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The Maya: History, Culture & Religion

A temple in Tikal, one of the Maya city states.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The Maya refer to both a modern-day people who can be found all over the world as well as their ancestors who built an ancient civilization that stretched throughout much of Central America, one that reached its peak during the first millennium A.D.

The Maya civilization was never unified; rather, it consisted of numerous small states, ruled by kings, each apparently centered on a city. Sometimes, a stronger Maya state would dominate a weaker state and be able to exact tribute and labor from it.

Mayan calendar

A system of writing using glyptic symbols was developed and was inscribed on buildings, stele, artifacts and books (also called codices). 

The Maya calendar system was complicated. "By some 1,700 years ago speakers of proto-Ch'olan, the ancestor for three Maya languages still in use, had developed a calendar of 18 20-day months plus a set of five days," wrote Weldon Lamb, a researcher at New Mexico State University, in his book "The Maya Calendar: A Book of Months" (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017). 

This calendar system also included what scholars call a "long-count" that kept track of time by using different units that range in length from a single day to millions of years (the unit in millions was rarely used). 

Contrary to popular belief, this system did not predict the end of the world in 2012, the unit in millions of years providing evidence of this.

Also, contrary to popular belief, the Maya civilization never vanished. While many cities were abandoned around 1,100 years ago, other cities, such as Chichén Itzá, grew in their place.

When the Spanish arrived in Central America in force in the 16th century, the diseases they brought devastated the Maya. Additionally, the Spanish forced the Maya to convert to Christianity, going so far as to burn their books (the reason why so few of them survive today). However, it is important to note that the Maya people live on today and can be found all over the world.

"Millions of Maya people live in Central America and throughout the world. The Maya are not a single entity, a single community, or a single ethnic group. They speak many languages including Mayan languages (Yucatec, Quiche, Kekchi and Mopan), Spanish and English. However, the Maya are an indigenous group tied both to their distant past as well as to events of the last several hundred years," wrote Richard Leventhal, Carlos Chan Espinosa and Cristina Coc in the April 2012 edition of Expedition magazine.

Maya origins

While hunters and gatherers had a presence in Central America stretching back thousands of years, it was in what archaeologists call the Pre-classic period (1800 B.C. to A.D. 250) that permanent village life really took off, leading to the creation of early Maya cities. 

"Really effective farming, in the sense that densely inhabited villages were to be found throughout the Maya area, was an innovation of the Pre-classic period," wrote Yale University Professor Michael Coe in his book "The Maya" (Thames and Hudson, 2011).

Coe said farming became more effective during this period, likely because of the breeding of more productive forms of maize and, perhaps more importantly, the introduction of the "nixtamal" process. In this process, the maize is soaked in lime, or something similar, and cooked, something that "enormously increased the nutritional value of corn," writes Coe. Maize complemented squash, bean, chili pepper and manioc (or cassava), which were already being used by the Maya, a 2014 Journal of Archaeological Science study shows. 

During this time, the Maya were influenced by a civilization to the west of them known as the Olmecs. These people may have initially devised the long count calendar that the Maya would become famous for, Coe writes. Additionally, the discovery of a ceremonial site dated to 1000 B.C. at the site of Ceibal sheds more light on the relationship between the Maya and Olmecs, suggesting that it was a complex one.

Archaeologists have found that early Maya cities could be carefully planned. Nixtun-Ch'ich, in Peten, Guatemala, had pyramids, temples and other structures built using a grid system, a sign of urban planning. It flourished between 600 B.C. and 300 B.C. 

Maya civilization at its peak

Coe writes that the ancient Maya reached a peak between A.D. 250 and 900, a time that archaeologists call the "Classic" period when numerous Maya cities flourished throughout much of Central America.

The civilization "reached intellectual and artistic heights which no other in the New World, and few in Europe, could match at the time," Coe writes. "Large populations, a flourishing economy, and widespread trade were typical of the Classic …" he said, noting that warfare was also quite common.

The Maya civilization was influenced by the city of Teotihuacan, located farther to the west. One of their early rulers, named Siyaj K'ak, who may have come from Tikal, ascended the throne on Sept. 13, A.D. 379, according to an inscription. He is depicted wearing feathers and shells and holding an atlatl (spear-thrower), features associated with Teotihuacan, wrote researcher John Montgomery in his book "Tikal: An Illustrated History of the Mayan Capital" (Hippocrene Books, 2001). A stela recently discovered at El Achiotal, a site near Tikal, also supports the idea that Teotihuacan controlled or heavily influenced Tikal for a time.  

