Guide to Archaeology since 1997

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An Introduction to the Maya Civilization

Maya Civilization Study Guide By K. Kris Hirst,

©2009, Inc., a part of The New York Times Company.

K. Kris Hirst Guide to Archaeology since 1997

Kris was a working archaeologist in the American Midwest, American Southwest and, for one heady season, in Mexico, before retiring in 2005 to write freelance science articles in archaeology.


Kris has written articles for Science and Archaeology magazines, and for over fifteen years has participated in panel discussions and presented several professional papers at conferences and elsewhere on the use of the Internet as a tool for presenting archaeological information to the public. Her most recent article is "Archaeology Today: Major Sites, Issues, and Problems", published in Elsevier's Encyclopedia of Archaeology, in September 2007.


Kris has a BS in Education from Illinois State University; and an MA in Anthropology from the University of Iowa. She is a member in good standing of the Society for American Archaeology, the Archaeological Institute of America, the Register of Professional Archaeologists and the National Association of Science Writers.

The Maya Civilization—also called the Mayan civilization—is the general name archaeologists have given to several independent, loosely affiliated city states who shared a cultural heritage in terms of language, customs, dress, artistic style and material culture. They occupied the central American continent, including the southern parts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, an area of about 150,000 square miles. In general, researchers tend to split the Maya into the Highland and Lowland Maya.
By the way, archaeologists prefer to use the term "Maya civilization" rather than the more common "Mayan civilization", leaving "Mayan" to refer to the language.
Highland and Lowland Maya

The Highland Maya lived in the southern mountains at elevations above 800 meters, and covered an area of some 84,000 square kilometers. The Lowland Maya lived in a much more extensive area of the lowlands in the north including the Yucatan peninsula. The Lowland Maya covered an area of some 250,000 square kilometers, and as a result, there was considerable cultural variation among the different parts of the lowland.

The Maya civilization was certainly never an "empire", inasmuch as one person never ruled the entire region. During the Classic period, there were several strong kings at Tikal, Calakmul, Caracol and Dos Pilas, but none of them ever conquered the others. It's probably best to think of the Maya as a collection of independent city states, who shared some ritual and ceremonial practices, some architecture, some cultural objects. The city states traded with one another, and with the Olmec and Teotihuacan polities (at different times), and they also warred with one another from time to time.
Timeline: Mesoamerican archaeology is broken up into general sections. The "Maya" are in general thought to have maintained a cultural continuity between about 500 BC and AD 900, with the "Classic Maya" beween AD 250-900.

  • Archaic before 2500 BC---Hunting and gathering lifestyle prevails.

  • Early Formative 2500-1000 BC---First beans and maize agriculture, people live in isolated farmsteads and hamlets

  • Middle Formative 1000-400 BC--- First monumental architecture, first villages; people switch to full-time agriculture, Olmec contacts, and, at Nakbe, the first evidence of social ranking, beginning about 600-400 BC. Important sites: Nakbe, Chalchuapa, Kaminaljuyu

  • Late Formative 400 BC-AD 250---First massive palaces are built at urban Nakbe and El Mirador, first writing, constructed road systems and water control, organized trade and widespread warfare. Important sites: El Mirador, Nakbe, Cerros, Komchen, Tikal, Kaminaljuyu

  • Classic AD 250-900--- Widespread literacy including calendars and lists of royal lineages at Copán and Tikal, first dynastic kingdoms, changing political alliances, large palaces and mortuary pyramids constructed, intensification of agriculture. Populations peak at about 100 per square kilometers. Paramount kings and polities installed at Tikal, Calakmul, Caracol, and Dos Pilos. Important sites: Copán, Palenque, Tikal, Calakmul, Caracol, Dos Pilas, Uxmal, Coba, Dzibilchaltun, Kabah, Labna, Sayil

  • Postclassic AD 900-1500--- Some centers abandoned, written records stop. Puuc hill country flourishes and small rural towns prosper near rivers and lakes until the Spanish arrive in 1517. Important sites: Chichén Itzá, Mayapan, Iximche, Utatlan). Known Kings and Leaders.

    • Each independent Maya city had its own set of institutionalized rulers, beginning in the Classic period (AD 250-900). Documentary evidence for the kings and queens has been found on stele and temple wall inscriptions and a few sarcophagi.

During the Classic period, kings were generally in charge of a particular city and its supporting region. The area controlled by a specific king might be hundreds or even thousands of square kilometers. The ruler's court included palaces, temples and ball courts, and great plazas, open areas where festivals and other public events were held. Kings were hereditary positions, and, at least after they were dead, the kings were sometimes considered gods.
Important Facts about the Maya Civilization:

Population: There is no complete population estimate, but it must have been in the millions. In the 1600s, the Spanish reported that there were between 600,000-1 million people living in the Yucatan peninsula alone. Each of the larger cities probably had populations in excess of 100,000, but that doesn't count the rural sectors that supported the larger cities.
Environment: The Maya Lowland region below 800 meters is tropical with rainy and dry seasons. There is little exposed water except in lakes in limestone faults, swamps, and cenotes—natural sinkholes in the limestone that are geologically a result of the Chicxulub crater impact. Originally, the area was blanketed with multiple canopied forests, and mixed vegetation.
The Highland Maya regions include a string of volcanically active mountains. Eruptions have dumped rich volcanic ash throughout the region, leading to deep rich soils and obsidian deposits. Climate in the highland is temperate, with rare frost. Upland forests originally were mixed pine and deciduous trees.
Writing, Language and Calendars of the Maya Civilization:

