The Ancient Maya

Jaguar Temple at Tikal, Guatemala
Jaguar Temple at Tikal, Guatemala. Captain DJ

Where Were the Ancient Maya?:

The Maya lived in subtropical Mesomerica in parts of the countries that are now Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Honduras, and the Yucatan peninsula area of Mexico. Major sites of the Maya are located at:

Old settlements of the Maya are visible from planes passing above the jungles.

When Were the Ancient Maya?:

The recognizable culture of the Maya developed between 2500 B.C. and A.D. 250. The peak period of Maya civilization was in the Classic period, which began in A.D. 250. The Maya lasted for about another 700 years before suddenly disappearing as a major force; however, the Maya did not die out then and haven't to this day.

What Do We Mean by the Ancient Maya?:

The ancient Maya were united by a shared religious system and language, although there are actually many Mayan languages. While the political system was also shared among the Maya, each chiefdom had its own ruler. Battles between cities and protective alliances were frequent.

Sacrifice and Ball Games:

Human sacrifice is a part of many cultures, including the Maya, and is usually associated with religion in that people are sacrificed to the gods. The Maya creation myth involved a sacrifice made by the gods that had to be re-enacted by humans from time to time.

One of the occasions of human sacrifice was the ball game. It is not known how often sacrifice of the loser ended the game, but the game itself was often deadly. When the Spanish came to Mesoamerica they witnessed serious injuries from the sport. [Source: "The Mesoamerican World"]

Architecture of the Maya:

The Maya built pyramids, like the people of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Maya pyramids were usually 9-step pyramids with flat tops on which were perched temples to the gods accessible by stairs. The steps corresponded with the 9 layers of the Underworld.

Maya created corbeled arches. Their communities had sweat baths, a ball game area, and a central ceremonial area that may have also served as a market in the cities of the Maya. The Maya at the city of Uxmal used concrete in their buildings. Commoners had homes made of thatch and either adobe or sticks. Some residents had fruit trees. Canals afforded an opportunity for mollusks and fish.

Language of the Maya:

The Maya spoke various Maya family languages some of which were phonetically transcribed via hieroglyphs. The Maya painted their words on bark paper that has disintegrated, but also wrote on more enduring substances [see epigraphy]. Two dialects dominate the inscriptions and are presumed to be the more prestigious forms of the Maya language. One is from the southern area of the Maya and the other from the Yucatan peninsula. With the advent of the Spanish, the prestige language became Spanish.


  • Patricia A. McAnany, David Humiston Kelley, Michael D. Coe, T. Patrick Culbert, Payson D. Sheets, George Michaels, Jeremy A. Sabloff "Maya Civilization" The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Brian M. Fagan, ed., Oxford University Press 1996.
  • "The Mesoamerican World"
  • Lynn V. Foster A Brief History of Mexico and A Brief History of Central America

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