The first Mesoamerican civilisation to develop writing, the Mayans developed a sophisticated culture of city states with fine monumental buildings and characteristic stepped pyramids.
The Mayans were advanced in their use of mathematics and renowned for the accuracy of their calendar.
Top 10 facts
- The Mayan civilisation extended from what is now South East Mexico through Central America.
- This area included highland and lowland settlements and a variety of climate zones. Crops grown in the lowlands were traded for mineral ores and rocks from the mountainous areas.
- Although the Mayans had metal-working skills, metal ores were scarce. Mayans used stone tools to carve the limestone that they used for their buildings.
- The Mayans did not use wheels or pulleys for their building projects.They did not have draught animals capable of heavy labour. Building materials were transported by human porters or canoes.
- Archaeological evidence suggests that Mayan settlement in Mesoamerica probably dates from the third millennium BC. The Mayans of the classic period c200-900 CE adopted many aspects of the earlier Olmec culture and were also influenced by surrounding cultures such as that of the great city of Teotihuacan.
- Mayan religion was extremely bloodthirsty, demanding human sacrifices and blood-letting rituals. The Mayans believed in an afterlife and that those who were sacrificed, as well as those killed in war and women who died in childbirth, went to ‘the place of misty sky’.
- Mayan society was formed of a number of city states each with their own ruler. Each city was surrounded by rural settlements.
- At the top of Mayan society was the King and Royal family who were believed to be closely linked to the gods. An educated elite of scribes, priests and nobles formed the ruling class. They occupied the finest buildings in the city.
- The Mayans were sophisticated mathematicians who made use of the number zero. They used base 20 in their calculations. They were keen astronomers who were able to predict solar eclipses. Their complex calendar system was one of the most accurate of the ancient world.
- No one knows for sure why the Mayan civilisation went into decline. Possible explanations involve the overuse and exhaustion of farming land, prolonged drought, misrule, warfare and disease.
- 250 BCFirst inscription in Mayan hieroglyphs
- 100 BCFirst city states appear
- 219 ADKing Yax Moch Xok is first King of Tikal
- 292 ADFirst stelae carving at Tikal
- 420 ADGrowth of city of Copan under Yax K’uk Mo
- 600 ADCollapse of influential city of Teotihuacan
- 615-683 ADRule of King Pakal of Palenque
- 800 ADCity of Tikal has up to 100,000 residents
- 800-900 ADBuilding of stepped pyramid of Chichen-Itza
- 822 ADCity of Copan deserted
- 869 ADCity of Tikal abandoned
- 909 ADLast recorded inscription of classic Maya
Did you know?
- The Mayans made books called codices out of paper bark. Unfortunately the Spanish conquistadors destroyed most of these codices in an attempt to stamp out native religion and only four survive today.
- Mayan pyramids were originally covered in plaster and painted red.
- The first date on the Mayan calendar equates to the 11 August 3114 BC.
- The Mayans tied boards to their babies' heads to produce a flat forehead. They also tried to make their babies cross-eyed! Big noses were also considered beautiful.
- The Mayans played a complex ball game with a rubber ball which had to be manoeuvred through high stone hoops to score. Historians are not sure whether the losing or the winning team was sacrificed after the match!
- The Mayan pyramid at Chichen-Itza has 365 steps. It is positioned so that at the spring and autumn equinoxes shadows appear to show the plumed serpent God Kukulkan descending the stairs.
Look through the gallery and see if you can the spot the following:
- Ancient Maya Glyphs
- Ruins of the city of Palenque
- Mayan Pottery vase
- Jade burial mask of Pakal, ruler of Palenque
- Image of Mayan warfare
- Artist's impression of the Mesoamerican ball game
Classical Mayan civilisation is dated to between the years 200-900 AD. During this period as many as 40 great city states developed, with most ranging in population from 5,000 to 50,000 people. Some authorities suggest that Tikal may have had a population of up to 100,000 people by 800 AD. These urban centres were supported by rural outlying areas of farmers and smaller settlements. Most city states had their own kings but some may have been subject to the rule of more powerful neighbours. Evidence of some decline, for example the abandonment of cities in certain regions, seems to have begun around 800AD.
In the lowland areas crops such as maize, cacao, beans, avocado, squash and chilli were grown. Dogs were kept for meat and animals such as turkeys, rabbits, deer and agouti were hunted for food. Highland areas provided stones such as obsidian and jade and ores such as hematite. Quetzal feathers were highly prized for headdresses. Clothing was made from woven cotton or sisal.
Mayan cities are characterised by a range of monumental architecture including temples, stepped pyramids, ball courts, observatories and palace complexes. Large plazas, roads and reservoirs were also built. These are decorated with sculptures and hieroglyphs detailing aspects of warfare, dynastic succession and religious ritual. A high degree of artistry was achieved and this is evident also in pottery, wall paintings, jade carvings and feathered headdresses.
The Mayan calendar had three aspects: a civil calendar of 365 days; a religious calendar of 260 days and a long-count calendar divided into cycles called baktuns. The civil and religious calendar worked together in 52 year cycles. The baktun was a cycle of 400 years. Mayan mathematics was also highly advanced and the use of zero meant that lengthy and complex calculations could be accurately completed.
Mayan religion influenced most areas of life. Mayans believed that life was a cycle and that people progressed through various stages before reaching ‘the place of misty sky.’ Their gods were bloodthirsty and human sacrifice was required to appease them. The King was believed to be a representative of the gods. The famous Mayan ball game was also a religious ritual. Months were dedicated to gods and their portraits adorned the faces of buildings.
Just for fun...
- Take a quiz to put your knowledge of the Mayans to the test
- Play the ball game, an interactive version of the game of Life and Death
- Mayan colouring pages
- Listen to anthropologist Barbara MacLeod speaking the ancient Mayan language
Find out more
- Watch an animated film about the Maya Civilisation
- Read Maya hieroglyphs carved on a stone monument and hear them spoken aloud
- A glossary of Mayan words
- Find out about cenotes (natural wells) of Chichén Itzá and try your own dissolving experiment to see how they developed
- See an interactive map of the Mayan world
See for yourself
- Visit the British Museum to see Mayan artefacts
- Tourists visiting the Yucatan Peninsula can see Mayan World sites in person; look through photographs to see it for yourself
- See wonderful pictures of the Mayan ruins at Tulum
- Images of the World Heritage site of Chichén Itzá
- It's the closest thing to actually being there: experience the Google Cardboard virtual reality tours of the ancient Maya sites of Quiriguá and Tikal online