Maya Empire

The Maya Empire, centered in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala, reached the peak of its power and influence around the sixth century A.D. The Maya excelled at agriculture, pottery, hieroglyph writing, calendar-making and mathematics, and left behind an astonishing amount of impressive architecture and symbolic artwork. Most of the great stone cities of the Maya were abandoned by A.D. 900, however, and since the 19th-century scholars have debated what might have caused this dramatic decline.

The Maya civilization was one of the most dominant indigenous societies of Mesoamerica (a term used to describe Mexico and Central America before the 16th-century Spanish conquest). Unlike other scattered indigenous populations of Mesoamerica, the Maya were centered in one geographical block covering all of the Yucatan Peninsula and modern-day Guatemala; Belize and parts of the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas; and the western part of Honduras and El Salvador. This concentration showed that the Maya remained relatively secure from invasion by other Mesoamerican peoples.

Among the earliest Maya a single language existed, but by the Preclassic Period a great linguistic diversity developed among the various Maya peoples. In modern-day Mexico and Central America, around 5 million people speak some 70 Maya languages; most of them are bilingual in Spanish

Within that expanse, the Maya lived in three separate sub-areas with distinct environmental and cultural differences: the northern Maya lowlands on the Yucatan Peninsula; the southern lowlands in the Peten district of northern Guatemala and adjacent portions of Mexico, Belize and western Honduras; and the southern Maya highlands, in the mountainous region of southern Guatemala.

Most famously, the Maya of the southern lowland region reached their peak during the Classic Period of Maya civilization (A.D. 250 to 900) and built the great stone cities and monuments that have fascinated explorers and scholars of the region.

Early Maya, 1800 B.C. to A.D. 250

The earliest Maya settlements date to around 1800 B.C., or the beginning of what is called the Preclassic or Formative Period. The earliest Maya was agricultural, growing crops such as corn (maize), beans, squash and cassava (manioc). During the Middle Preclassic Period, which lasted until about 300 B.C., Maya farmers began to expand their presence both in the highland and lowland regions.

The Middle Preclassic Period also saw the rise of the first major Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmecs. Like other Mesoamerican peoples, such as the Zapotec, Totonac, Teotihuacán, and Aztec, the Maya derived a number of religious and cultural traits–as well as their number system and their famous calendar–from the Olmec.

In addition to agriculture, the Preclassic Maya also displayed more advanced cultural traits like pyramid-building, city construction and the inscribing of stone monuments.

The Late Preclassic city of Mirador, in the northern Peten, was one of the greatest cities ever built in the pre-Columbian Americas. Its size dwarfed the Classic Maya capital of Tikal, and its existence proves that the Maya flourished centuries before the Classic Period.

Cities of Stone: The Classic Maya, A.D. 250-900

The Classic Period, which began around A.D. 250, was the golden age of the Maya Empire. Classic Maya civilization grew to some 40 cities, including Tikal, Uaxactún, Copán, Bonampak, Dos Pilas, Calakmul, Palenque and Río Bec; each city held a population of between 5,000 and 50,000 people. At its peak, the Maya population may have reached 2,000,000.

Excavations of Maya sites have unearthed plazas, palaces, temples, and pyramids, as well as courts for playing the ball games that were ritually and politically significant to Maya culture. Maya cities were surrounded and supported by a large population of farmers. Though the Maya practiced a primitive type of “slash-and-burn” agriculture, they also displayed evidence of more advanced farming methods, such as irrigation and terracing.

The Maya were deeply religious, and worshiped various gods related to nature, including the gods of the sun, the moon, rain and corn. At the top of Maya society were the kings, or “kuhul law” (holy lords), who claimed to be related to gods and followed a hereditary succession. They were thought to serve as mediators between the gods and people on earth and performed the elaborate religious ceremonies and rituals so important to the Maya culture.

The Classic Maya built many of their temples and palaces in a stepped pyramid shape, decorating them with elaborate reliefs and inscriptions. These structures have earned the Maya their reputation as the great artists of Mesoamerica. Guided by their religious ritual, the Maya also made significant advances in mathematics and astronomy, including the use of the zero and the development of a complex calendar system based on 365 days.

