmal
  • Tikal

These sites are very special and show us how the Maya people lived a long time ago.

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