Beginner's Guide to the Maya Civilization


Maya Ceramic Sculpture, Museum at Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico
Maya Ceramic Sculpture, Museum at Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico. Alfred Diem

The Maya Civilization—also called the Mayan civilization—is the general name archaeologists have given to several independent, loosely affiliated city states who shared a cultural heritage in terms of language, customs, dress, artistic style and material culture. They occupied the central American continent, including the southern parts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, an area of about 150,000 square miles. In general, researchers tend to split the Maya into the Highland and Lowland Maya.

By the way, archaeologists prefer to use the term "Maya civilization" rather than the more common "Mayan civilization", leaving "Mayan" to refer to the language.

Highland and Lowland Maya

The Maya civilization covered an enormous area with a large variation of environments, economies, and growth of the civilization. Scholars address some of the Maya cultural variation by studying separate issues related to the climate and environment of the region. The Maya Highlands are the southern part of the Maya civilization, included the mountainous region in Mexico (particularly Chiapas state), Guatemala and Honduras.

The Maya Lowlands make up the northern segment of the Maya region, including Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, and adjacent parts of Guatemala and Belize. A Pacific coastal piedmont range north of the Soconusco had fertile soils, dense forests and mangrove swamps.

See Maya Lowlands and Maya Highlands for in-depth information.

The Maya civilization was certainly never an "empire", inasmuch as one person never ruled the entire region. During the Classic period, there were several strong kings at Tikal, Calakmul, Caracol and Dos Pilas, but none of them ever conquered the others. It's probably best to think of the Maya as a collection of independent city-states, who shared some ritual and ceremonial practices, some architecture, some cultural objects. The city-states traded with one another, and with the Olmec and Teotihuacan polities (at different times), and they also warred with one another from time to time.


Mesoamerican archaeology is broken up into general sections. The "Maya" are in general thought to have maintained a cultural continuity between about 500 BC and AD 900, with the "Classic Maya" beween AD 250-900.

  • Archaic before 2500 BC
    Hunting and gathering lifestyle prevails.
  • Early Formative 2500-1000 BC
    First beans and maize agriculture, people live in isolated farmsteads and hamlets
  • Middle Formative 1000-400 BC
    First monumental architecture, first villages; people switch to full-time agriculture, Olmec contacts, and, at Nakbe, the first evidence of social ranking, beginning about 600-400 BC
    Important sites: NakbeChalchuapa, Kaminaljuyu
  • Late Formative 400 BC-AD 250
    First massive palaces are built at urban Nakbe and El Mirador, first writing, constructed road systems and water control, organized trade and widespread warfare
    Important sites: El Mirador, Nakbe, Cerros, Komchen, Tikal, Kaminaljuyu
  • Classic AD 250-900
    Widespread literacy including calendars and lists of royal lineages at Copán and Tikal, first dynastic kingdoms, changing political alliances, large palaces and mortuary pyramids constructed, intensification of agriculture. Populations peak at about 100 per square kilometers. Paramount kings and polities installed at TikalCalakmul, Caracol, and Dos Pilos
    Important sites: Copán, Palenque, TikalCalakmul, Caracol, Dos Pilas, UxmalCoba, Dzibilchaltun, Kabah, Labna, Sayil
  • Postclassic AD 900-1500
    Some centers abandoned, written records stop. Puuc hill country flourishes and small rural towns prosper near rivers and lakes until the Spanish arrive in 1517
    Important sites: Chichén ItzáMayapan, Iximche, Utatlan)

Known Kings and Leaders

Each independent Maya city had its own set of institutionalized rulers beginning in the Classic period (AD 250-900). Documentary evidence for the kings and queens has been found on stele and temple wall inscriptions and a few sarcophagi.

During the Classic period, kings were generally in charge of a particular city and its supporting region. The area controlled by a specific king might be hundreds or even thousands of square kilometers. The ruler's court included palaces, temples and ball courts, and great plazas, open areas where festivals and other public events were held. Kings were hereditary positions, and, at least after they were dead, the kings were sometimes considered gods.

As an example, below are linked what is known of the dynastic records of Palenque, Copán and Tikal

Important Facts about the Maya Civilization

Population: There is no complete population estimate, but it must have been in the millions. In the 1600s, the Spanish reported that there were between 600,000-1 million people living in the Yucatan peninsula alone. Each of the larger cities probably had populations in excess of 100,000, but that doesn't count the rural sectors that supported the larger cities.

Environment: The Maya Lowland region below 800 meters is tropical with rainy and dry seasons. There is little-exposed water except in lakes in limestone faults, swamps, and cenotes-natural sinkholes in the limestone that are geologically a result of the Chicxulub crater impact. Originally, the area was blanketed with multiple canopied forests and mixed vegetation.

The Highland Maya regions include a string of volcanically active mountains. Eruptions have dumped rich volcanic ash throughout the region, leading to deep rich soils and obsidian deposits. Climate in the highland is temperate, with rare frost. Upland forests originally were mixed pine and deciduous trees.

