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Mayan History

Page history last edited by Robert W. Maloy 1 month, 3 weeks ago


Mayan History (2600 B.C.E - 1691 C.E.)


Topics on the Page


  • Overview of Mayan History 
  • Location, Food, Trade 
  • Mayan Governance and Social Hierarchy 
  • Gender and Mayan Society  
  • Religion 
  • Architecture  
  • Written Language
  • Mathematical Systems, the Calendar, and the Economy 
  • Mayan Ball Game
  • Sample Test Questions  
  • Timeline of Mayan History  







Overview of Mayan History



Map of Aztec and Mayan Location (Mayan in green, Aztec in orange)


The Basics of Ancient Maya Civilization – Who were the Maya?  Where did they live and when?

The Mayans are probably the best-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica.


external image Chama_Style_Vessel%2C_Maya_Art_and_Architecture%2C_1999.jpg

  • Originating in the Yucatán around 2600 B.C.E., they rose to prominence around 250 C.E. in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras,


  • Building on the inherited inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations such as the Olmec, the Maya developed astronomy, calendrical systems and hieroglyphic writing. Here is a link describing the many advancements of the Maya. 


  • The Maya were noted for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools. 


  • They were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizeable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater. 


  • The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.


Maya history can be characterized as cycles of rise and fall: city-states rose in prominence and fell into decline, only to be replaced by others. 

  • It could also be described as one of continuity and change, guided by a religion that remains the foundation of their culture. For those who follow the ancient Maya traditions, the belief in the influence of the cosmos on human lives and the necessity of paying homage to the gods through rituals continues to find expression in a modern hybrid Christian-Maya faith.



Mayan calendar created by a modern craftsman. 

Mayan calendar created by a modern craftsman


Location, Food, and Trade


The ancient Maya civilization occupied the eastern third of Mesoamerica, primarily the Yucatán Peninsula.


The Yucatán Peninsula is comprised of both a highlands and a lowlands. The lowlands primarily produced crops, which were used for the Mayans own personal consumption, the prime product being maize.


  • They also grew squash, beans, chili peppers, amaranth, manioc, cacao, cotton for light cloth, and sisal for heavy cloth and rope.


  • The Mayans scavenged the forest for foods including deer, turkey, peccaries, tapirs, rabbits, and large rodents such as the peca and the agouti.


  • The volcanic highlands, however, were the source of obsidian, jade, and other precious metals that the Mayans used to develop a lively trade and stimulate their economy.[1]


Mayan Governance and Social Hierarchy


In both the priesthood and the ruling class, nepotism (meaning that the position of power was passed on to a relative) was the prevalent system under which new kings and priests were chosen.


  • Primogeniture (meaning that the position of power was passed on to the first born son) was used as a way to select new kings, as the king passed down his position to his son.


  • After the birth of an heir, the kings performed a blood sacrifice by drawing blood from his own body as an offering to his ancestors. A human sacrifice was then offered at the time of a new king's installation in office. To be a king, one must have taken a captive in a war and that person is then used as the victim in his inauguration ceremony.[2]


Ancient Maya Society – How was the ancient Maya society structured?  How did they govern and feed themselves?

Around 300 B.C., the Maya adopted a hierarchical system of government with rule by nobles and kings

  • This civilization developed into highly structured kingdoms during the Classic period, A.D. 200-900. 


  • Their society consisted of many independent states, each with a rural farming community and large urban sites built around ceremonial centers. 


    • It started to decline around A.D. 900 when - for reasons which are still largely a mystery - the southern Maya abandoned their cities.


    • When the northern Maya were integrated into the Toltec society by A.D. 1200, the Maya dynasty finally came to a close, although some peripheral centers continued to thrive until the Spanish Conquest in the early sixteenth century.



