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 that shared 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 variety of environments, economies, and growth of the civilization. Scholars address some of the Maya cultural variations by studying separate issues related to the climate and environment of the region. The Maya Highlands is the southern part of the Maya civilization, including 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.

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 that shared some ritual and ceremonial practices, some architecture, and 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 BCE and CE 900, with the "Classic Maya" between 250–900 CE.

  • Archaic before 2500 BCE
    Hunting and gathering lifestyle prevails.
  • Early Formative 2500–1000 BCE
    First beans and maize agriculture, and people live in isolated farmsteads and hamlets
  • Middle Formative 1000–400 BCE
    First monumental architecture, first villages; people switch to full-time agriculture; there is evidence for contacts with the Olmec culture, and, at Nakbe, the first evidence of social ranking, beginning about 600–400 BCE
    Important sites: NakbeChalchuapa, Kaminaljuyu
  • Late Formative 400 BCE–250 CE
    The first massive palaces are built at urban Nakbe and El Mirador, first writing, built road systems and water control, organized trade, and widespread warfare
    Important sites: El Mirador, Nakbe, Cerros, Komchen, Tikal, Kaminaljuyu
  • Classic 250–900 CE
    Widespread literacy is in evidence, including calendars and lists of royal lineages at Copán and Tikal. The first dynastic kingdoms arise amid changing political alliances; large palaces and mortuary pyramids are constructed, and a sharp intensification of agriculture. Urban populations peak at about 100 people per square kilometer. Paramount kings and polities rule from TikalCalakmul, Caracol, and Dos Pilos
  • Important sites: Copán, Palenque, TikalCalakmul, Caracol, Dos Pilas, UxmalCoba, Dzibilchaltun, Kabah, Labna, Sayil
  • Postclassic 900–1500 CE
    Some centers are abandoned and written records stop. The Puuc hill country flourishes and small rural towns prosper near rivers and lakes until the Spanish arrived 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 (250–900 CE). Documentary evidence for the kings and queens has been found on stele and temple wall inscriptions and a few sarcophagi.

During the Classic period, each king was 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.

Fairly detailed dynasties of the kings of Palenque, Copán, and Tikal have been compiled by scholars.

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 elevations of 2,600 feet 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 region includes a string of volcanically-active mountains. Eruptions have dumped rich volcanic ash throughout the region, leading to deep rich soils and obsidian deposits. The 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 BCE. Barkcloth 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 CE. The earliest inscription in long count among the Maya was made dated 292 CE; and the earliest date listed on the "long count" calendar is about August 11, 3114 BCE, what the Maya said was the founding date of their civilization. The first dynastic calendars were being used by about 400 BCE.

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, written during 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. There are a handful of observatories, building to track the movement of the sun, moon, planets, and stars, such as that at Chichén Itzá.

Maya Civilization Ritual

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

Sweat baths: Specialized buildings to create internal sweat baths are known from Piedras Negras, San Antonio, and Cerén.

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: Some of the Maya cities were fortified (protected by walls or moats), 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, enslaved workers, to avenge insults, and to establish succession.

Weaponry: Forms of defensive and offensive weapons included axes, clubs, maces, throwing spears, shields, helmets, and bladed spears

Ritual sacrifice: The Maya did sacrifice objects by throwing them into cenotes and placing them with burials. They also pierced their tongues, earlobes, genitals or other body parts for blood sacrifice. Animals (mostly jaguars) were sacrificed, as were humans, including high-ranking enemy warriors who were captured, tortured, and sacrificed.

Mayan Architecture

The first stone steles were carved and erected during the Classic period, and the earliest is from Tikal, where a stele is dated 292 CE. 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 CE, consisting of block masonry palaces with towers and central doorways at sites such as Rio Bec, Hormiguero, Chicanna, and Becan)
  • Chenes (7th–9th c. CE, related to the Rio Bec but without the towers at Hochob Santa rosa Xtampack, Dzibilnocac)
  • Puuc (700–950 CE, intricately designed facades and doorjambs at Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Sayil, Labna, Kabah)
  • Toltec (or Maya Toltec 950–1250 CE, at Chichén Itzá.

Archaeological Sites of the Maya

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, guided tours, and bookstores 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, CobáUxmal, Palenque
  • Honduras: Copan, Puerto Escondido
  • Guatemala: Kaminaljuyu, La Corona (Site Q), Nakbe, Tikal, Ceibal, Nakum

Spectacles and Spectators: Walking Tour of Maya Plazas. 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.


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Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "The Maya Civilization." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hirst, K. Kris. (2023, April 5). The Maya Civilization. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The Maya Civilization." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).