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Maya civilization

This article is about the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. See Maya people for a discussion of the modern Maya. For other meanings of the word Maya, see Maya (disambiguation)

The Maya are people of southern Mexico and northern Central America (Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and El Salvador) with some 3,000 years of history. The Maya were part of the Mesoamerican Pre-Columbian cultures. Contrary to popular myth, the Maya people never "disappeared." Millions still live in the region, and many of them still speak one of the Maya family of languages.



Archaeological evidence shows the Maya started to build ceremonial architecture approximately 3000 years ago. There is some disagreement about the borders and difference between the early Maya and their neighboring Pre-Classic Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmec culture. The Olmec and early Maya seem to have influenced each other.

The earliest monuments consist of simple burial mounds, the precursors to pyramids erected in later times.

Eventually, the Olmec culture faded after spreading its influence into the Yucatan peninsula, present-day Guatemala, and other regions.

The Maya developed the famed cities of Tikal, Palenque, Copán and Kalakmul , as well as Dos Pilas, Uaxactun, Altun Ha, Bonampak and many other sites in the area (see list of sites, below). They developed an agriculturally intensive, city-centered empire consisting of numerous independent city-states. The most notable monuments are the pyramids they built in their religious centers and the accompanying palaces of their rulers. Other important archaeological remains include the carved stone slabs usually called stelae (the Maya called them Tetun, or "Tree-stones"), which depict rulers along with hieroglyphic texts describing their genealogy, war victories, and other accomplishments.

The Maya participated in long distance trade in Mesoamerica and possibly further lands. Important trade goods included cacao, salt, and obsidian; see also: Obsidian use in Mesoamerica.


Many consider Maya art of their Classic Era (c. 200 to 900 a.d.) to be the most sophisticated and beautiful of the ancient New World. The carvings and stucco reliefs at Palenque and the statuary of Copán are especially fine, showing a grace and accurate observation of the human form that reminded early archaeologists of Classical civilization of the Old World, hence the name bestowed on this era. We have only hints of the advanced painting of the classic Maya, mostly what has survived are funerary pottery and other Maya ceramics. Also a building at Bonampak holds ancient murals that survived by fortunate accident. With the decipherment of the Maya script it was discovered that the Maya were one of the few civilizations where artists attached their name to their work.


As unique and spectacular as any Greek or Roman architecture, Maya architecture spans many thousands of years; yet, often the most dramatic and easily recognizable as Maya are the fantastic stepped pyramids from the Terminal Pre-classic period and beyond. These pyramids relied on intricate carved stone in order to create a stair stepped design. Each pyramid was dedicated to a deity whose shrine sat at its peak. During this "height" of Maya culture, the centers of their religious, commercial and bureaucratic power grew into incredible cities, including Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Uxmal. Through observation of the numerous consistent elements and stylistic distinctions, remnants of Maya architecture have become an important key to understanding the evolution of their ancient civilization.

Urban design

As Maya cities spread throughout the varied geography of Mesoamerica, the extent of site planning appears to be minimal; their cities being built somewhat haphazardly as dictated by the topography of each independent location, Maya architecture tends to integrate a great degree of natural features. For instance, some cities existing on the flat limestone plains of the northern Yucatan grew into great sprawling municipalities, while others built in the hills of Usumacinta utilized the natural loft of the topography to raise their towers and temples to impressive heights. However, some semblance of order, as required by any large city, still prevailed.

At the onset of large-scale construction, a predetermined axis was typically established in congruence with the cardinal directions. Depending upon the location and availability of natural resources such as fresh-water wells, or cenotes, the city grew by connecting great plazas with the numerous platforms that created the sub-structure for nearly all Maya buildings, by means of sacbeob causeways. As more structures were added and existing structures re-built or remodeled, the great Maya cities seemed to take on an almost random identity that contrasts sharply with other great Mesoamerican cities such as Teotihuacan and its rigid grid-like construction.