The lowest level of Mayan society were slaves. The slaves were made up of orphans, criminals, prisoners of war and other enemies, and the children of slaves. Slaves were not necessarily mistreated, but they had no privileges, provided almost all manual labor in Mayan society, and were the most common victims of human sacrifice.[6]



Gender and Mayan Society


The Role of Maya Women - UChicago Anthropology

     This page goes in depth about the roles of women and the gender structure in Mayan Society as well as the existence of genders other than Male or Female within Mayan society


 Early Mayan Women were a Powerful Force


Important Women:


Queen K'abel 

  • Video link about the discovery of Queen K'abel's tomb. 
  • She ruled the Snake Dynasty during the 7th century.


Lady of Tikal



Human sacrifice to honor the sun, Aztec codex, 16th century



The Mayans performed many rituals and ceremonies to communicate with their Gods.


At certain intervals, such as the Mayan New Year, or in times of emergency (such as famine, epidemics, or a great drought), the people gathered in ritual plazas to pray to the Gods. Many ceremonies focused on sacrifices to gain the favor of the Gods.


These sacrifices took place on the great stone pyramids that rose above the plazas, with stairs leading to a temple and an altar at the top. For major events, the Mayans offered human sacrifices to the gods; usually children, slaves, or prisoners of war.[3]



Mayan architecture is as characteristic as Greek, Roman or Gothic styles.


  • The basic Mayan structure were hay huts, which housed most of the Mayan population.


  • The walls were made of mud or stone and were covered with wooden poles. The stone huts were made from limestone.


  • Perhaps the Mayans are most well known for their elaborate stepped pyramids, which were of great importance to the religious and political structures of the Mayans.[4]


The Maya City – The most durable testament to the grandeur of the ancient Maya are their grand construction projects.  How were these cities made, and what makes them so awe-inspiring? 


A scientist explores the Mayan pyramids (PBS) Clip: S4 Ep19 | 6m 38s | Aired: 3/19/2018 Scientists are using detectors to explore the Mayan pyramids in Belize.


New discoveries of Mayan structures buried under jungle reveal new understanding about Maya civilization.


  • The discoveries of these structures have led researchers to conclude that the Maya population was much larger than previously estimated.


  • Also, the discovery of fortresses indicates that Maya were more war-like than previously thought.




Stela with Mayan script, Anthropological Museum in Mexico City



Written Language


The Mayans used hieroglyphics to record events, news, and writings. These hieroglyphics have stumped scholars and historians, and it is still not "solved" completely today. Of the approximate 800 known hieroglyphics, many have been decoded.[7]


  • Omniglot: An overview of Maya glyph writing with Maya syllabary and links to a range of Maya sites.


  • Writing in Maya Glyphs - Part 1:  (45 page pdf, 2.96 MB) Part 2:  (40 page pdf; 1.2 MB)





Mathematical Systems, The Calendar, and the Economy


CROSS-LINK:  Mayan Math and History of Zero

Cross-Link to The History of Zero and Mayan Math

Mayan calendar created by a modern craftsman. 

Mayan calendar created by a modern craftsman


The equation "5 + 8 equal 13" written with Maya numerals
The equation "5 + 8 = 13" written with Maya numerals.


The Calendar

Video explaining the Mayan calendar

Archaeologist explains the Mayan Calendar

The Mayan calendar was very important to determining the movements of the sun, moon, stars, and planets



The Economy

Cacao beans, copper bells and many other things were used as units of exchange. Copper was not only used for exchange, but for ornamentation as well. Other things, such as gold, silver, jade, shell and colorful plumage were also used as ornaments. The use and making of metal tools was relatively unknown.[5]


Gender and Mayan Society


The Role of Maya Women - UChicago Anthropology

     This page goes in depth about the roles of women and the gender structure in Mayan Society as well as the existence of genders other than Male or Female within Mayan society


 Early Mayan Women were a Powerful Force


Important Women:


Queen K'abel 

  • Video link about the discovery of Queen K'abel's tomb. 
  • She ruled the Snake Dynasty during the 7th century.


