The Maya What were the characteristics of the Mayan civilization?

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The Maya

What were the characteristics of the Mayan civilization?

The Maya started settling in villages around 1500 BCE. The Mayan civilization started to become more complex around 250. Cities grew and trade increased. The Mayan civilization thrived until around 900. It had declined by the time European explorers arrived. Of the three major Mesoamerican cultures, the Maya was the only one that was not completely wiped out by the Spanish conquistadors.

The Maya lived in modern-day southern Mexico and Central America, including the areas that are today Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. They were an agriculture-based society.

At its height, the Mayan civilization reached from the lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula to the highlands of northern Central America. Today, many of the descendants of those early Maya live in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. Modern-day Maya still engage in some of the same practices as those of the ancient Maya. They grow the same crops, such as corn, beans, and squash, and practice many of the same crafts, such as weaving and pottery. Modern-day Maya even speak languages that developed from the original Maya languages.

Their central location made it very easy for the Maya to trade and interact with other cultures from North and South America. This enriched the Mayan culture, as they absorbed many ideas from the peoples with whom they traded. The Maya built a large and complex system of roads to stay connected with other cities and peoples.

Many remains of Mayan cities can be found in the jungles of Central America. The city of Chichen Itza, in the Yucatan, is home to a large number of ancient Mayan ruins, including sculptures of giant serpents, a huge ziggurat, or pyramid, and an observatory used by astronomers. Mayan buildings were often covered with plaster and painted red. Traces of plaster and paint can be found on the ruins today.

The climate through most of Mesoamerica was warm, and the majority of the land was very fertile. Mayan farmers who lived in the hilly highlands practiced slash and burn agriculture to clear out the rain forests, and also utilized irrigation systems and terrace farming. They carved steps, or terraces, into their land so they could farm more efficiently. The Mayas also raised turkeys for their meat and feathers.

Corn, called maize, was a primary crop for all Mesoamerican cultures, including the Maya. Other crops included squash, beans, and hot peppers. The Maya grew cacao beans, which are used today to make chocolate. Mayan chocolate was not sweet like we think of it today, but a hot, bitter drink. The Maya also used cacao beans as a form of money.

Another unusual Mayan crop was rubber. The Maya cut slits in the bark of the rubber tree and collected its sap. They used the dried sap to make water-resistant shoes and clothing. Rubber was also used to make balls. The Maya played games in enclosed, I-shaped courts with the rubber balls.These ball games took on a ritual significance and were an important part of Mayan culture.

Mayan Religion

What was the religious culture of the Maya?

The Mayan religion was polytheistic, meaning that the Maya believed in many gods. These gods represented the natural world, such as the sun, moon, and corn. At the top of pyramid-shaped temples, powerful priests conducted ceremonies believed to ensure good harvests and success in war.

The Maya believed that the gods were responsible for many aspects of life and could provide good weather and good health, or cause illness and misfortune. Priests, who were believed to have magical powers, conducted ritual ceremonies and sacrifices to encourage the gods to help them, as well as to celebrate victories. They made sacrifices of plants, animals, and humans. Many of the sacrificed humans were prisoners of war and enslaved people. Other ceremonies involved praying, music, and ball games. All of the rituals were based on a 260-day calendar, which the priests interpreted. In addition to determining which rituals to perform, the priests also informed people of which days were best for activities such as building houses, weddings, and paying debts.

The Maya built large, stepped pyramids that served as temples in the center of many of their cities. While the priests conducted sacrifices and other rituals on a platform at the top of the pyramid, audiences watched from a large plaza below. Some rulers were buried in the temples.

A Decentralized Nation

How did the Maya organize their society?

The Maya were among the first agricultural societies in Mesoamerica. In fact, agriculture was the basis of their culture. The warm climate and fertile valleys made it easy to grow crops. Over time, some of the Mayan population that lived in small villages united under larger cities. Unlike the Inca and the Aztecs, the Maya did not have a single ruler, such as an emperor, or a central government. Instead, each city had its own individual leader.  This ruler organized military leaders and officials, who could then organize workers to build irrigation systems, grow food, and construct buildings.  A typical Mayan city had a marketplace where food, ceramics, and a variety of other goods could be traded. Many Mayan cities had special courts to play a ball game that was a combination of modern soccer and basketball. These sorts of courts have been found in pre-Columbian cities across Mesoamerica and the southwestern United States

Until the mid-1900s, historians thought that the ancient Maya had a peaceful society. However, as they deciphered Mayan hieroglyphics, historians learned that the Maya were more warlike than previously believed. Because they were not united under a central ruler, Mayan cities often fought each other in bloody wars to gain additional territory, wealth, or power. The victors then often sacrificed the leaders and nobility of the conquered city. In some cases, after a battle, the victorious army would play a ball game against their prisoners to re-create the battle. The victorious army would always win, and the prisoners were often sacrificed afterward.

Although the Mayan civilization collapsed around 900, possibly due to a combination of warfare, overpopulation, and failed crops, Maya continued to survive as farmers in small villages in the south. In the north, the Toltec and other groups may have ruled over still thriving Mayan societies until the Spanish conquistadors arrived. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500s, they found that fighting the Maya was much harder than conquering other groups, such as the Aztec or the Inca, because the Maya did not have a single ruler who could be toppled. Instead, the Spanish had to fight each Mayan city separately. While they were fighting one city, others would band together and drive the Spanish back. The Maya fought fiercely for several years.  However, by 1524, only one Mayan group, the Itza, remained unconquered.

A Society of Thinkers

What scientific innovations did the Maya develop?

The Maya made a number of significant advances in learning. They developed a hieroglyphic writing system as well as a number system that was one of the first to include the concept of zero. They also advanced innovations that originated with earlier societies. For example, although some historians believe the Maya may have started with an early Olmec calendar, they improved upon it and developed it into a very precise calendar.  

The Maya were skilled builders, mathematicians, and astronomers. They left numerous written records of their achievements. Some records were carved or painted into a stone column called a stela. Others were written on deer hide or on paper made from wild fig trees which was folded into a type of book called a codex

The Maya had several different calendars. One of them was a solar calendar, based on the movements of the sun. It had 360 days, along with a month of five unlucky days. On these “bad” days, the Maya made sacrifices to their gods. This came to a total of 365 days—very close to the calendars we use today. The second calendar was a ritual calendar, used by priests to determine which days were good days and which were bad. This one had only 260 days. These two calendars were combined into a “Calendar Round” system, where it took 52 years for a date to repeat.One of the main purposes of the Mayan calendar was to ensure that rulers and priests knew when to hold religious ceremonies.

Language and Math

What cultural innovations did the Mayan civilization develop?

Not only did the Maya develop a complex calendar, they also developed a unique number system that included the concept of zero. It used only three different symbols. It was likely based on an earlier system used by the Zapotec Indians who lived nearby in Mexico. Mayan math may look primitive, but it was incredibly flexible and could be used to solve complex calculations.

The Maya also developed a sophisticated hieroglyphic writing system that contains more than 800 characters. Some of the signs are pictures that represent words. Others represent syllables. This variety of characters made it difficult to decipher.  It was not until the late 1900s that scholars were able to make significant progress in interpreting Mayan writings. 

In the 1500s, Spanish priests trying to convert the Maya to Christianity burned many Mayan codices. The few that survived have allowed historians to learn more about Mayan religious practices.  Although Mayan written texts were destroyed, their spoken language survived the arrival of the Spanish settlers. About 30 variations of the original Mayan languages are still spoken today by many people in Central America and Mexico.

A large number of modern Mayan people speak a language called Yucatec. Other Maya speak related languages that include the following: Huastec, Chanabal, Chol, Chontal, Chorti, Chuj, Jacaltec, Motozintlec, Tzental, Tzotzil; Kekchi, Pokomam, Pokonchi, Cakchiquel, Quiche, Tzutuhil, Uspantec Aguacatec, Ixil, and Mam.

The movement of the Maya into several geographic regions helped their culture and language survive.  The Maya built many of their cities near rivers, which allowed people from other Mayan cities, as well as other civilizations, to easily reach them. This encouraged an exchange of goods, and ideas. Mayan culture survived the fall of their civilization, and today, many Mayan communities continue to preserve their traditional culture.

Geography influenced other Mesoamerican groups as well.  As other Mesoamerican people adapted to the climate and geography of the regions in which they settled, they, like the Maya, developed distinct societies and cultures.


  1. When did the Mayan civilization begin?

  1. What was different about the Mayans compared to the Incas or Aztecs?

  1. Where were the Mayans located?

  1. What are some of the crops of the Mayans?

  1. How did the Mayans stay connected with other civilizations?

  1. In what other civilization did we see the use of a ziggurat?

  1. What is special about the city of Chichen Itza?

  1. What are the two types of farming practiced by the Mayans?

  1. What are the two things cacao beans are used for?

  1. What are two uses for rubber?

  1. Explain Mayan religion.

  1. What were the roles of the priests?

  1. Explain how government worked in the Mayan cities.

  1. In what ways did the Mayans appear to be “warlike?”

  1. What 3 reasons are a possibility for why the Mayan civilization collapsed?

  1. How did having 1 ruler per city benefit the Mayans from bring conquered by the conquistadors?

  1. What were three of the inventions/innovation made by the Mayans?

  1. How is the Mayans’ writing system different from our writing systems?

  1. How many variations of the language are still spoken?

  1. How did geography affect the Mayan culture?

  1. Did geography only influence the Mayan civilization?

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