Mayan civilization

Mesoamerican former civilization

The Maya civilization and Mayan religion. They lived there for a long time and some of the Maya people live there even today.

Maya mask. Stucco frieze from aceres, Campeche. Early Classic period ~250–600 AD
Where the Maya civilization lived (inside the red lines) compared to where other Mesoamerican people (inside the lines) in the years 250–900 AD

The Mayans lived there 4,000 years ago (about 2000 BC). At that date complex societies were living in the Mayan region. The staple foods of the Maya diet were cultivated. Their food included maize, beans, squashes, and chili peppers. The first Maya cities developed around 750 BC.

The Mayan people used a written language and a numeral system. They were good at art, building, and their priests studied stars and planets, which helped them make calendars.

The Mayan civilisation was biggest between the years of 420 AD and 900 AD. The Mayan civilisation spread all the way from central Mexico to Honduras, Guatemala, and northern El Salvador. It is estimated that at its maximum, the civilization had at least ten million people.[1] The Maya people traded with other people in the Americas. Their art and buildings have many different styles. This shows they traded a lot. They made changes to their buildings to make them even better. The Maya civilization started getting smaller after 900 AD.

The Conquistadors arrived in the 15th century and took over Mexico and later Central America, even in the Mayann areas. However, the Maya people still live there today. They live in the same areas the Mayan civilization used to live in. They keep the old Mayan traditions and beliefs. There are many Mayan languages still spoken today, including one called the Achi language. A play called Rabinal Achi is considered important.



The people of the Maya civilization lived in three different areas: the southern Maya highlands, the central lowlands, and the northern lowlands. They had many different types of land, including mountains and dry plains. People living in the low plains by the sea were affected by hurricanes and tropical storms from the Caribbean.

The area covered what we now call the southern Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco, and the Yucatán Peninsula states of Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucatán. They also included where we now call Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and western Honduras.



The pre-classical period


The first Maya settlements started about 1800 BC. They lived in the Soconusco region, now the state of Chiapas in Mexico, on the Pacific Ocean. This is called the "early pre-classic period" in Mayan history'.[2] People in Central America had been nomads who went from place to place to find food and shelter. Around this time they began to settle down.They started to farm animals and make pottery and small clay figures.[3] They buried their dead in simple burial mounds. Later they started to make these mounds into step pyramids.

There were other people around at the time, especially in the north. The Olmec, the Mixe-Zoque, and Zapotec civilizations mostly lived in the area we now call Oaxaca. We don't know exactly where the borders of the Maya civilization were. Many of the most important early examples of writing and buildings appeared in north, so these cultures probably affected the Maya civilization.[4]

The classical period

The ruins of Palenque

From about 250 to 909, the Maya civilization built many monuments and cities, and made many important carvings. The "southern lowlands" were an important place at the time. The Maya civilization made many discoveries about art and thinking there.[5]

Like Ancient Greece, their civilization was made up of numerous cities, which all worked in different ways. People gathered around these cities to farm. Well-known cities were Tikal, Palenque, Copán and Calakmul. Lesser-known cities were Dos Pilas, Uaxactun, Altun Ha, and Bonampak, among others. In general, we know more about where the cities were in the south than we do in the north. Some northern cities we do know about were Oxkintok, Chunchucmil, and Uxmal.

Their most famous monuments are the pyramids they built as part of their religious centers, and the palaces. The palace at Cancuén is the largest we know about in the Maya area. The Maya also made carved stone slabs which they called tetun, or "tree-stones". These slabs show rulers along with hieroglyphic writing describing their family, military victories, and other things that they did well.[6]

Trade with other civilizations


The Maya had trade routes that ran over long distances. They traded with many other Mesoamerican cultures, such as Teotihuacan, the Zapotec, and other groups in central and gulf-coast Mexico. They also traded with groups that were farther away. For example, people who study the Maya civilization found gold from Panama in the Sacred well at Chichen Itza.[7]

Some important things they traded were cacao, salt, sea shells, jade and obsidian.

Sudden collapse


Between 900 AD and 1000 AD, the cities in the southern lowlands had more and more problems until all the people left. The Maya civilization there stopped making big monuments and carvings.[8] People who study the Maya civilization are not sure why this happened. They have many different ideas - some people think there was a big environmental disaster, or a disease affected a lot of people, or there were just too many people for the amount of food they could grow.

Post-classical period and decline


In the north, the Maya civilization kept going. Other cultures started mixing with Mayan culture much more. Some of the important sites in this time were Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Edzná, and Coba. At some point, the families who ruled over Chichen and Uxmal got weaker and the rulers in the city of Mayapan ruled all of the Mayan civilization in the Yucatán peninsula until there was a revolt in 1450.[9] After the revolt, the whole area broke up into different cities who fought against each other, until the Spanish conquest of Yucatán.

The Itza Maya, Ko'woj, and Yalain groups around what is now Guatamela were still around, but there were not very many of them. By 1520, they had built themselves back up again and started to build cities. The Itza had their capital at Tayasal (also known as Noh Petén), and people who study the Maya civlisation think what's left of this city is below the modern city of Flores, Guatemala on Lake Petén Itzá. The Ko'woj had their capital at Zacpeten. Some Mayan cultures were still living in the southern highlands.

The Quiché kingdom produced the most famous Mayan work, the Popol Vuh. It talks about the creation of the world, the Mayan gods and goddesses, how humans and animals were created and why the Quiché kingdom was the best one in the Maya civilization.

The Spanish started to conquer Maya lands. It took them a long time (170 years) to finish doing this because the Mayans had no capital city and each city had a different culture. The last Mayan states, the Itza city of Tayasal and the Ko'woj city of Zacpeten, still had people living in them late into the 17th century. They were finally conquered in 1697.

There are still about 6 million Maya people living in Central America.


  1. Katz, Brigit. "Laser Scans Reveal 60,000 Hidden Mayan Structures in Guatemala". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2018-02-08.
  2. See, for example, Drew (2004), p.6.
  3. Coe, page 47
  4. Coe, pages 63-64
  5. Coe, page 81
  6. "Maya Art Return". Retrieved 2006-12-25.
  7. See Coggins (1992).
  8. Coe, pages 151-155
  9. This city's name might be where the word "Maya" comes from. For the Maya civilisation and the Spanish who came later 'Maya' was the name for people from Yucatan. It only grew to mean all of the Mayan civilisation in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • Coe, Michael D. (2020). The Maya (6th ed.). Thames & Hudson.
  • Coggins, Clemency (ed) 1992. Artifacts from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichen Itza, Yucatan. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-87365-694-6
  • Drew, David 2004. The lost chronicles of the Maya Kings. New ed, London: Phoenix Press. ISBN 0-7538-0989-3

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