Chances are, you might have first heard about the Mayans as just another Mesoamerican civilization that has built pyramids and sacrificed humans to their gods. But did you know that they were also among the most advanced civilizations of their time? Learn more about them with these Mayans facts.
Teotihuacan influenced the Mayans during their early Classical period.
Teotihuacan is an ancient city about 40 km northeast of Mexico City. The name is actually Aztec in origin, as what its citizens have called it still remains a mystery. It means Place of the Gods, as the Aztecs have only known the city as ruins, believing that the gods have once lived there.
In the early days of the Classic Maya, however, Teotihuacan dominated Ancient Mesoamerica. Some scientists even claimed that the people of Teotihuacan were also Mayans themselves, based on their city’s architectural similarities. However, most scientists also thought that Teotihuacan belonged to a different and older civilization, from which the Mayans borrowed influences.
Archaeological evidence also supported this, as shown by Teotihuacan’s attack on the Mayan city of Tikal and its vassals. The reason remained a mystery, however, but it saw King Chak Tok Ichʼaak I of Tikal killed, and the Teotihuacan-backed Yax Nuun Ahiin I installed in his place.
The collapse of the Classical Mayan civilization remains one of history’s greatest mysteries.
It took place over the course of the 9th century, marked by population decline and a drop in new construction over the years. As slow as it was, it sadly ended totally. By the year 900 AD, all Mayan Kingdoms in the region had simply collapsed. Archaeologists have put forward various theories as to the cause.
One of those is that of a foreign invasion, which is backed by the archaeological record of the Toltecs migrating into Mesoamerica at this time. Another theory links the collapse to the Fall of Teotihuacan, another mysterious event that has taken place a century ago.
Other theories include a pandemic, or even a global climate shift, which historians call the Medieval Warm Period that has also caused a drought in Egypt. None of the theories can completely answer the mystery, and so archaeologists continue to study the matter even to this day.
The Mayans became more warlike in their Postclassic period.
Archaeologists have since abandoned the old theory of the Mayans as a pacifist society, unlike the warlike Toltecs and Aztecs. However, the Postclassic Maya were definitely much more warlike compared to their predecessors. Their ancestors built their cities in the lowlands, where large numbers of people could easily come and go for ease of trade. However, that also made them easier to attack, and so the Postclassic Maya built their cities on top of hills or behind deep ravines. Hard to reach, yes, but also hard to attack. Archaeologists think this change resulted from Toltec influences, as well as a reaction to the Toltecs’ own repeated attacks on the Mayans.
Even in decline, the Postclassic Mayans remained a great civilization.
The first Spaniards to encounter the Mayans gave reports of rich coastal cities, thriving on complex trade networks. The K’iche’ Mayans even ruled a small empire of their own, covering the western part of the Guatemalan Highlands and the neighboring Pacific coast. The Kaqchikel Mayans were also powerful at this time, even challenging the K’iche’ Mayans’ power for decades before the Spaniards’ arrival.
The Spaniards turned on the Mayans after the Aztec Empire fell.
After the Fall of Tenochtitlan, the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado led an army into Guatemala. The K’iche’ Mayans fell first, and while the Kaqchikel Mayans managed to make an arrangement with the Spaniards beforehand, it soon fell apart. The Mam Maya followed, then the Yucatan Maya, and finally the Mayans of the Peten Basin.
Ancient Mayans had a complex political system.
The Ancient Mayans never formed a single united empire the way the Aztecs had. Instead, many small kingdoms and chiefdoms competed with each other for power and influence. Kings ruled by divine mandate, mobilizing the nobility and commoners alike to build and maintain their cities and other infrastructure. Complex administrative systems arose to manage the Mayan states, which the kings staffed with loyal supporters in place of blood relatives.
The constant plays for power led to small population centers along the borders of the states to change sides with surprising frequency. Smaller, weaker cities paid tribute to bigger, more powerful cities, which enforced their dominance with military power. Warrior pride and honor led to a focus on capturing and humiliating defeated warriors, which further maintained the fragmented state of the Mayan civilization.
They had an elitist class society.
It certainly says a lot when there’s little mention of commoners that made up over 90% of Mayan society on surviving Mayan records. What the records do tell about commoners shows that back in the day, society depended on them. Commoners provided the bulk of the labor force to build the Mayans’ cities and other infrastructure. They also grew and harvested food for their civilization, and produced goods for use and trade. That said, the Mayan society proved surprisingly mobile. Rich and successful traders could become nobles, as could successful common-born warriors.
Ancient Mayan military history remains a mystery today.
In part, at least, seeing as archaeologists still don’t know how the Mayans organized their armies, or how they trained their warriors. Records of war exist and those who have fought in them, but in most cases, the reasons behind the wars remain unclear. Archaeologists do know that the Ancient Mayans expected their kings to succeed in war. They also expected the defeated to pay tribute to the victor, and in some cases, to suffer complete destruction of their cities.
Mayan warriors did not form a separate class of their own.
Noble-born warriors expected their sons to become warriors as well, and records show that Mayan warriors passed on their weapons, experience, and rituals to their sons. However, even then they remained nobles first, while most warriors who came from being commoners returned to normal life after the war’s end. Records even show that Mayan warriors prioritized essential roles such as farming, over fighting a war.
Mayan warriors used a variety of weapons.
One of these was the atlatl, spear-throwers which the Mayans learned to make and use from Teotihuacan. Common-born warriors also used blowguns, usually used to hunt wild animals, but was also utilized in war. Classical Mayans had bows and arrows, but surprisingly never used them in war until the Postclassical period. And of course, like all Mesoamerican civilizations, the Mayans had their own version of the macuahuitl, wooden clubs with edges lined with sharpened obsidian blades.
Ancient Mayan civilization traded heavily with itself and its neighbors.
Archaeologists concluded that trade formed the foundation of the Mayan civilization. In fact, their biggest and most important cities all stood along major trade routes, or at natural harbors where ships could easily come and go. The Mayans particularly produced large amounts of cotton, which they then traded across all of Mesoamerica.
In return, Mayan traders brought back gold from as far away as Colombia and Panama. In fact, the Mayans’ trade routes became so well-established that they remained unaffected by the Spanish conquest. Instead, the Spanish maintained the trade routes, keeping them to move goods across their vast New World empire.
Mayan merchants had a curious custom when traveling.
Specifically, they painted their bodies completely black. They did so out of religious obligation, as the Mayan traders’ patron gods also doubled as gods of the underworld. This went hand in hand with the dangers that came with moving across rival states and even enemy kingdoms and empires. In fact, the Mayans saw the traders traveling across the land to sell their goods as similar to traveling across the underworld.
Mayans held a fondness for the color green.
That, or the color blue-green, with the words for both colors actually the same in the Mayan language. This made jade very important to the Mayans, along with other, green-colored gemstones. They sculpted or worked them into jewelry and other works of art, such as sculpted heads over 4 kg in weight. Nobles commonly embedded jade into their teeth and buried their dead with elaborate death masks also made from jade.
Mayan artists made many different kinds of sculptures.
Those include long and large slabs of stone called stelae, which the Mayans covered with detailed carvings of kings and gods. They also covered their palace walls and temples with panels carved with various subject matter, from everyday life to religious themes. Even the Mayans’ altars featured carvings to a certain degree, usually with figurative meanings behind the carvings.
They also made good use of stucco.
Stucco basically involves using a form of plaster to finish a building’s exterior or interior, which artists can easily sculpt into a final design. The Mayans used them in buildings and even in their town center floors, as well as to decorate their temples. In particular, they flanked the steps of their pyramids with the faces of their gods carved from stucco.
Mayan mural art has struggled to survive the passing of time.
It doesn’t help that Central America has a humid climate, the moisture wearing away at the paintings of the Mayan artists. Mayan murals that have survived to the present day usually come from buildings and places that have been buried away behind newer additions. Those newer additions help preserve older works by keeping them away from the elements.
Mayan artists used many subjects for their murals, and not just expected themes such as religion. In particular, daily narratives prove a common subject in surviving Mayan murals, such as those in Calakmul’s central square, or the Palace of Cilonche. Other murals depict battle scenes alongside more peaceful scenes of traders and farmers, such as those from Cacaxtla.
Ceramics make up the majority of Ancient Mayan art to survive to the present day.
They make for an especially interesting find, as the Mayans had no knowledge of the wheel. This meant that their potters and other craftsmen had to use alternative means of shaping clay without access to the potter’s wheel used elsewhere in the world. In particular, they used the coiling method, coiling rolled strips of clay into shape before baking the final product. Mayans typically didn’t glaze their ceramics but burnished them instead. They also painted using colored minerals and clays alike. Mayan baking methods also remain a mystery to this day, and which archaeologists also continue to study.
Mayan architects built on a massive scale.
Not always, but your typical noble residence could take over 10,000 man-days to build. An estimated 65% of the time and effort involved quarrying and moving the stone to build with, as well as preparing mortar from limestone. On the other hand, commoner houses took much less time to build, usually only around 67 man-days. But once the sheer size of Mayan cities gets factored in, usually with areas of up to 20 km², it will take millions of man-days to build a single Mayan city.
They arranged their temples along astronomic patterns.
Archaeologists call them E-Groups, from the Group E complex of temples at Uaxactun. These involved three temples built facing a fourth temple, meant to mark the annual solstices and equinoxes. Scientists have observed that anyone standing on the western temple of an E-Group will find the sun rising directly over the temples during the solstices and equinoxes.
The Mayans also built other temples arranged according to certain constellations, or to mark the planet Venus’ path. In particular, El Caracol at Chichen Itza features slit windows specifically positioned to mark Venus’ path across the year.
The Ancient Mayans had their own unique style of building pyramids.