Though early researchers concluded that the Maya were a peaceful society of priests and scribes, later evidence–including a thorough examination of the artwork and inscriptions on their temple walls–showed the less peaceful side of Maya culture, including the war between rival Mayan city-states and the importance of torture and human sacrifice to their religious ritual.

Serious exploration of Classic Maya sites began in the 1830s. By the early to mid-20th century, a small portion of their system of hieroglyph writing had been deciphered, and more about their history and culture became known. Most of what historians know about the Maya comes from what remains of their architecture and art, including stone carvings and inscriptions on their buildings and monuments. The Maya also made paper from tree bark and wrote in books made from this paper, known as codices; four of these codices are known to have survived.

Life in the Rainforest

One of the many intriguing things about the Maya was their ability to build a great civilization in a tropical rainforest climate. Traditionally, ancient peoples had flourished in drier climates, where the centralized management of water resources (through irrigation and other techniques) formed the basis of society. (This was the case for the Teotihuacan of highland Mexico, contemporaries of the Classic Maya.) In the southern Maya lowlands, however, there were few navigable rivers for trade and transport, as well as no obvious need for an irrigation system.

By the late 20th century, researchers had concluded that the climate of the lowlands was in fact quite environmentally diverse. Though foreign invaders were disappointed by the region’s relative lack of silver and gold, the Maya took advantage of the area’s many natural resources, including limestone (for construction), the volcanic rock obsidian (for tools and weapons) and salt.

The environment also held other treasures for the Maya, including jade, quetzal feathers (used to decorate the elaborate costumes of Maya nobility) and marine shells, which were used as trumpets in ceremonies and warfare.

Mysterious Decline of the Maya

From the late eighth through the end of the ninth century, something unknown happened to shake the Maya civilization to its foundations. One by one, the Classic cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned, and by A.D. 900, Maya civilization in that region had collapsed. The reason for this mysterious decline is unknown, though scholars have developed several competing theories.

Some believe that by the ninth century the Maya had exhausted the environment around them to the point that it could no longer sustain a very large population. Other Maya scholars argue that constant warfare among competing city-states led the complicated military, family (by marriage) and trade alliances between them to break down, along with the traditional system of dynastic power.

As the stature of the holy lords diminished, their complex traditions of rituals and ceremonies dissolved into chaos. Finally, some catastrophic environmental change–like an extremely long, intense period of drought–may have wiped out the Classic Maya civilization. Drought would have hit cities like Tikal–where rainwater was necessary for drinking as well as for crop irrigation–especially hard


All three of these factors–overpopulation and overuse of the land, endemic warfare, and drought–may have played a part in the downfall of the Maya in the southern lowlands. In the highlands of the Yucatan, a few Maya cities–such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Mayapán–continued to flourish in the Post-Classic Period (A.D. 900-1500). By the time the Spanish invaders arrived, however, most Maya was living in agricultural villages, their great cities buried under a layer of rainforest green.


The history of Mesoamerica is usually divided into specific periods which, taken together, reveal the development of culture in the region and, for the purposes of this definition, the emergence and cultivation of the Maya Civilization.

The Archaic Period: 7000-2000 BCE – During this time a hunter-gatherer culture began to cultivate crops such as maize, beans and other vegetables and the domestication of animals (most notably dogs and turkeys) and plants became widely practiced. The first villages of the region were established during this period which included sacred spots and temples dedicated to various gods.


The villages excavated thus far are dated from 2000-1500 BCE. The Olmec Period: 1500-200 BCE – This era is also known as the Pre-Classic or Formative Period when the Olmecs, the oldest culture in Mesoamerica, thrived. The Olmecs settled along the Gulf of Mexico and began building great cities of stone and brick. The famous Olmec heads strongly suggest highly sophisticated skill in sculpture and the first indications of Shamanic religious practices date from this period.


The enormous size and scope of Olmec ruins gave birth to the idea that the land was once populated by giants. Though no one knows where the Olmecs came from, nor what happened to them, they lay the foundation for all the future civilizations in Mesoamerica.

The Zapotec Period: 600 BCE-800 CE – In the region surrounding modern-day Oaxaca, the cultural center now known as Monte Alban was founded which became the capital of the Zapotec kingdom. The Zapotecs were clearly influenced by (or, perhaps, related to) the Olmecs and, through them, some of the most important cultural elements of the region were disseminated such as writing, mathematics, astronomy and the development of the calendar; all of which the Maya would refine.

The Teotihuacan Period: 200-900 CE – During this era, the great city of Teotihuacan grew from a small village to a metropolis of enormous size and influence. Early on, Teotihuacan was a rival of another city called Cuicuilco but, when that community was destroyed by a volcano c. 100 CE, Teotihuacan became dominant in the region.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Teotihuacan was an important religious center which was devoted to the worship of a Great Mother Goddess and her consort the Plumed Serpent. The Plumed Serpent god Kukulkan (also known as Gucamatz) was the most popular deity among the Maya. Like many of the cities which now lie in ruin throughout the southern Americas, Teotihuacan was abandoned sometime around 900 CE.The El Tajin Period: 250-900 CE –

This period is also known as the Classic Period in Mesoamerican and Mayan history. The name `El Tajin’ refers to the great city complex on the Gulf of Mexico which has been recognized as one of the most important sites in Mesoamerica. During this time the great urban centers rose across the land and the Maya numbered in the millions. The very important ball game which came to be known as Poc-a-Toc was developed and more ball courts have been found in and around the city of El Tajin than anywhere else in the region.

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Who, precisely, the people were who inhabited El Tajin remains unknown as there were over fifty different ethnic groups represented in the city and dominance has been ascribed to both the Maya and the Totonac. The Classic Maya Period: 250-950 CE – This is the era which saw the consolidation of power in the great cities of the Yucatec Maya such as Chichen Itza and Uxmal.

Direct cultural influences may be seen, in some sites, from the Olmecs and the Zapotecs and the cultural values of Teotihuacan and El Tajin but, in others, a wholly new culture seems to have emerged (such as at Chichen Itza where, though there is ample evidence of cultural borrowing, there is a significantly different style to the art and architecture).

This period was the height of the Maya civilization in which they perfected mathematics, astronomy, architecture and the visual arts and also refined and perfected the calendar. The oldest date recorded in this era is on Stele 29 in the city of Tikal (292 CE) and the latest is from an inscription on the Stele at the site of Tonina (909 CE). The city-states of the Mayan civilization stretched from Piste in the north all the way down to modern-day Honduras. The Post-Classic Period: 950-1524 CE – At this time the great cities of the Maya were abandoned.

Thus far, no explanation for the mass exodus from the cities to outlying rural areas has been determined but climate change and overpopulation have been strongly suggested among other possibilities. The Toltecs, a new tribe in the region, took over the vacant urban centers and re-populated them. At this time, Tula and Chichen-Itza became dominant cities in the region.

The widely popular conception that the Maya were driven from their cities by the Spanish Conquest is erroneous as the cities were already vacant by the time of the Spanish invasion (in fact, the Spanish conquerors had no idea the natives they found in the region were responsible for the enormous complexes of the cities). The Quiche Maya were defeated at the Battle of Utatlan in 1524 CE and this date traditionally marks the end of the Maya Civilization



The height of the Maya Civilization in the Classic Period produced the incredible cultural advances for which they are well known. The Maya believed deeply in the cyclical nature of life – nothing was ever `born’ and nothing ever `died’ – and this belief inspired their view of the gods and the cosmos. Their cosmological views, in turn, encouraged their imaginative efforts in architecture, mathematics, and astronomy.