Writing, Language, and Calendars of the Maya Civilization

Mayan language: The various groups spoke nearly 30 closely related languages and dialects, including the Mayan and Huastec

Writing: The Maya had 800 distinct hieroglyphs, with the first evidence of language written on stela and walls of buildings beginning ca 300 BC. Bark cloth paper codexes were being used no later than the 1500s, but all but a handful were destroyed by Spanish

Calendar: The so-called "long count" calendar was invented by Mixe-Zoquean speakers, based on the extant Mesoamerican Calendar. It was adapted by the classic period Maya ca 200 AD. The earliest inscription in long count among the Maya was made dated AD 292. Earliest date listed on the "long count" calendar is about August 11, 3114 BC, what the Maya said was the founding date of their civilization. The first dynastic calendars were being used by about 400 BC

Extant written records of the Maya: Popul Vuh, extant Paris, Madrid, and Dresden codices, and the papers of Fray Diego de Landa called "Relacion".


The Dresden Codex dated to the Late Post Classic/Colonial period (1250-1520) includes astronomical tables on Venus and Mars, on eclipses, on seasons and the movement of the tides. These tables chart the seasons with respect to their civic year, predict solar and lunar eclipses and tracked the motion of the planets.

Maya Civilization Ritual

Intoxicants: Chocolate (Theobroma), blache (fermented honey and an extract from the balche tree; morning glory seeds, pulque (from agave plants), tobacco, intoxicating enemas, Maya Blue

Sweat baths: Piedras Negras, San Antonio, Cerén

Astronomy: The Maya tracked the sun, moon, and Venus. Calendars include eclipse warnings and safe periods, and almanacs for tracking Venus.

Observatories: built at Chichén Itzá

Maya Gods: What we know of Maya religion is based on writings and drawings on codices or temples. A few of the gods include: God A or Cimi or Cisin (god of death or flatulent one), God B or Chac, (rain and lightning), God C (sacredness), God D or Itzamna (creator or scribe or learned one), God E (maize), God G (sun), God L (trade or merchant), God K or Kauil, Ixchel or Ix Chel (goddess of fertility), Goddess O or Chac Chel. There are others; and in the Maya pantheon, there are sometimes combined gods, glyphs for two different gods appearing as one glyph.

Death and Afterlife: Ideas about death and the afterlife are little known, but the entry to the underworld was called Xibalba or "Place of Fright"

Mayan Economics

  • See the Maya Economics page for information about trade, currency, agriculture, and other economic issues.

Maya Politics

Warfare: The Maya had fortified sites, and military themes and battles events are illustrated in Maya art by the Early Classic period. Warrior classes, including some professional warriors, were part of the Maya society. Wars were fought over territory, slaves, to avenge insults, and to establish succession.

Weaponry: axes, clubs, maces, throwing spears, shields, and helmets, bladed spears

Ritual sacrifice: offerings thrown into cenotes, and placed in tombs; the Maya pierced their tongues, earlobes, genitals or other body parts for blood sacrifice. animals (mostly jaguars) were sacrificed, and there were human victims, including high-ranking enemy warriors who were captured, tortured and sacrificed

Mayan Architecture

The first steles are associated with the Classic period, and the earliest is from Tikal, where a stele is dated AD 292. Emblem glyphs signified specific rulers and a specific sign called "ahaw" is today interpreted as "lord".

Distinctive architectural styles of the Maya include (but aren't limited to) Rio Bec (7th-9th centuries AD, block masonry palaces with towers and central doorways at sites such as Rio Bec, Hormiguero, Chicanna, and Becan); Chenes (7th-9th centuries AD, related to the Rio Bec but without the towers at Hochob Santa rosa Xtampack, Dzibilnocac); Puuc (AD 700-950, intricately designed facades and doorjambs at Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Sayil, Labna, Kabah); and Toltec (or Maya Toltec AD 950-1250, at Chichén Itzá. Archaeological Sites of the Maya

Really the best way to learn about the Maya is to go and visit the archaeological ruins. Many of them are open to the public and have museums and even gift shops on the sites. You can find Maya archaeological sites in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and in several Mexican states.

Belize: Batsu'b Cave, Colha, Minanha, Altun Ha, Caracol, Lamanai, Cahal Pech, Xunantunich

El Salvador: ChalchuapaQuelepa

Mexico: El TajinMayapan, Cacaxtla, Bonampak, Chichén Itzá, Cobá , Uxmal, Palenque

Honduras: Copan, Puerto Escondido

Guatemala: Kaminaljuyu, La Corona (Site Q), NakbeTikal , Ceibal, Nakum

More on the Maya

Books on the Maya A collection of reviews of a handful of the recent books on the Maya.

Finding Maya Site Q. Mysterious Site Q was one of the sites referred to on glyphs and temple inscriptions and researchers believe they have finally located it as the site of La Corona.

Spectacles and Spectators: Walking Tour of Maya Plazas. Although when you visit archaeological ruins of the Maya, you generally look at the tall buildings--but a lot of interesting things are to be learned about the plazas, the big open spaces between the temples and palaces at the major Maya cities.