The numerous cities found throughout the Maya world each had their own individual wonders that made them unique. Tikal, for instance, is known for its pyramid building. Starting at least as early as A.D. 672, the city's rulers would construct a twin pyramid complex at the end of every K'atun (20-year period). Each of these pyramids would be flat-topped, built adjacent to each other and contain a staircase on each side. Between the pyramids was a plaza that had structures laid out to the north and south.

Copan, a Maya city in modern-day Honduras, is known for its "Temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway." It's a pyramid-like structure that has more than 2,000 glyphs embellished on a flight of 63 steps, the longest ancient Maya inscription known to exist and appears to tell the history of the city's rulers.

The site of Palenque, another famous Maya city, is known for its soft limestone sculpture and the incredible burial of "Pakal," one of its kings, deep inside a pyramid. When Pakal died at about age 80, he was buried along with five or six human sacrifices in a jade-filled tomb (including a jade funerary mask he wore). His sarcophagus shows the king's rebirth and depictions of his ancestors in the form of plants. The tomb was re-discovered in 1952 and is "the American equivalent, if there is one, to King Tut's tomb," said archaeologist David Stuart in an online National Geographic lecture.

Not all Maya settlements were controlled by a king or elite member of society. At Ceren, a Maya village in El Salvador that was buried by a volcanic eruption 1,400 years ago, archaeologists found that there was no elite class in control and the village seems to have been managed communally, perhaps by local elders. 


Contrary to popular belief the Maya civilization did not vanish. It's true that many cities, including Tikal, Copan and Palenque, became abandoned around 1,100 years ago. Drought, deforestation, war and climate change have all been suggested as potential causes of this. Drought may have played a particularly important role as a recent study on minerals from an underwater cave in Belize shows that a drought ravaged parts of Central America between A.D. 800 and 900.

However, it is important to note that other Maya cities, such as Chichén Itzá, grew, at least for a time. In fact, Chichén Itzá has the largest ball court in the Americas, being longer than a modern-day American football field. The court's rings, through which competing teams tried to score, rose about 20 feet (6 meters) off the ground, about twice the height of a modern-day NBA net. The rules for the Maya ball game are not well understood.

Council Houses, which were gathering places for people in a community, played an important role in some of the Maya towns and cities that flourished after the ninth century. 

As mentioned earlier, the arrival of the Spanish brought about a profound change in the Maya world. The diseases they brought decimated the Maya and the Spaniards forced the Maya to convert to Christianity, even burning their books. Today, despite the devastation they experienced, the Maya people live on, numbering in the millions.

Mythical origins

The Maya had a lengthy and complicated mythical origin story that is recorded by the K'iche Maya (based in Guatemala) in the Popol Vuh, the "Book of Counsel," wrote Coe in his book. According to the stories, the forefather gods Tepew and Q'ukumatz "brought forth the earth from a watery void, and endowed it with animals and plants."

Creating sentient beings proved more difficult, but eventually humans were created, including the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who embark in a series of adventures, which included defeating the lords of the underworld. Their journey climaxed with the resurrection of their father, the maize god. "It seems clear that this whole mythic cycle was closely related to maize fertility," Coe writes.

The Maya universe

The late Robert Sharer, who was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, noted in his book "Daily Life in Maya Civilization" (Greenwood Press, 2009) that the ancient Maya believed that everything "was imbued in different degrees with an unseen power or sacred quality," call k'uh, which meant "divine or sacredness."

"The universe of the ancient Maya was composed of kab, or Earth (the visible domain of the Maya people), kan, or the sky above (the invisible realm of celestial deities), and xibalba, or the watery underworld below (the invisible realm of the underworld deities)," Sharer wrote.

Caves played a special role in Maya religion as they were seen as entranceways to the underworld. "These were especially sacred and dangerous places where the dead were buried and special rituals for the ancestors conducted," wrote Sharer. 

Sharer notes that the Maya followed a number of deities, the most central of which was Itzamnaaj. "In his various aspects, Itzamnaaj was the lord over the most fundamental opposing forces in the universe — life and death, day and night, sky and earth," Sharer wrote, noting that "as lord of the celestial realm" Itzamnaaj was the Milky Way and could be depicted as a serpent or two-headed reptile.

Other Maya deities included the sun god K'inich Ajaw, the rain and storm god Chaak and the lightning deity K'awiil, among many others. The Maya believed that each person had a "life force," and draining a person's blood in a temple could provide some of this life force to a god. Recently an arrowhead containing the blood of a person who may have participated in a blood-letting ceremony was identified. 

In times when water was scarce, Maya kings and priests would hold incense scattering ceremonies that they believed could provide wind and rain. A Maya pendant inscribed with 30 hieroglyphs that archaeologists believe would have been used in these ceremonies was recently discovered in Belize. Hallucinogenic substances could also be used to help the Maya contact spirits and seek advice on how to deal with problems or situations. 

Maya religion also included stories of dangerous creatures such as the sea monster "Sipak." Fossilized teeth from the extinct shark Carcharodon megalodon were used as sacred offerings at several Maya sites and recent research suggests that stories involving "Sipak" were inspired by the fossilized remains of this massive extinct shark. 

El Castillo is a pyramid with 91 steps on each of its four sides. (Image credit: jgorzynik shutterstock)

Human sacrifices

Sharer wrote that human sacrifices were made on special occasions. "Among the Maya, human sacrifice was not an everyday event but was essential to sanctify certain rituals, such as the inauguration of a new ruler, the designation of a new heir to the throne, or the dedication of an important new temple or ball court." The victims were often prisoners of war, he noted.

At Chichén Itzá, victims would be painted blue, a color that appears to have honored the god Chaak, and cast into a well. Additionally, near the site's ball court, there is a panel that shows a person being sacrificed. This may depict a ball-player from either the winning or losing team being killed after a game.

Writing & astronomy

Sharer noted that record keeping was an important part of the Maya world and was essential for agriculture, astronomy and prophecy. "By keeping records of the rainy and dry seasons, the Maya could determine the best times to plant and harvest their crops," Sharer wrote.

Additionally, by "recording the movements of the sky deities (sun, moon, planets, and stars), they developed accurate calendars that could be used for prophecy," Sharer wrote.

"With long-term records, the Maya were able to predict planetary cycles — the phases of the moon and Venus, even eclipses," he said. "This knowledge was used to determine when these deities would be in favorable positions for a variety of activities such as holding ceremonies, inaugurating kings, starting trading expeditions, or conducting wars."

The movements of the planet Venus appear to have played a particularly important role in Maya religion. Both the Dresden and Groliercodices contain detailed records of the movements of the planet. The ancient Maya "were probably doing large-scale ritual activity connected to the different phases of Venus," said Gerardo Aldana, a science historian in the department of Chicano studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Recent research reveals that at least some of the writers of Maya codices were part of "a specific cohort of ritual specialists called taaj," wrote a team of researchers in a 2015 American Anthropologist article. The team studied a room containing murals with inscriptions on them at the site of Xultun, Guatemala, and found that the writing of codices took place in the room and that the "taaj" wrote them.  

Economy & power

Sharer wrote that while agriculture and food gathering were a central part of daily life, the Maya had a sophisticated economy capable of supporting specialists and a system of merchants and trade routes. While the Maya did not develop minted currency, they used various objects, at different times, as "money." These included greenstone beads, cacao beans and copper bells.

"Ultimately, the power of kings depended on their ability to control resources," Sharer wrote. "Maya rulers managed the production and distribution of status goods used to enhance their prestige and power. They also controlled some critical (non-local) commodities that included critical everyday resources each family needed, like salt," he said noting that over time Maya rulers managed ever-larger portions of the economy. The Maya rulers did not rule alone but were served by attendants and advisers who occasionally appear in Maya art. 

Sharer also notes that Maya laborers were subject to a labor tax to build palaces, temples and public works. A ruler successful in war could control more laborers and exact tribute on defeated enemies, further increasing their economic might.

Additional resources

Owen Jarus
Owen Jarus writes about archaeology and all things about humans' past for Live Science. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University. He enjoys reading about new research and is always looking for a new historical tale.