Maya or Mayan

At Chichen Itza, Architectural Styles Changed Over Time
El Ojo Torpo / Getty Images

When do you use Maya, and when Mayan? You may have noticed that when you read in popular books or visit the archaeological ruins along the Pacific coast of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras, or access websites or watch television programs, some of the participants refer to the Mayan civilization and others the Maya civilization; or they'll sometimes say "Maya ruins" and other times "Mayan ruins."

So, did you ever wonder, which of the speakers is right??

"Maya Civilization"

To English speakers, the form "Mayan" as an adjective sounds right. You wouldn't say "Spain ruins", you'd say "Spanish ruins," you wouldn't say "Mesopotamia civilization," you'd say "Mesopotamian civilization." But archaeologists, particularly those who study the Maya people, prefer to write of the Maya civilization.

Specifically, in English language Maya studies, scholars generally only use the adjective form "Mayan" when they refer to the language(s) spoken by the Maya today and in the past, and use “Maya” when referring to people, places, and culture, without distinction between singular or plural. In the scholarly literature, it's never "Mayas." There are six million people in parts of Mesoamerica who speak one of more than 20 different Mayan languages.

The Data

An examination of style guides from archaeological or anthropological journals does not reveal any such specific references about whether you should use Maya or Mayan: but normally, they don't do that for even the more clearly problematic use of Aztec versus Mexica. There's no article that says "scholars think it's better to use Maya rather than Mayan:" it is simply an unwritten but recognized preference among scholars.

Based on an informal search on Google Scholar conducted in June 2018 for English-language articles published since 2014, the preferred usage among anthropologists and archaeologists is to reserve Mayan for the language and use Maya for the people, culture, society and archaeological ruins.

Search Term Number of Results Comments
"maya civilization" 2,010 The first page of results includes scientific papers and books, all from archaeologists
"mayan civilization" 923 The first page includes no archaeological papers but does include those from geologists, educators, and linguists
"maya culture" 1,280 The first page is dominated by papers from archaeologists. Interestingly, google scholar prompts the searcher 'Did you mean "mayan culture"?'
"mayan culture" 1,160 The first page includes references from a variety of disciplines

Searching for the Maya

The results of using the main Google search engine to learn more about the Maya are interesting as well. If you simply search for the "Mayan civilization," Google's main search will automatically direct you to sources labeled as 'Maya civilization' without asking you: Google, and Wikipedia, have picked up on the differentiation among scholars and have decided for us which is the preferred method.

If you simply Google the term “Maya” your results will include the 3D animated software, the Sanskrit term for "magic" and Maya Angelou, while if you enter “Mayan” the search engine will return you to links to the “Maya civilization."

Who "The Ancient Maya" Were

The use of "Maya" rather than "Mayan" may be a part of the way scholars perceive the Maya. In a review paper more than a decade ago, Rosemary Joyce made this clear. For her article, she read four recent major books on the Maya and at the end of that review, she realized that the books had something in common. She wrote that thinking about the prehistoric Maya as if they were a singular, unified group of people or even a set of artistic traits or language or architecture, stands in the way of appreciating the diversity of the deep history of Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The cultures that we think of as Maya had more than one language, even within a single community. There was never a centralized government, although it is clear from existing inscriptions that political and social alliances extended over long distances. Over time, those alliances shifted in tenor and strength. Art and architectural forms vary from site to site and in some cases from ruler to ruler, a good example of this is Puuc versus Toltec architecture at Chichen Itza. Settlement and household archaeology vary with status and subsistence methods. To really study the ancient Maya culture, you have to narrow your field of vision.

Bottom Line

So that's why you see in the scholarly literature references to the "Lowland Maya" or "Highland Maya" or "the Maya Riviera" and why in general scholars concentrate on specific periods and specific sets of archaeological sites when they study the Maya.

Whether you say the prehistoric Maya or Mayan cultures doesn't really matter in the long run, as long as you remember that you are referring to a rich diversity of cultures and people who lived and adapted to the regional environments of Mesoamerica, and maintained trade connections with each other, but were not a unified whole.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Maestri, Nicoletta. "Maya or Mayan." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, Maestri, Nicoletta. (2021, September 7). Maya or Mayan. Retrieved from Maestri, Nicoletta. "Maya or Mayan." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).