At the heart of the Maya city existed the large plazas surrounded by their most valued governmental and religious buildings such as the royal acropolis, great pyramid temples and occasionally ball-courts. Though city layouts evolved as nature dictated, careful attention was placed on the directional orientation of temples and observatories so that they were constructed in accordance with Maya interpretation of the orbits of the stars. Immediately outside of this ritual center were the structures of lesser nobles, smaller temples, and individual shrines: the less sacred and less important structures had a greater degree of privacy. Outside of the constantly evolving urban core were the less permanent and more modest homes of the common people.

Classic Era Maya urban design could easily be described as the division of space by great monuments and causeways. In this case, the open public plazas were the gathering places for the people and the focus of the urban design, while interior space was entirely secondary. Only in the Late Post-Classic era did the great Maya cities develop into more fortress-like defensive structures that lacked, for the most part, the large and numerous plazas of the Classic.

Building materials

A surprising aspect of the great Maya structures is their lack of many advanced technologies that would seem to be necessary for such constructions. Lacking metal tools, pulleys and perhaps even the wheel, Maya architecture required one thing in abundance: manpower. Yet, beyond this enormous requirement, the remaining materials seem to have been readily available. All stone for Maya structures appears to have been taken from local quarries; most often this was limestone which, while being quarried remained pliable enough to be worked with stone tools ... only hardening once removed from its bed. In addition to the structural use of limestone, much of their mortar used crushed, burnt, and mixed limestone that mimicked the properties of cement and was used just as widely for stucco finishing as it was for mortar; however, later improvements in quarrying techniques reduced the necessity for this limestone-stucco as their stones began to fit quite perfectly, yet it remained a crucial element in some post and lintel roofs. In the case of the common homes, wooden poles, adobe, and thatch were the primary materials; however, instances of what appear to be common houses of limestone have been discovered as well. It should be noted that one instance, in the city of Comalcalco , fired-clay bricks have been found as a substitute for a lack of any substantial stone deposits.

Building process

All evidence seems to suggest that most stone buildings existed on top of a platform sub-structure that varied in height from less than a meter, in the case of terraces and smaller structures, to 45 meters in the case of great temples and pyramids. A flight of often steep stone steps split the large stepped platforms on at least one side, contributing to the common bi-symmetrical appearance of Maya architecture. Depending on the prevalent stylistic tendencies of an area, these platforms most often were built of a cut and stucco stone exterior filled with densely packed gravel. As is the case with many other Maya relief, those on the platforms often were related to the intended purpose of the residing structure. Thus, as the sub-structural platforms were completed, the grand residences and temples of the Maya were constructed on the solid foundations of the platforms. As all structures were built, little attention seems to have been given to their utilitarian functionality and much to their external aesthetics; however, a certain repeated aspect, the corbeled arch , was often utilized to mimic the appearance and feel of the simple Maya hut. Though not an effective tool to increase interior space, as it required thick stone walls to support the high ceiling, some temples utilized repeated arches, or a corbeled vault , to construct what the Maya referred to as pibnal , or sweatbath , such as those in the Temple of the Cross at Palenque. As structures were completed, typically extensive relief work was added ... often simply to the covering of stucco used to smooth any imperfections; however, many lintel carvings have been discovered, as well as actual stone carvings used as a facade. Commonly, these would continue uninterrupted around an entire structure and contain a variety of artwork pertaining to the inhabitants or purpose of a building. Though not the case in all Maya locations, broad use of painted stucco has been discovered as well.

It has been suggested that, in conjunction to the Maya Long Count Calendar, every fifty-two years, or cycle, temples and pyramids were remodeled and rebuilt. It appears now that the rebuilding process was often instigated by a new ruler or for political matters, as opposed to matching the calendar cycle. However, the process of rebuilding on top of old structures is indeed a common one. Most notably, the North Acropolis at Tikal seems to be the sum total of 1,500 years of architectural modifications.

Notable constructions

Ceremonial platforms

These were commonly limestone platforms of typically less than four meters in height where public ceremonies and religious rites were performed. Constructed in the fashion of a typical foundation platform, these were often accented by carved figures, altars and perhaps tzompantli, a stake used to display the heads of victims or defeated Mesoamerican ball game opponents.


