The Ancient Maya or Mayans? Which is the Most Accepted Term?

Why Some Say Maya and Some Say Mayan

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

You may have noticed that when you read about the prehistoric Maya in popular books or visit archaeological ruins or access websites or watch television programs, some of the participants refer to the Mayan civilization and others the Maya civilization; or they'll say Maya ruins or Mayan ruins.

So, did you ever wonder, which of the speakers are right? Should you blog that you are visiting a Maya site or a Mayan site?

Can it really be more correct to say the ancient Mayas than ancient Mayans? That doesn't sound right, does it?

Who Says "Maya Civilization"?

In English the form "Mayan" as an adjective sounds right to us. 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 the Mayanists 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, and use “Maya” when referring to people, places, culture etc., without distinction between singular or plural--in the scholarly literature it's never "Mayas". 

Where's the Data for That?

An examination of style guides from archaeological or anthropological journals did 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 I can find that says "scholars think it's better to use Maya rather than Mayan": it seems like simply an unwritten but recognized preference among scholars.

Based on an informal search on Google Scholar conducted in May 2016 for English-language articles published since 2012, 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 TermNumber of HitsComments
"maya civilization"1,550first page is all from archaeologists
 "mayan civilization" 1,050first page includes some archaeologists, but also geologists, geochemists, and bioscientists
"maya culture" 760first page dominated by archaeologists, interestingly, google scholar wants to know if you mean "mayan culture"
"mayan culture"924first page includes references from a variety of disciplines


Searching for the Maya

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

Of course, 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”….

A Related Issue: Who Were "The Ancient Maya"?

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 times, 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 varies with status and subsistence methods. To really study the 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.


This glossary entry is a part of the guide to Mesoamerica , and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Joyce R. 2005. What kind of a subject of study is "The Ancient Maya"? Reviews in Anthropology 34:295-311.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst