101 Facts… Mayan History
Over 101 amazing facts about the Maya civilization. This webpage book contains facts, photos and awesome videos that show us more about the Mayan empire.
The Mayan Empire and Government
Beliefs and Gods
Science and Technology
Mayan Pyramids and Architecture
The Hero Twins
The Decline of Mayan Civilization
The Mayans were among the three most powerful civilizations in the Americas. The other two were the Aztecs and the Incas.
Overview of the Central Plaza of the Mayan City of Palenque (Chiapas, Mexico) by Jan Harenburg cc3.0
The Mayan civilization thrived for more than 2000 years before it mysteriously disappeared.
The Mayan king and nobles lived a very comfortable life because their needs were provided for by the commoners. They were even carried by slaves when traveling!
Representing King Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil,by Thelmadatter
Typical peasants worked as farmers. They woke up early to work in the fields. Male peasants would typically spend their evenings making tools.
Life as a Mayan commoner was full of hard work. A typical commoner wife would wake up early to start cooking while her husband toiled in the fields. She would typically spend her evening weaving cloth for clothing.
Hygiene was important to the Mayans. Bathing was a huge part of their day to-day-life. They even had sweat baths similar to today’s saunas!
Mayan clothing varied, depending on region and social status. The wealthy wore animal skin clothing with feather headdresses and fancy jewelry.
Ancient Mayan Clothing from Quetzaltenango Department, Guatemala by Daderot
Common men wore loincloths; common women wore long skirts. Both used a cloak, called a manta, to keep them warm during cold weather and to function as a blanket at night.
A detailed playlist of the videos is listed below.
- The Maya People by SmithsonianNMAI
- The Rise And Fall – Mayan Civilisation by The Evolution
- 10 Interesting Facts About The Ancient Mayans by pastimers
- What happened to the Mayan civilization? by BoomsValor
- The Spanish Empire, Silver, & Runaway Inflation: Crash Course World History #25
- The Creation Story of the Maya by SmithsonianNMAI
- Travel | Caracol Maya Ruins Belize
- Lost Temples: Mayan Pyramids of Chichen Itza by National Geographic
- National Geographic Live! – Palenque and the Ancient Maya World
Tattooing was also important to the Mayans. Men and women would tattoo themselves after marriage.
The Mayan’s most important food was called maize, which is a kind of corn. They made tortillas, porridge and drinks from it.
Dried, Treated Maize Sold Oaxaca, Mexico by nsaum75 cc3.0
Chocolate from cacao trees was introduced to the rest of the world by the Mayans. They considered chocolate a gift from the gods.
Mayans used cacao seeds as money. They would use them for trade and other business.
Cocoa Seeds – The Then Currency for Mayans by David Monniaux cc3.0
In addition to chocolate, some of other the foods the Mayans introduced to the wider world include tomatoes, sweet potatoes, black beans and papayas.
Kings and nobles lived in large stone palaces within the city, while commoners lived in huts, made of mud or stone, near their farms. They had a single room and thatched roofs.
The Mayans had several forms of entertainment, usually centered on religious ceremonies. They played music and ball games to entertain themselves. The losers of the ball games would be sacrificed to their gods!
Mayans had hundreds of dances, which included the Monkey Dance, the Snake Dance, and the Dance of the Stag. Many of these dances are still practiced today!
The Very Entertaining – Mayan’s Music and Dance
The Mayans had what might, in our eyes, seem like an odd sense of human beauty. To the Mayans, crossed eyes, long and sloping foreheads and big noses were beautiful characteristics.
The Mayans loved to wear big hats and headdresses. The tallness of their hats depended on their importance in society.
Galero Hat – The Symbol of Ecclesiastical Status by Historiograf PD-Art
Because they used no beasts or complex tools for farming, Mayan farmers would use their bare hands to till their crops.
Mayans were excellent doctors. They even used painkillers made from hallucinogenic plants (such as morning glory, mushrooms, tobacco and peyote) on their patients!
The Mayan Empire was made up of city-states. Each city-state had its own government. Some of the most powerful city-states in the empire were El Mirador, Tikal and Caracol.
The Heart of Tikal – One of the Most Powerful Maya City by Bruno Girin cc2.0
A Mayan city-state was made up of a large city and its surrounding area. Each city-state was ruled by a king.
