Maya Lowlands

Aerial View of Tulum, Maya Trading Center on the Gulf Coast of the Yucatan Peninsula
Aerial View of Tulum, Maya Trading Center on the Gulf Coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Getty Images / Larry Dale Gordon

The Maya lowlands region is where the Classic Maya civilization arose. An extensive area including some 96,000 square miles (250,000 square kilometers), the Maya lowlands are located in the northern part of Central America, in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, at sea level elevations from 25 feet (7.6 meters) to approximately 2,600 ft (800 m) above sea level. In contrast, the Maya highlands area (above 2,600 ft) is located south of the lowlands in mountainous regions of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Key Takeaways: Maya Lowlands

  • The Maya lowlands is the name of a region of central America that includes parts of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. 
  • The region is a hugely varied environment, from desert to tropical rain forest, and in this varied climate, the Classic Maya arose and developed
  • Between 3 and 13 million people lived there during classic period times. 

Lowland Maya People

Map of the Maya Region
Map of the Maya Region. Base Map: GringoInChile

At the height of the Classic period Maya civilization, about 700 CE, there were between 3 million to 13 million people living in the Maya Lowlands. They lived in about 30 small polities that varied in their organization, from expansive regional states to smaller city-states and loosely organized "associations." The polities spoke different Maya languages and dialects and practiced different forms of social and political organization. Some interacted within a broader Mesoamerican system, trading with many different groups such as the Olmec.

There were similarities among the polities in the Maya lowlands: they practiced a settlement pattern of low-density urbanism, and their rulers were political and religious leaders called k'ujul ajaw ("holy lord"), who were supported by a dynastic royal court made up of family members, religious and administrative officials, and artisans. The Maya communities also shared a market economy, that combined both an elite-controlled trading network of exotic materials, as well as a day-to-day market for individuals. The lowland Maya grew avocado, beans, chili peppers, squash, cacao and maize, and raised turkeys and macaws; and they made pottery and figurines, as well as tools and other objects of obsidian, greenstone, and shell.

The Maya people of the lowlands also shared complex ways to retain water (constructed bedrock chambers called chultunes, wells, and reservoirs), hydraulic management methods (canals and dams), and enhanced agricultural production (terraces and raised and drained fields called chinampas.) They built public spaces (ballcourts, palaces, temples), private spaces (houses, residential plaza groups), and infrastructure (roads and processional routes known as sacbe, public plazas, and storage facilities).

Modern Maya living in the region today include the Yucatec Maya of the northern lowlands, the Chorti Maya in the southeastern lowlands, and the Tzotzil in the southwestern lowlands.

Variations in the Climate

Great Cenote at Chichen Itza
Great Cenote at Chichen Itza. Michael Rael

Overall, there is little exposed surface water in the region: what there is can be found in lakes in the Peten, swamps, and cenotes, natural sinkholes created by the Chicxulub crater impact. In general terms of climate, the Maya lowland region experiences a rainy and muggy season from June to October, a relatively cool season from November to February, and a hot season from March to May. The heaviest rainfall ranges from 35–40 inches per year on the west coast of the Yucatan to 55 inches on the east coast. 

Scholars have divided the Lowland Maya region into many different zones, based on differences in agricultural soils, the length and timing of wet and dry seasons, water supply and quality, elevation about sea level, vegetation, and biotic and mineral resources. In general, the southeastern parts of the region are moist enough to support a complex canopy of a tropical rain forest, ranging up to 130 ft (40 m) in height; while the northwest corner of the Yucatan is so dry that it approaches desert-like extremes.

The entire area is characterized by shallow or waterlogged soils and was once covered in dense tropical forests. The forests harbored a range of animals, including two kinds of deer, peccary, tapir, jaguar, and several species of monkeys.

Sites in the Maya Lowlands

  • Mexico: Dzibilchaltun, Mayapan, Uxmal, Tulum, Ek Balam, Labna, Calakmul, Palenque, Yaxchilan, Bonampak, Coba, Sayil, Chichen Itza, Xicalango
  • Belize: Altun Ha, Pulltrouser Swamp, Xunantunich, Lamanai
  • Guatemala: El Mirador, Piedras Negras, Nakbe, Tikal, Ceibal

Sources and Further Reading