Mayan Myths: What the Evidence Shows

Most Popular Misconceptions about the Ancient Maya

Ancient civilizations are particularly prone to distorted recreations, false myths, and misconceptions. Among these, the Classic Maya are the ancient people that probably most suffered from these stereotypes because of their “exotic” location, allegedly undeciphered language, and peculiar architecture and art.

Here are some of the most widespread myths about the ancient Maya that have for long time haunted the public understanding of this culture, and that are now gradually fading away.

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Empty Ceremonial Centers

North Group at Maya Palenque
North Group at Maya Palenque. Arian Zwegers

MYTH: Many of the Maya sites visible nowadays were empty civic-ceremonial centers, where only a handful of priests and nobles lived and were only sporadically visited by other people: False!

THE EVIDENCE SHOWS: Maya sites were cities first of all, with organized infrastructures such as markets, residential areas, roads, aqueducts, etc.. They satisfied many different functions and  a varied set of population needs: from merchant, and nobles, to farmers, visitors, artisans, and pilgrims.

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Tropical Decline

Waterfall in the Rainforest Next to Palenque
Waterfall in the Rainforest Next to Palenque. Richard Well

MYTH: Since the tropical rainforest seemed an unlikely location for the rise of a great civilization, the ancient Maya developed elsewhere, and only at the very end of their history reached the tropical lowlands of Mexico and Central America: False!

THE EVIDENCE SHOWS: This misconception arose from a distorted comparison with other ancient civilizations which developed along rivers, such as Mesopotamia , Egypt , and China, and from the initial difficulty of carrying out archaeological research in the rainforest of Mexico and Central America. Archaeological excavations have shown that since their origins, the ancient Maya developed a skilfull and varied set of strategies to deal with this tropical environment.

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Maya Undeciphered Writing System

Late Classic Limestone Lintel at Maya Yaxchilan
Late Classic Limestone Lintel at Maya Yaxchilan. Arild Finne Nybø

MYTH: The ancient Maya left a lot of carved monuments, but we don’t know a lot of Maya history since this hieroglyphic writing system is not well understood and because most of Maya texts focused on astronomy and mathematics: False!

THE EVIDENCE SHOWS: Maya Epigraphy (the discipline that studies ancient writing systems) is a well-developed discipline and many experts can read and understand a good deal of what the ancient Maya carved on their monuments. Thes Maya texts mainly dealt with historical information about king ascensions, royal marriages, military expeditions etc..

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The Peaceful Maya

Carved Rock Slabs of Captives in the East Court of Palenque's Palace
Carved Rock Slabs of Captives in the East Court of Palenque's Palace. Dennis Jarvis

MYTH: The ancient Maya were a peaceful people concerned only with astronomy and mathemathics and who lived in harmony with each other and with nature, and only learned the ferocity of war when the Spanish conquistadores arrived: False!

THE EVIDENCE SHOWS: The ancient Maya, as every people on earth. were quite bellicose and were governed by rulers who tried to widen their power and territories, through wars and political alliances. Again, the decipherment of Maya writing system helped archaeologists and historians to correct this misconception and sterotype.

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The Maya Collapse

Mayapan - Late Postclassic Maya site of Mayapan
Mayapan - Late Postclassic Maya site of Mayapan. Richaed Weil

MYTH: At the end of the Postclassic (ca. AD 900), the Maya civilization as a whole collapsed due to overpopulation and extended periods of forest clearing. The cities were abandoned and when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century very few Maya had survived: False!

THE EVIDENCE SHOWS: There was not a single catastrophic collapse but a series of political collapses in the tropical regions resulting from warfare, demographic problems and climatic instability. These problems did not lead to the end of the Maya civilization, but rather a shift in political dominance from the tropical regions to other centres in the Yucatán peninsula, where the Maya continued to flourish until the arrival of the Europeans.

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Sources and Further Reading

Demarest, Arthur, 2004, The Ancient Maya. The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge , UK.

McKillop, Heather, 2004, The Ancient Maya. New Perspectives. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California.