The Mayans believed that their kings were appointed by the gods. To them, kings were mediators between the people and the gods.
Mayan leaders were called halach uinic or ahau, which meant “lord” or “ruler”.
The lower officials or the lesser lords were called betab, and military leaders were called nacom.
Priests were powerful in the government due to the importance Mayans placed on religion. Kings, in some ways, were also considered priests.
Figure of a Maya Priest by Wolfgang Sauber cc3.0
Priests had great influence on the king’s leadership. A king sought advice from the priests in times of crisis. He would also consult them to know the future.
Murder, arson and acts against the gods were punishable by death under Mayan laws. Punishments were reduced if it was found that the crimes were committed accidentally.
The local leaders, nobles and even kings also served as judges during court trials.
King as Judge and Punisher by Michel wal cc3.0
Shaving a person’s head was a sign of shame for the Mayans. It was also considered to be one of their punishments. Other forms of punishments included death, fines and being placed into slavery. The Mayans had no prison cells.
The Mayans followed a monarchical form of government where a king’s position would be inherited by his oldest son. The king’s oldest brother could take over the throne if the king did not have a son.
The commoners paid taxes to support the king and nobles. They were not allowed to see the King face to face! They were also forbidden to wear clothing and symbols intended for the nobles.
Presentation of Captives to a Maya Ruler (AD 785) by FA2010
If war is upon them, Mayan men would serve as warriors who were subject only to the King’s commands.
If found guilty of committing crimes, Mayan nobles would be severely punished. Their punishments were greater than the commoners would suffer for the same offense.
Mayan life was centered on their gods. Their religion transcended every aspect of their lives.
Itzamna was the Mayans’ most important god. He was the god of fire, the creator of Earth and the ruler of the heavens. His name was thought to mean “lizard house”.
Itzamna – the god of fire, earth and heaven
Kukulkan was a snake god. His name meant “feathered serpent” and was often drawn like a dragon.
Bolon Dzacab was the god of lightning, storms, wind and fire. He was also known as Huracan. He was believed to be the cause behind great floods.
Bolon Dzacab – The god of lightning, storms, wind and fire
Chaac was the Mayan god of rain and lightning. The Mayans believed that he used a lightning axe to strike the clouds so they would produce rain.
Chaac – Mayan god of rain and lightning by Leonard G.
The priests performed rituals to appease the gods. Some of their duties were to predict the future, to work miracles, to build the table of eclipses, to prevent famine, drought and earthquakes and to insure adequate rainfall.
The Mayans believed that they had to travel the dark underworld where mean gods would torment them when they die.
For the Mayans, only those who died in childbirth and those who were sacrificed to the gods were worthy enough to live in heaven.
The sun, the stars and the Mayan calendar played a critical role in the Mayan religion. As a matter of fact, the Mayans set their religious ceremonies and festivals based on the position of the stars and calendar days.
The Mayans also built pyramids to serve as monuments to their gods. Some of the most famous Mayan pyramids were El Castillo, Nohoch Mol and La Danta.
El Castillo – The Very Famous Mayan Pyramids by Manuel de Corselas cc3.0
Temples were built on the top of the pyramids. This is where the priests would perform rituals and sacrifices.
Religious ceremonies and beliefs of the Mayans were written on books called codices.
The Mayans believed that the world was created in 3114 BC, the zero date of their calendar.
According to Mayan mythology, humans were created from maize!
The Mayans predicted that the end of the world would be on December 21, 2012. The inspiration behind the Hollywood movie 2012 came from this belief.
The Mayans used hieroglyphics as their system of writing. These were quite different than the ones used by Ancient Egyptians.
Maya Stucco Glyphs Displayed in the Museum at Palenque, Mexico by Kwamikagami
Only wealthy Mayans had the opportunity to learn how to read and write.
The Mayans used black ink made from coal and quills made from turkey feathers for writing.
Mayan numbers were written using bars and dots. A bar usually represented the number five while the number zero was represented by a shell-like symbol.
The Numbering Representation by Mayans by Bryan Derksen cc3.0
The Mayans wrote large numbers in powers of twenty. Today, the base-20 number system is called the vigesimal system.