Archaeologists call them triadic pyramids and have noted the Mayans as having built them as far back as their Preclassical period. Triadic pyramids have a single base where the Mayans built three structures. One of them makes up the bulk of the pyramid, flanked by the two smaller structures that face inward. All of them have staircases leading up from the central square to the top of the pyramid.
They also played the Mesoamerican ballgame.
Players took a solid ball made from rubber and bounced it around between them using only their hips and limbs. They couldn’t hold the ball with their hands, yet aimed to shoot it through a vertical hoop attached high on the ballcourt’s wall.
Like all variants of the Mesoamerican ballgame, the Mayan version had a religious theme to it. To the Mayans, the ballgame symbolized a battle against death, with the victors overcoming it. Archaeologists also link it to the Mayan Hero Twins myth, but this theory remains in question today due to the lack of references to the myth in all but one Mayan ball court.
Mayans had an alphabet of their own as far back as 300 BC.
In fact, they had the most complex alphabet out of all the Mesoamerican civilizations. They also had the distinction of being the closest representation to their spoken language among the Mesoamerican alphabets. The alphabet included hieroglyphs that mostly symbolized syllables, along with many that symbolized entire words.
Modern archaeologists have few sources to call on when studying Mayan writings.
We blame that to the Roman Catholic Church when they destroyed any Mayan written works that they could find. They also had the assistance and support of Spanish colonial officials, who agreed with the church’s goals of stamping out the Mayans’ native religion and culture.
The majority of the modern understanding of the Mayan alphabet comes from only four books that have managed to escape the church and the Spaniards’ efforts. Of those, only the Dresden, Paris, and Madrid Codices have universal acceptance among the archaeological community. The fragmentary Grolier Codex remains suspect within the community, however, in which its authenticity lies in question.
The Ancient Mayans had an advanced grasp of mathematics.
They were the first people in the world to discover the concept of zero. In fact, only circumstantial evidence supports the idea that the Ancient Babylonians discovered zero before the Mayans. Like all Mesoamerican civilizations, the Mayans used a base 20 numerical system. They used a shell to represent the zero, a dot for the number 1, and a bar for the number 5. All other numbers involved repetitions and arrangements of those symbols.
They also had the most advanced calendar out of all Mesoamerican civilizations.
In fact, the Mayan calendar had greater accuracy than its European equivalents, such as the Julian calendar that predated the modern Gregorian calendar. They then used this calendar to predict and record the movements of the Sun, Moon, and other planets. They could even use it to predict when the solar and lunar eclipses would take place.
The Mayans also divided their calendar into three interlocking sets: first, the 260-day tzolk’in, which served as a religious calendar. Then they had the 365-day haab, which served as the regular calendar. And finally, they had the 52-year Calendar Round, which served to link and reset the tzolk’in and haab together.
Mayans also practiced human sacrifice.
Not to the same extent as the Aztecs, but like all Mesoamerican civilizations, the Mayans saw blood as the greatest offering anyone could make to the gods. Human sacrificial victims usually came from the nobility, including the kings of defeated enemies. They also only sacrificed humans during important religious occasions, or when celebrating victories and other grand events.
At other times, they only sacrificed animals or offered small amounts of their own blood. When they did sacrifice humans, however, the Preclassical and Classical Mayans chose to behead them. That, or they shot them with arrows. It wasn’t until the Postclassical period that they adopted the method of cutting out hearts from their victims to offer them to the gods.
They shared many of their gods with other Mesoamerican civilizations.
Naturally, the most famous of them all was still the Mayans’ variant of the Feathered Serpent, inherited from the Olmecs and Teotihuacan. They called him Kukulkan, better known by his Aztec name, Quetzalcoatl. Their rain god, Chac, also had many shared traits with the Aztec rain god, Tlaloc.
They also had a god of obsidian, K’awil, who oversaw all sacrifices, and a jaguar god inherited from the Olmecs whose name still remains undiscovered. Both would have their Aztec counterpart in Tezcatlipoca, who also reigned over magic and the night.
Mayans had an advanced grasp of agriculture.
They knew how to build permanently-raised fields, as well as how to terrace hills and mountain sides. The Mayans also built advanced irrigation systems, digging stone-lined reservoirs and linking them to their farms with stone-lined canals. They have built those systems so well that even to this day, the structures remain intact. In fact, some of the Mayans’ modern-day descendants still use their ancestors’ legacy.
They also valued chocolate.
More so than the Aztecs, in fact, both cultures agreed that chocolate originally came from the gods. The Aztecs allowed all their citizens to eat chocolate, with their soldiers even getting a daily chocolate ration. The Mayans, though, restricted the privilege of eating chocolate only to their upper classes. That said, they also used it as currency, specifically in its raw, cacao pod form.
Mayans only managed to domesticate a few animals.
Dogs were among the first animals they domesticated, both as pets and for food. The Mayans also managed to domesticate ducks during their Post-classical period. Otherwise, the Mayans just hunted animals for food, such as turkeys and deer.
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