A History of the Mayans

By Tim Lambert

The Mayan Realm

The Mayans created a great civilization in parts of what is now Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala. The ancestors of the Mayans were hunters but about 2,000 BC they adopted farming as a way of life. In the years from 300 BC to 250 AD organized Mayan kingdoms emerged. Then from 250 AD to 600 AD, an advanced civilization emerged. The Mayans invented writing and they made great advances in astronomy and mathematics.

Mayan Society

The Mayan civilization was at its peak from 600 AD to 900 AD. However, after 900 AD it declined. In the central rainforest, cities were abandoned. We are not sure why. Perhaps there were ecological changes and famines occurred. Or perhaps warfare between the different Mayan kingdoms caused a disaster. At any rate in the far north and south people continued to live in cities. Mayan civilization did not die completely.

Then in the 1520s Spanish conquistadors invaded and conquered the Mayans. However, the descendants of the Mayans continue to live on today.

There was no single Mayan state. Instead, there was a people with a single culture and religion divided into many city-states. (Areas of countryside ruled by a city). Each city-state or kingdom was ruled by an autocrat (a man with absolute power). However, although they had unlimited power Mayan rulers usually had a council of important men to advise them. Warfare between Mayan kingdoms was common.

In the center of each Mayan city was an area of palaces, pyramid temples (some of them 70 meters high), and squares, where religious ceremonies were held. In the squares were stelae (upright stones) which were carved with the dates of important ceremonies and events.

Ordinary people lived in the surrounding houses. Most of the Mayans lived in the countryside but many cities were large. Some had populations of 45,000.

Below the rulers were the nobles and priests. Below them were freemen, craftsmen, and farmers. Below them were slaves who did all the hardest work.

The Mayans did not have animals for carrying loads. All goods were carried by human beings. They did not have metal tools. All their weapons and tools were made from wood and stone.

However, the Mayans invented a system of writing using pictures to represent sounds. Writing was painted onto books made from fig tree bark. It was also painted on pottery. Unfortunately, the Spaniards burned many Mayan books so little is known of their history.

The Mayans also wrote numbers and they had a symbol for zero, which was very unusual among ancient civilizations. The Mayans were also excellent astronomers and they could predict eclipses.

Mayan Food

The Mayans practiced ‘slash and burn’ agriculture. They cut down an area of forest and burned the trees. The Mayans sowed crops in May and harvested them in November. However, after a few years, the soil would lose its fertility. The farmers would then ‘slash and burn’ another part of the forest. Meanwhile, the abandoned area would become overgrown again.

Mayan farmers also drained swampy areas for farming. They dug canals for irrigation. Farmers did not have plows but they did use digging sticks.

Maize was the staple food of the Mayans but they also grew beans, chilis, sweet potatoes, and squashes. They also ate fruit like papaya, watermelon, and avocados.

They ate animals like deer, turkeys, dogs, peccaries (wild pigs), and a kind of rodent called an agouti. They also fished. The Mayans also kept bees for honey.

In the mornings Mayans ate a ‘porridge’ made of maize and chilies called saka. During the day they ate ‘dumplings’ made of maize dough with vegetables or meat inside them. The ‘dumplings’ were called tamales and they were wrapped in leaves from maize plants. The main meal was in the evening. Mayans ate maize ‘pancakes’ called tortillas. They were eaten with ‘stew’ made with vegetables and (sometimes) meat.

The Mayans drank an alcoholic drink called blache. Nobles drank chocolate.

Mayan Houses

Ordinary Mayans lived in simple huts of wood or stone with thatched roofs. They had no chimneys or windows. They did not have wooden doors either. Instead, doorways were hung with cloth screens.

There was very little furniture. Mayans slept on beds, which were low platforms made of a wooden frame filled with woven bark.

Dead people were buried under the floors of their houses. Rich people, of course, lived in far more elaborate homes with many rooms.

Mayan Clothes

Living in a hot climate both sexes wore simple cotton clothes. Men wore a loincloth. Women wore a long cotton dress called a huipil. If it turned cold both sexes wore a cloak called a manta. Mayans wore leather sandals.

The Mayans were short, stocky people with dark hair. Both sexes wore their hair long and tied back.

They believed that flattened foreheads were beautiful. While their skulls were still soft babies had wooden frames attached to them to flatten them. The Mayans also believed that being cross-eyed was attractive. So they tied a bead on the front of a child’s head so it dangled between their eyes. The child would get cross-eyed by looking at the bead.

The Mayans also tattooed themselves and they filed their teeth.

Nobles put clay on top of their noses to make a long ridge. Rich people also wore jewelry made from jade.

The Mayans also hunted macaws and parrots for their feathers, which were used to make headdresses.

Mayan Children

Mayan women carried small children on their backs. That left their hands free for cooking and weaving. Girls learned these skills from their mothers. They also learned to make pottery. Boys learned farming and other trades from their fathers.

Both boys and girls got married in their early or mid-teens. Their parents chose a partner for them helped by a matchmaker.

Mayan Religion

The Mayans were polytheists (they worshiped many gods). The most important god was the sun god. However, almost every aspect of life had its own god. There was a maize god and even a god of tattooing.

The Mayans believed that it was important to keep the gods happy. To please them the Mayans burned incense in temples. They also practiced human sacrifice. Captives taken in war were often sacrificed. (If they could the Mayans would not kill their enemies. Instead, they would capture them for sacrifice).

The Mayans built many pyramid-shaped temples and they had many priests. The priest practiced divination (fortune-telling) and carried out sacrifices. The Mayans also had many religious ceremonies that involved music and dancing. (The Mayans used wind and percussion instruments rather than string instruments. They played wooden flutes and trumpets and drums made from turtle shells).

One religious ceremony involved playing a ball game called Pok-A-Tok. It was played with a solid rubber ball. You were not allowed to touch the ball with your hands or feet. Instead, you had to use your knees, hips, elbows, and forearms. (Players wore padding as the ball was very hard). Sometimes prisoners of war were forced to play Pok-A-Tok and were sacrificed afterward.

Last Revised 2024