The Mayans had two types of calendar: Tzolk’in and Haab’. Tzolk’in was a 260-day calendar which had two cycles — a twenty-day cycle and a thirteen-day cycle. Each day had a name taken from the twenty-day cycle and a number taken from the thirteen-day cycle.
Tzolk’in – The Mayan Calendar by nafmo cc2.0
Haab’ was a solar calendar with a total of 365 days in the year. It had eighteen months of twenty days each, with five extra “unlucky” days in the nineteenth month.
Mayan’s Haab – The Solar Calendar by theilr cc2.0
The Mayans had a third calendar which was used for historical purposes. It was called the Long Count Calendar which began on August 11, 3114 B.C. — the day when the world was created.
The Mayans built many cities which acted as city-states and homes to local kings who lived in a palace within. Pyramids which served as temples for Mayan gods were also built inside the cities.
Palenque, another city-state, was once called the “Red City” of the Mayans because of its red-painted buildings.
The Palace at Palenque by Ricraider cc3.0
One of the largest city-states in the empire was El Mirador. Over 100,000 people lived in the city. Its central area covered ten square miles (twenty-six square kilometers)!
Kaminaljuyu, located in the southern Mayan area, was a major city-state occupied for almost 3000 years. It was a major trade location for products like cacao, fruit, pottery and obsidian.
Tikal was considered to be one of the most powerful city-states in the Mayan civilization. It was large and it contained thousands of structures. It had a population as high as 100,000 people. Tikal was also the home of six large pyramids.
Teotihuacan, located in the Valley of Mexico, was also one of the major city-states of the empire. This city-state significantly influenced Mayan culture, trade and politics during the Classical Period.
The Highly Influenced Mayan City – Teotihuacan by Jackhynes
Caracol was a powerful city-state covering a land area of around seventy-seven square miles (200 square kilometers). It had been a client state of Tikal until around 600 A.D., when it became a city-state of its own.
Caracol – The Powerful City of Mayan by Pgbk87 cc3.0
Caracol had a population of 180,000.
Chichen Itza was a prevailing city-state during the end of the Classic period and the Post-Classic Period. It had several famous structures including El Castillo, The Great Ball Court and the Temple of the Warriors.
The Temple of the Warriors in Chichen Itza by Keith Pomakis cc2.5
Each city-state had a large palace for the king and his family. These palaces also served as monuments to powerful Mayan kings.
The Mayans built two types of pyramids — the first type were those that were meant to be climbed and the second type were those that were not. Both types had characteristic sheer steps.
The first type of pyramid had a temple on top where priests offered sacrifices to the gods. Important religious ceremonies were also held at the top of this pyramid.
The second type of pyramid was sacred and was built to honor a god. No one was allowed to climb or to touch this pyramid. It was sometimes constructed with secret doors, tunnels and traps.
Nohoch Mul was a 138-foot (forty-two-meter) high pyramid located in Coba City. It was considered one of the tallest pyramids built on the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Nohoch Mul Pyramid by Ken Thomas
El Castillo was a ninety-eight-foot (thirty-meter) tall pyramid built to honor the god Kukulkan.
One of the tallest pyramids in Tikal is Temple IV. It has a height of 230 feet (seventy meters) and was built to mark the reign of King Yik’in Chan K’awiil.
The View of Temples I , II, III and IV (from left to right respectively) by PStreet cc3.0
The Temple of the Warriors was a large pyramid with four platforms. The base of the main temple’s stairway had about 200 columns!
Mayan buildings were covered with carvings and statues to regard and pay tribute to their gods and kings.
The La Danta temple was approximately 230 feet (seventy meters) tall. It was considered to be one of the largest pyramids in the world. This temple had a total volume of 9.9 million cubic feet (2.8 million cubic meters)!
Like the Egyptians, some Mayan pyramids also served as tombs for their kings.
The Mayans built several ball courts where they would play games. The Great Ball Court, measuring 551 feet (168 meters) long and 230 feet (seventy meters) wide, was the largest.
There were thirteen different ball courts in the city of Chichen Itza! Most of these ball courts had two long sloped-sided stone walls which were attached to the temples.
The palace at Palenque was one of the most famous palaces in the empire. It was built by King Pakal. The palace had a complex of buildings and courtyards.