Lady of Tikal


Mayan Ball Game

One of Mayan society's well-remembered rituals was a ball game which is considered by many to be the first team sport in human history. Despite being similar in many regards to the modern day sports of basketball and football, the loser of these games was sacrificed to the gods, giving a different meaning to the phrase: "winner takes all" than we are used to. 


Background at The Mesoamerican Ball Game from the Met Museum.


 Sample Questions


1. Which of the following accurately describes an important relationship between science and society in ancient Mayan civilization?
a) the distribution of wealth was based on statistical studies by Mayan mathematicians
b) the division of labor was based on public health recommendations by Mayan physicians
c) the location of religious temples was based on geologic studies by Mayan scientists
d) the annual agricultural cycle was based on astronomical observations by Mayan priests

Answer: D

     Source: New Mexico Teacher Assessment Study Guide: Social Studies


2. Which of the following was NOT used by the Maya?

a) hieroglyphics

b) astronomy

c) calendar system

d) agricultural terraces


Answer: D.  The Maya did not use agricultural terracing. They planted their crops in the lowlands and used the highlands for collecting precious metals. The Incas used agricultural terracing.


3. Please describe one aspect of Mayan history, culture, or innovation that is seen in our society today. Make sure to describe the concept or invention and how it is used today. 


In terms of grading, the following will be considered:

  • Describes accurate facts about the Mayan culture

  • Relates those aspects of history and culture to our society today.


An example of a correct response would be:

“The Maya mathematical system on which all this was based was incredibly advanced, and it was developed starting about 500 B.C.E.. Mayan numbers consist of a series of dots and bars, where dots have a value of one and bars represent five. ​Our base 10 number system uses a decimal system based on powers of ten, i.e. 1; 10; 100; 1000; and so on. The Maya also developed the concept of zero, which had immense benefit as a place-holder and vastly simplified basic arithmetic, along with making it possible to do more complex calculations that we use today.”


Mayan History Timeline

  • 11,000 - The first hunter-gatherers settle in the Maya highlands and lowlands.
  • 3113 - The creation of the world takes place, according to the Maya Long Count calendar.
  • 2600 - Maya civilization begins.
  • 2000 - The rise of the Olmec civilization, from which many aspects of Maya culture are derived. Village farming becomes established throughout Maya regions.
  • 700 - Writing is developed in Mesoamerica.
  • 400 - The earliest known solar calendars carved in stone are in use among the Maya, although the solar calendar may have been known and used by the Maya before this date.
  • 300 - The Maya adopt the idea of a hierarchical society ruled by nobles and kings.
  • 100 - The city of Teotihuacan is founded and for centuries is the cultural, religious and trading center of Mesoamerica.
  • 50 - The Maya city of Cerros is built, with a complex of temples and ball courts. It is abandoned (for reasons unknown) a hundred years later and its people return to fishing and farming.


  • 100 - The decline of the Olmecs
  • 400 - The Maya highlands fall under the domination of Teotihuacan, and the disintegration of Maya culture and language begins in some parts of the highlands.
  • 500 - The Maya city of Tikal becomes the first great Maya city, as citizens from Teotihuacan make their way to Tikal, introducing new ideas involving weaponry, captives, ritual practices and human sacrifice.
  • 600 - An unknown event destroys the civilization at Teotihuacan, along with the empire it supported. Tikal becomes the largest city-state in Mesoamerica , with as many as 500,000 inhabitants within the city and its hinterland.
  • 683 - The Emperor Pacal dies at the age of 80 and is buried in the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque.
  • 751 - Long-standing Maya alliances begin to break down. Trade between Maya city-states declines, and inter-state conflict increases.
  • 869 - Construction ceases in Tikal, marking the beginning of the city's decline.
  • 899 - Tikal is abandoned.
  • 900 - The Classic Period of Maya history ends, with the collapse of the southern lowland cities. Maya cities in the northern Yucatán continue to thrive.





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