Large and often highly decorated, the palaces usually sat close to the center of a city and housed the population's elite. Any exceedingly large royal palace, or one consisting of many chambers on different levels might be referred to as an acropolis. However, often these were one-story and consisted of many small chambers and often at least one interior courtyard; these structures appear to take into account the needed functionality required of a residence, as well as the decoration required for their inhabitants stature. Archaeologists seem to agree that many palaces are home to various tombs. At Copán, beneath over four-hundred years of later remodeling, a tomb for one of the ancient rulers has been discovered and the North Acropolis at Tikal appears to have been the site of numerous burials during the Terminal Pre-classic and Early Classic periods.


This common appearance in the Maya cities remains somewhat of a mystery. Appearing without fail on the western side of a plaza is a pyramid temple, facing three smaller temples across the plaza. It has been theorized that these E-groups are observatories due to the precise positioning of the sun through the small temples when viewed from the pyramid during the solstices and equinoxes. Other ideas seem to stem from the possible creation story told by the relief and artwork that adorns these structures.

Pyramids and temples

Maya temple with intricate roof comb and corbeled arch
Maya temple with intricate roof comb and corbeled arch

Often the most important religious temples sat atop the towering Maya pyramids, presumably as the closest place to the heavens. While recent discoveries point toward the extensive use of pyramids as tombs, the temples themselves seem to rarely, if ever, contain burials. The lack of a burial chamber, however, allows those sacred Mayas access to, at most, three cramped rooms to use for various ritual purposes. Residing atop the pyramids, some of over two-hundred feet, such as that at El Mirador, the temples were impressive and decorated structures themselves. Commonly topped with a roof comb , or superficial grandiose wall, these temples might have served as a type of propaganda. As occasionally the only structure to exceed the height of the jungle, the roof combs atop the temples were often carved with representations of rulers that could be seen from vast distances. Beneath the proud temples sat the pyramids that were, ultimately, a series of platforms split by steep stairs that would allow access to the temple.


The Maya were keen astronomers and had mapped out the phases of celestrial objects, especially the Moon and Venus. Many temples have doorways and other features aligning to celestrial events. Round temples, often dedicated to Kukulcan, are perhaps those most often described as "observatories" by modern ruin tour-guides, but there is no evidence that they were so used exclusively, and temple pyramids of other shape may well have been used for observation as well.

Ball courts

As an integral aspect of the Mesoamerican lifestyle, their ritual ball-game and its courts were constructed throughout the Maya realm and often on a grand scale. Enclosed on two sides by stepped ramps that lead to ceremonial platforms or small temples, the ball court itself was of a capital I shape and could be found in all but the smallest of Maya cities.

See also: Mesoamerican ballgame

Great Ball-court at Chichen Itza
Great Ball-court at Chichen Itza

Writing and literacy

Writing system

Main article: Maya hieroglyphics

The Maya writing system (often called hieroglyphics from a vague superficial resemblance to the Ancient Egyptian writing, to which it is not related) was a combination of phonetic symbols and logograms. It is the only known writing system of the Pre-Columbian New World which can completely represent spoken language to the same degree as the written language of the old world.

The decipherment of the Maya writings has been a long laborous process. Bits of it were first deciphered in the late 19th and early 20th century (mostly the parts having to do with numbers, the calendar, and astronomy), but major breakthroughs came starting in the 1960s and 1970s and accelerated rapidly thereafter, so that now the majority of Maya texts can be read nearly completely in their original languages.

Unfortunately, shortly after the conquest, zealous Spanish priests, notably Bishop Diego de Landa, ordered the burning of all the Maya books. While many stone inscriptions survive, only 3 books (including the Madrid Codex) and a few pages of a fourth survive from the ancient libraries. Rectangular lumps of plaster and paint chips are a frequent discovery in Maya archaeology; they are the tantalzing remains of what had been books after all the organic material has decayed.

In reference to the few extant Maya writings, Michael Coe, a prominent archeologist at Yale University stated:

"[O]ur knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and Pilgrim's Progress)." (Michael D. Coe, The Maya, London: Thames and Hudson, 4th ed., 1987, p. 161.)

Most surviving Pre-Columbian Maya writing is from stone inscriptions at sites already abandoned when the Spanish arrived (which largely deals with the dynasties and wars of the sites' rulers) and funeral pottery (which mostly deals with beliefs about the afterlife).