The Palace at Palenque by Ricraider cc3.0
The Palenque palace also had a tower overlooking the city. The tower was covered with carvings and hieroglyphics of the king and his family.
Common subjects for Mayan artwork were kings who wanted to be remembered throughout history.
Like other activities, Mayan art was also heavily influenced by their religion.
Stela was a popular Mayan sculpture. Stelae (the plural of stela) are large tall stone blocks covered with carvings and writings. Many believe that they were built to honor kings.
Stela with Mayan Script by Wicki
The largest existing Mayan stela to date was Stela E from Quirigua City. It is thirty-four feet (ten meters) tall and weighs about sixty-five US tons (fifty-nine metric tons).
Carving was popular among the Mayans. Archaeologists were able to find relics showing that the Mayans were expert wood and jade carvers.
Mural painting was also popular with the Mayans. They would usually paint their buildings (including their homes and temples) with subjects like mythology, religious ceremonies and battles.
To the Mayans, ceramics was an important form of art. They were able to create their pottery without using a potter’s wheel. They would usually decorate it with detailed designs depicting the daily scenes of life.
Codices, or books, were made from long folded sheets made from leather or bark paper. It was also considered a delicate form of art, for the books contained several drawings and paintings.
The Codice of Mayan by GDK PD-Art
The Mayans used stucco plaster to create large masks and portraits for their kings and gods.
Palenque City was often considered the art capital of the Mayan civilization. Some of the Mayans’ finest artwork was found there.
Unlike other civilizations, Mayan artists would usually sign their artwork to signify ownership.
Dances and music were also considered an important part of Mayan art. The Mayans had a lot of musical instruments including flutes, drums and rattles. Some instruments were reserved for the elite.
The story of the Hero Twins was among the last surviving texts of Mayan mythology. It was a popular Mayan creation story.
Representation of Hero Twins by Herb Roe cc3.0
Hunahpu and Xbalanque were the Hero Twins. Stories said that they defeated hundreds of demons and the underworld lords.
After defeating the Lords of Death, the Hero Twins were made rulers of the Earth by the gods of the sky. One of them was turned into the sun and the other into the moon.
The Hero Twins gained a lot of powers after defeating several demons and gods. Using these powers, they brought their father back to life and turned him into a maize god.
The Mayans believed that their kings were descendants of the Hero Twins. Because of this belief, Mayan kings were given the divine right to rule.
Archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of Mayan vases that were painted and carved with scenes from the stories of the Hero Twins.
The mysterious decline of the Mayan civilization has troubled hundreds of archaeologists, scholars and historians. Even today, no one is sure why and how the great Mayan Empire disappeared. Scholars from all over the world have developed sound theories in the hope of unraveling this mystery.
Some experts suggest that by the ninth century, the Mayans had exhausted their environment to the point where it could no longer support a large population. This ultimately led to food shortages and epidemics throughout the empire.
Uxmal, Nunnery Quadrangle by Mesoamerican cc3.0
Other scholars believe that intense warfare between Mayan city-states led the people to chaos and confusion. War may have disrupted trade and religious practices throughout the empire.
Experts also believe that drought may have hit various Mayan city-states leading to famine and death. Most Mayan city-states (for example, Tikal) relied on rainwater for drinking and irrigation.
Some Mayan cities, like Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Mayapan, continued to thrive until the Spaniards arrived in the late sixteenth century.
Most Mayans were living in small agricultural villages when the Spaniards arrived. Their once-great empire and their huge cities were already forgotten deep in the jungles.
The last Mayan state, the island city of Tayasal, existed until 1697. The city-state submitted to a Spanish force led by Martin de Ursua, on March 13, 1697.
Nojpeten – The Then Tayasal by Rafael Amado Deras cc2.0
The last Mayan king was Canek. He was the ruler of Tayasal, the last city-state of the great Mayan Empire.
Only a few Mayan books or codices survive, because the Spaniards burned most of them. They thought they were evil.
The ruins of Tikal were discovered by a Spanish priest who got lost in the Yucatan jungle in 1695.
The Ruins of Tikal by CarlosVanVegas cc2.0
More than seven million Mayans are still living in their home region today. Some aspects of the ancient Mayan culture are still practiced by them.