Beneath the earth was the dark realm of Xibalba (pronounced `she-Bal-ba’ and translated as `place of fear’) from whence grew the great Tree of Life which came up through the earth and towered into the heavens, through thirteen levels, to reach the paradise of Tamoanchan (`place of the misty sky’) where beautiful flowers bloomed. In Mayan belief, however, one did not die and go to a `heaven’ or a `hell’ but, rather, embarked on a journey toward Tamoanchan. This journey began in the dark and treacherous underworld of Xibalba where the Xibalbans who lived there were more apt to trick and destroy a soul than help one.

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If one could navigate through Xibalba, however, one could then find the way to ascend through the nine levels of the underworld, and the thirteen levels of the higher world, to paradise. The only ways in which a soul could by-pass Xibalba and travel instantly to Tamoanchan were through death in childbirth, as a sacrificial victim, in warfare, on the ball court, or by suicide (the Maya had a special goddess of suicide named Ixtab who was depicted as the rotting corpse of a woman hanging by a noose in the heavens).

Once one reached Tamoanchan there was eternal happiness but, it must be noted, this paradise was not thought to actually exist in the sky but on the earth. After ascending through the thirteen levels, one did not live in the air but, rather, on a mystical mountain back on the planet. It was because of this cyclical view that the Maya did not believe there was anything wrong with human sacrifice.

Those people who were offered to the gods did not `die' but simply moved on. This cosmological belief influenced every aspect of the Mayan civilization and rituals were performed regularly in caves, evoking the darkness of Xibalba, and on hills or high temples which symbolized the heights of Tamoanchan. The great pyramids which characterize so many Mayan sites are replicas of the great mountain of the gods known as the Witzob. The cyclical nature of human existence is mirrored in the famous Maya calendar.

The depictions of the many gods and goddesses all go toward their function in helping one through the cycles of life or hindering. The great religious book of the Quiche Maya, the Popol-Vuh, tells precisely this story of the cyclical nature of life through the tale of the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque and their victory over the forces of chaos and darkness symbolized by the Lords of Xibalba.

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The game the twins are famous for playing, Poc-a-Toc, serves the same purpose. Poc-a-Toc was the most popular game among the Maya and was far more than `just a game’ as it symbolized the human struggle and reflected the way the Maya viewed existence. Two opposing teams of seven men each would face each other on a ball court and try to score a small rubber ball through a vertical hoop affixed to a wall (sometimes as high as twenty feet in the air, sometimes higher) while defending their own goal.

What makes the game even more impressive is that a player could not use the hands or the feet, only the hips, shoulders, head and knees. The Spanish bishop Diego de Landa wrote that watching the Maya play Poc-a-Toc was like watching lightning strikes, they moved so quickly. It has long been believed that the losing team (or the captain of the losing team) would be killed at the end of the match but recent advances in deciphering the Mayan glyphs, together with archaeological evidence, suggests it may have been the winning team or the winning captain who was given the honor of a quick death and instant passage to paradise.

The game is thought to have been symbolic, not only of the victory of the hero twins over darkness but of the cyclical nature of life. The Mayanists Schele and Matthews claim, "Many modern myths have grown up about the ballgame. The most popular says that the Maya sacrificed the winners so as to give a perfect gift to the gods. There is no evidence for this interpretation in any of the ancient or historical sources"

This is not quite correct, however, as glyphs at many ball courts, Chichen Itza to name only one, could be interpreted as showing the winning team or captain being sacrificed and modern Mayan daykeepers at both Altun Ha in Belize and Chichen Itza in the Yucatan point to the hope of escape from the darkness of Xibalba as the reason for the winners being executed.

Whichever team was chosen to die, and under what circumstances (since teams could not have been continually sacrificed as there is evidence of `star' teams) the ball game was deeply meaningful to the Maya as more than just a spectator sport. More information on the particulars of the game and the life of the ancient Maya, in general, come to light as more hieroglyphics are discovered and interpreted.

MAYAN Hieroglyphics

The modern-day difficulty in deciphering the Mayan hieroglyphics stems from the actions of the same man who, inadvertently, preserved so much of what we know of the Maya Civilization: Bishop Diego de Landa. Appointed to the Yucatan following the Spanish conquest of the north, Landa arrived in 1549 CE and instantly set himself to the task of routing out heathenism from among the Mayan converts to Christianity. The concept of a god who dies and comes back to life was very familiar to the Maya from their own deity The Maize God and they seem to have accepted the story of Jesus Christ and his resurrection easily.

Even so, Landa believed that there was a subversive faction growing among the Maya which was seducing them `back to idolatry’ and, having failed to crush this perceived rebellion through the avenues of prayer and admonition, chose another more direct method. On 12 July 1562 CE, at the church at Mani, Landa burned over forty Mayan Codices (books) and over 20,000 images and stele. In his own words,

“We found many books with these letters, and because they contained nothing that was free from superstition and the devil’s trickery, we burnt them, which the Indians greatly lamented.” Landa went further, however, and resorted to torture to extricate the secrets of the subversives among the natives and bring them back to what he saw as the true path of the church. His methods were condemned by the other priests and he was called back to Spain to explain his actions.

Part of his defense was his 1566 CE work Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan which has preserved much of the culture Landa tried to destroy and has proved to be a valuable asset in understanding ancient Maya culture, religion, and language. Only three books of the Maya escaped the conflagration at Mani: The Madrid Codex, The Dresden Codex, and The Paris Codex (so named for the cities where they were found many years after they were brought back from the Yucatan) which have provided scholars with a great deal of information on the beliefs of the Maya and, especially, on their calendar.

The codices were created by scribes who made careful observations in astronomy (the Dresden Codex alone devotes six pages to accurately calculating the rising and positions of Venus) and their interpretations of the planets and the seasons exhibit a precision unmatched by other ancient civilizations. So important were their stories and books to the Maya that the Legend of Zamna and the Hennequen Plant describes the great goddess telling the prophet Zamna


The city of Izamal was founded, according to this legend, by Zamna (associated with the deity Itzamna) of the Itzas who placed the sacred writings under the central temple. Izamal became known as the most important pilgrimage site in the Classical Period besides Chichen Itza. Shamans (known as Daykeepers) would interpret the particular energy of the day or month for the people by consulting with the gods presiding over the various months of the Maya calendar.

I want you to choose a group of families from my kingdom, and three of the wisest Chilames, to carry the writings which tell the story of our people and write what will happen in the future. You will reach a place that I will indicate to you and you will found a city. Under its main temple, you will guard the writings and the future writings.


There are two calendars at work simultaneously in the Maya system: the Haab, or civil calendar of 365 days in an 18 month period of 20 days each, and the Tzolkin, or sacred calendar, of 260 days divided into three groups of months of 20 days. The Haab and the Tzolkin work together, like gears interlocking in a machine, to create what is known as the Calendar Round but cannot account for dates farther in the future than 52 days.

For longer calculations, the Maya devised what is known as the Long Count Calendar and is this which has attracted so much international attention in recent years regarding the end of the world on 21 December 2012 CE. As the long count calendar begins 11 August 3114 BCE, it goes into its next cycle (known as a Baktun) on 21 December 2012 CE. There is nothing in the extant writings of the Maya to suggest any kind of cataclysm accompanies this transition.

On 10 May 2012 CE, it was reported that Boston University archaeologist William Saturno and Boston University student Maxwell Chamberlain, excavating at the Maya site of Xultun in Guatemala, discovered a 6x6 foot room dating to 800 CE which seems conclusively to have been a calendar workshop for Mayan scribes. The paintings and inscriptions on the walls of the room show the Maya calendar extending well beyond the year 2012 CE and that future Baktuns were understood to already be underway in the great cyclic dance of time. According to David Stuart, an expert on Maya hieroglyphs at the University of Texas at Austin, "Baktun 14 was going to be coming, and Baktun 15 and Baktun 16. ..


The Maya calendar is going to keep going and keep going for billions, trillions, octillions of years into the future." The months of the years of the Mayan calendars were governed over each by a specific god and, as these gods were eternal, they assured the continuance of the energy of their particular month. As all of life was considered one eternal cycle, the western concept of an `end of the world’, so popular in Christian ideology, would have been a completely foreign concept to a Maya scribe.

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