Mayan language: The various groups spoke nearly 30 closely related languages and dialects, including the Mayan and Huastec

-Writing: The Maya had 800 distinct hieroglyphs, with the first evidence of language written on stela and walls of buildings beginning ca 300 BC. Bark cloth paper codexes were being used no later than the 1500s, but all but a handful were destroyed by Spanish
-Calendar: The so called "long count" calendar was invented by Mixe-Zoquean speakers and adapted by Maya ca 400 BC. The earliest inscription in long count was made dated AD 292. Earliest date listed on the "long count" calendar is August 11, 3114 BC, what the Maya said was the founding date of their civilization. The first dynastic calendars were being used by about 400 BC
-Extant written records of the Maya: Popul Vuh, extant Paris, Madrid, and Dresden codices, and the papers of Fray Diego de Landa called "Relacion".
Maya Civilization Ritual

-Intoxicants: Chocolate (Theobroma), blache (fermented honey and an extract from the balche tree; morning glory seeds, pulque (from agave plants), tobacco, intoxicating enemas, Maya Blue
-Sweat baths: Piedras Negras, San Antonio, Cerén
-Astronomy: The Maya tracked the sun, moon, and Venus. Calendars include eclipse warnings and safe periods, and almanacs for tracking Venus.
-Observatories: built at Chichén Itzá
-Maya Gods: What we know of Maya religion is based on writings and drawings on codices or temples. A few of the gods include: God A or Cimi or Cisin (god of death or flatulent one), God B or Chac, (rain and lightning), God C (sacredness), God D or Itzamna (creator or scribe or learned one), God E (maize), God G (sun), God L (trade or merchant), God K or Kauil, Ixchel or Ix Chel (goddess of fertility), Goddess O or Chac Chel. There are others; and in the Maya pantheon there are sometimes combined gods, glyphs for two different gods appearing as one glyph.
-Death and Afterlife: Ideas about death and the afterlife are little known, but the entry to the underworld was called Xibalba or "Place of Fright"
Mayan Economics

-Currency: Cacao beans, copper bells, marine shells, jade beads
-Mines and quarries: Obsidian, jadeite, limestone
-Lapidary arts: jadeite, marine shell, turquoise, specialized workshops, schist, in an elite context
-Metallurgy: Didn't develop in Mesoamerica until 600 AD (Late Postclassic), and then it was west Mexico that developed it
-Trade systems: The Maya had a fairly extensive trade network, with obsidian, jade, serpentine, feathers (quetzalcoatl birds), and ceramic vessels being traded throughout Mesoamerica. Trade connections were established with Olmec and Teotihuacan; there were markets in most of the cities.
-Agriculture: Begins in the highlands about 3000 BC, with maize and beans, the Maya were arranged into small communities of farmers by ca 900 BC. First villages had pole and thatch houses and a few community buildings. Fields were slash-and burn at first, then home gardens and raised terraces. In the Maya highlands, irrigation canals were built; in the the lowlands, the people grew crops on raised platforms called chinampas
-Cultivated crops: maize (domesticated ca 5000 BC), beans (5000 BC), cucurbits (squash), chili peppers, manioc (3000 BC), amaranth, chenopodium, palms, cacao, vanilla; ramon, avocado (500 BC), agave;
-Domesticated animals: hairless god, turkey, honeybee
Maya Politics

Warfare: The Maya had fortified sites, and military themes and battles events are illustrated in Maya art by the Early Classic period. Warrior classes, including some professional warriors, were part of the Maya society. Wars were fought over territory, slaves, to avenge insults, and to establish succession.
Weaponry: axes, clubs, maces, throwing spears, shields and helmets, bladed spears
Ritual sacrifice: offerings thrown into cenotes, and placed in tombs; the Maya pierced their tongues, earlobes, genitals or other body parts for blood sacrifice. animals (mostly jaguars) were sacrificed, and there were human victims, including high ranking enemy warriors who were captured, tortured and sacrificed
Archaeological Sites of the Maya

Really the best way to learn about the Maya is to go and visit the archaeological ruins. Many of them are open to the public and have museums and even gift shops on the sites. You can find Maya archaeological sites in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and in several Mexican states.

Major Maya Cities:

Belize: Batsu'b Cave, Colha, Minanha, Altun Ha, Caracol, Lamanai, Cahal Pech, Xunantunich
El Salvador: Chalchuapa, Quelepa
Mexico: El Tajin, Mayapan, Cacaxtla, Bonampak, Chichén Itzá, Cobá, Uxmal, Palenque
Honduras: Copan, Puerto Escondido
Guatemala: Kaminaljuyu, La Corona (Site Q), Nakbe, Tikal

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