Mayan History – What We Know?

Representation of a Maya astronomer from p34 of the Madrid Codex, PD image.


Mayan History – What We Know?

Representation of a Maya astronomer from p34 of the Madrid Codex, PD image.

1. The Maya have not completely vanished

Modern day Mayans. Image credit: Reinhard Jahn, Mannheim, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE.

The Maya are the native people of Central America and Mexico. The Ancient Mayans lived in the Yucatán, which are Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Western Honduras and Northern Belize today. Most believe that all Mayan people have completely vanished from this world. This is not true, because there are still living descendants of the ancient Mayans, some on their native lands and some all over the world. The old Mayan traditions are still practiced sometimes with a more modern twist to them. There are about six million Mayan people still living in Central America today.

2. The Golden Age of the Mayans

Mayapan, Yucatan. Image credit: GOC53, (CC BY 2.0)

These ancient people were at the height of success by 250 B.C. This period is known as the ‘Classic Period’. The term ‘Maya’ comes from the ancient city of Mayapan in Yucatán. During the ‘Post Classic Period’ Mayapan was the last capital of the Mayan Kingdom. During the classic period, the Mayan civilization expanded to around 40 cities, which included Tikal, Copán, Dos Pilas, Uaxactún, Calakmul, Palenque, Rio Bec and Bonampack etc. And each of these cities boasted a population of between 5,000 to 50,000 people. Many of the temples and palaces built during this period were built in the stepped-pyramid form and were adorned with reliefs and inscriptions. The Mayans have earned the status as great artists of Mesoamerica because of these amazing buildings.

Along with the improvement of their cities, so did their art and architecture. Their architecture was more developed than the ages before and had many different styles. Their trade also expanded for long distances. They traded with other Mesoamerican cultures such as the Zapotec. The improvements and different styles of the Mayan buildings show that they traded a lot. Cacao, seashells, jade, obsidian and salt were some of the important things they traded.

3. Life in the Rainforest

Rainforest by Walter Rodriguez, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ancient people usually prospered in drier climates than that offered by the tropical rainforest. The bases of these civilizations were formed because of the need to manage the water resources (by irrigation and other methods). What is fascinating about the Maya was that, unlike the usual civilization, they managed to flourish and build a great empire in the climates of the tropical rainforest. There were not any passable rivers for trade or transport in the Southern Mayan lowlands and moreover, no need for any form of irrigation.

While the foreigners that invaded the land were disappointed by the lack of gold and silver in that region, the Maya used the countless natural resources offered to them to their benefit. They used limestone for construction; salt; the volcanic rock obsidian for tools and weapons; quetzal feathers which they used to decorate the costumes of nobility; marine shells which they used as in ceremonies and warfare as trumpets; jade etc.

4. The Mayan Civilization was never unified

Maya warfare – Reproduction of Bonampak murals. Image credit: El Comandante, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The kings of the Maya claimed to have descended from the gods and the planets. Compared to other ancient cultures such as the Aztecs or the Incas of Peru, the Mayan were a huge empire. However, unlike these other civilizations the Mayans were never unified. Different from other cultures where the whole empire was ruled by one set of rulers from one major city, the Mayans had many city-states. These city-states only ruled the surrounding area and each city had its own king ruling it. Sometimes a more powerful city would take over a smaller one and can demand tributes and labour from it. Farms and villages bordered the cities. Even thought cities were not unified, they had contact with each other, through trade but there was also war. The wars were usually fights for slaves and victims for sacrifices.

5. Mayan architecture

Mayan Pyramid (front view). Image credit: Gopal Venkatesan, (CC BY 2.0)

The Mayans are renowned for their architecture. There are many ancient Mayan cities that boast majestic temples, palaces, pyramids and other buildings, many of which can still be seen today – many millennia later. The Mayans built two kinds of pyramids. Both had the similar pyramid shape, with steps up the side and both were built for religious purposes. They also had their differences. One type of pyramid had a temple on top meant for the priests to climb for religious reasons and the other type of pyramid was built in honor of the gods and was not to be touched by humans or climbed. The pyramids with temples on the top were used to hold the most important religious ceremonies. The temple-pyramids had steep steps but not too steep so that he priests can still climb them, but the steps of the other kind of pyramids were often too steep to climb without much effort. The pyramids for the gods also often had secret tunnels, doors and traps built into it.

Other than the temples and magnificent palaces, the Mayan architecture also included their ball courts where they would play their game with a rubber ball. The court consisted of two long stone walls, sometimes with sloping sides. Some big cities had more than one court and sometimes the courts were attached to temples. Many of the Mayan buildings were aligned with the celestial events such as the path of the Sun.

6. Ancient Mayan’s Astronomy

Representation of a Maya astronomer from p34 of the Madrid Codex, PD image.

The Maya believed that they could read stars, moon and planets to the will and actions of the gods. Astronomy was very important to them and they spent a lot of time on it. Many of their buildings were constructed by according to their knowledge on the celestial bodies. The Mayan people could successfully predict activities such as eclipses, equinoxes and also when the Sun reached its apex. Some of the Maya dynasties claimed to have descended from these planets.

The Earth was the center of all things and the other bodies, i.e. the stars, moon, planets and sun, were ‘gods’. The gods influenced human dealings and so their movements were closely followed. The Sun was also a very important object. The moon was generally associated with an old woman, a maiden or a rabbit. From the planets, Venus was the most important. Venus was associated with war. Arranging of battles and wars, and the sacrifice of captured warriors or leaders were often carried out according to the movement of Venus.

The stars were less important to the Maya than the planets, Sun and moon. However the seasonal movement of the stars were used to foresee the seasons which is useful for agricultural planning. The Mayan calendar was also linked with astronomy.

To learn more about the Mayans, visit:

Lost Kingdoms Of The Maya (Amazing Ancient History Documentary)




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