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Home > Travel Guide > Mayan Culture > Ancient Mayan Civilizations

Ancient Mayan Civilizations

Maya Cities

Inspiring Temples, Pyramids and Cities

The Mayan culture extended from the third to the ninth century. The Maya civilization is credited with the building of truly awe-inspiring temples, pyramids and cities. They are known to have developed and thrived within a complex social and political order. Many of the remnants reveal that the Mayan culture excelled in many different fields, and the modern world is still unearthing testaments of their achievements. Today descendents of the ancient Maya account for more than 50% of the population of Guatemala. Their culture is still vibrant and thriving. Traditionally dressed women and children in the entire country are a great show of their association with and pride in the ancient Mayan civilization. The following places are the most important to visit:

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, based on the extant Mesoamerican Calendar. It was adapted by the classic period Maya ca 200 AD. The earliest inscription in long count among the Maya was made dated AD 292. Earliest date listed on the “long count” calendar is about 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”.


The Dresden Codex dated to the Late Post Classic/Colonial period (1250–1520) includes astronomical tables on Venus and Mars, on eclipses, on seasons and the movement of the tides. These tables chart the seasons with respect to their civic year, predict solar and lunar exclipses and tracked the motion of the planets.

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

See the Maya Economics page for information about trade, currency, agriculture and other economic issues.

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

Mayan Architecture

The first steles are associated with the Classic period, and the earliest is from Tikal, where a stele is dated AD 292. Emblem glyphs signified specific rulers and a specific sign called “ahaw” is today interpreted as “lord”.

Distinctive architectural styles of the Maya include (but aren’t limited to) Rio Bec (7th-9th centuries AD, block masonry palaces with towers and central doorways at sites such as Rio Bec, Hormiguero, Chicanna, and Becan); Chenes (7th-9th centuries AD, related to the Rio Bec but without the towers at Hochob Santa rosa Xtampack, Dzibilnocac); Puuc (AD 700-950, intricately designed facades and doorjambs at Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Sayil, Labna, Kabah); and Toltec (or Maya Toltec AD 950-1250, at Chichén Itzá.


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