Writing tools

Although the archealogical record does not provide examples, Maya art shows that writing was done with brushes made with animal hair and quills. Codex style writing was usually done in black ink with red highlights, giving rise to the Aztec name for the Maya land as the land of red and black.


Scribes held a prominent position in Mayan courts. Mayan art often depicts rulers with trappings indicating they were scribes or at least able to write, such as having pen bundles in their headdresses. Additionally, many rulers have been found in conjunction with writing tools such as shell or clay inkpots.


Although the number of logograms and syllabic symbols required to fully write the language numbered in the hundreds, literacy was not necessarily widespread beyond the elite classes. Graffiti uncovered in various contexts, including on fired bricks, shows nonsensical attempts to imitate the writing system.


The Maya (or their Olmec predecessors) independently developed the concept of zero, and used a base 20 numbering system (see Maya numerals). Inscriptions show them on occasion working with sums up to the hundreds of millions. They produced extremely accurate astronomical observations; their charts of the movements of the moon and planets are equal or superior to any other civilization working from naked eye observation. The Maya calculation of the length of the solar year was somewhat superior to that used in the Gregorian Calendar.

They did not use this figure for the length of year in their calendar, however. Instead, the Maya calendar was based on a year length of exactly 365 days, which is considerably less accurate than the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian calendar accumulates a day's error in approximately 3257 years. The Maya calendar accumulated a day's error in only 4 years. The Julian calendar, used in Europe from Roman times until about the 16th Century, on the other hand, accumulated an error of one day every 128 years.


Main article: Maya mythology

The Maya religion was polytheistic and involved occasional sacrifice and other rituals. Maya rulers figured prominently in many religious rituals, and often were required to practice bloodletting, such as by using sculpted bone or jade instruments to perforate their penises or by drawing thorn-studded rope through their tounges.

Decline of the Maya

In the 8th and 9th centuries AD Classic Maya culture went into decline, with most of the cities of the central lowlands abandoned. Warfare, ecological depletion of croplands, and drought or some combination of those factors are usually suggested as reasons for the decline. There is archaeological evidence of warfare, famine, and revolt against the elite at various central lowlands sites.

The Maya cities of the northern lowlands in Yucatan continued to flourish for centuries more; some of the important sites in this era were Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Edzná, and Coba. After the decline of the ruling dynasties of Chichen and Uxmal, Mayapan ruled all of Yucatan until a revolt in 1450; the area then devolved to city states until the Spanish Conquest.

The Itza Maya, Kowoj and Yalain groups of Central Peten survived the "Classic Period Collapse" in small numbers and by A.D. 1250 reconstituted themselves to form competing polities. The Itza kingdom had its capital at Noj Peten, an archaeological site thought to underlay modern day Flores, Guatemala. It ruled over a polity extending across the Peten Lakes region, encompassing the community of Eckixil on Lake Quexil. These sites and this region were inhabited continuously by independent Maya until after the final Spanish Conquest of A.D. 1697.

Post-Classic Maya states also continued to thrive in the southern highlands. One of the Maya kingdoms in this area, the Quiché, is responsible for the best-known Mayan work of historiography and mythology, the Popol Vuh.

The Spanish started their conquest of the Maya lands in the 1520s. Some Maya states offered long fierce resistance; the last Maya state, the Itza kingdom, was not subdued by Spanish authorities until 1697.

The Spanish American Colonies were largely cut off from the outside world, and the ruins of the great ancient cities were little known except to locals. In 1839 however, American traveler, John Lloyd Stephens, hearing reports of lost ruins in the jungle, visited Copán, Palenque, and other sites with English architect and draftsman Frederick Catherwood. Their illustrated accounts of the ruins sparked strong interest in the region and the people, and they have once again regained their position as a vital link in Mesoamerican heritage.

Much of the contemporary rural population of Guatemala and Belize is Maya by descent and primary language; a Maya culture still exists in rural Mexico.

List of Maya sites

Most important sites

Other important Maya sites

See also

External links

Last updated: 06-01-2005 23:26:40
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