The Ancient Maya: War and Warfare

The Maya mural at Bonampak. Images via Pinterest

The Ancient Maya: War and Warfare:

The Maya were a mighty civilization based in the low, rainy forests of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize whose culture peaked around 800 A.D. before going into steep decline. Historical anthropologists used to believe the Maya were a peaceful people, who warred upon one another rarely if at all, preferring instead to dedicate themselves to astronomy, building, and other non-violent pursuits.

Recent advances in the interpretation of stonework at Maya sites has changed that, however, and the Maya are now considered a very violent, warmongering society. Wars and warfare were important to the Maya for a variety of reasons, including subjugation of neighboring city-states, prestige, and capture of prisoners for slaves and sacrifices.

Traditional Pacific Views of the Maya:

Historians and cultural anthropologists began seriously studying the Maya in the early 1900s. These first historians were impressed with the great Maya interest in the cosmos and astronomy and their other cultural achievements, such as the Maya calendar and their large trade networks. There was ample evidence of a warlike tendency among the Maya - carved scenes of battle or sacrifice, walled compounds, stone, and obsidian weapon points, etc. - but the early Mayanists ignored this evidence, instead sticking to their notions of the Maya as a peaceful people.

As the glyphs on the temples and stelae began to yield their secrets to dedicated linguists, however, a very different picture of the Maya emerged.

The Maya City-States:

Unlike the Aztecs of Central Mexico and the Inca of the Andes, the Maya were never a single, unified empire organized and administered from a central city.

Instead, the Maya were a series of city-states in the same region, linked by language, trade, and certain cultural similarities, but often in lethal contention with one another for resources, power and influence. Powerful cities like Tikal, Calakmul and Caracol frequently warred upon one another or upon smaller cities. Small raids into enemy territory were common: attacking and defeating a powerful rival city was rare but not unheard of.

The Maya Military:

Wars and major raids were led by the ahau, or King. Members of the highest ruling class often were military and spiritual leaders of the cities and their capture during battles was a key element of military strategy. It is believed that many of the cities, especially the larger ones, had large, well-trained armies available for attack and defense. It is unknown if the Maya had a professional soldier class like the Aztecs did.

Maya Military Goals:

The Maya city-states went to war with one another for several different reasons. Part of it was military dominance: to bring more territory or vassal states under the command of a larger city. Capturing prisoners was a priority, especially high-ranking ones. These prisoners would be ritually humiliated at the victorious city: sometimes, the battles were played out again in the ball court, with the losing prisoners sacrificed after the “game.” It is known that some of these prisoners remained with their captors for years before finally being sacrificed.

Experts disagree about whether these wars were waged solely for the purpose of taking prisoners, like the famous Flower Wars of the Aztecs. Late in the Classic period, when the warring in the Maya region became much worse, cities would be attacked, looted and destroyed.

Warfare and Architecture:

The Maya penchant for warfare is reflected in their architecture. Many of the major and minor cities have defensive walls, and in the later Classic period, newly-founded cities were no longer established near productive land, as they had been previously, but rather on defensible sites such as hilltops. The structure of the cities changed, with the important buildings all being inside the walls. Walls could be as high as ten to twelve feet (3.5 meters) and were usually made of stone supported by wooden posts.

Sometimes the construction of walls seemed desperate: in some cases, walls were built right up to important temples and palaces, and in some cases (notably the Dos Pilas site) important buildings were taken apart for stone for the walls. Some cities had elaborate defenses: Ek Balam in the Yucatan had three concentric walls and the remains of a fourth one in the city center.

Famous Battles and Conflicts:

The best-documented and possibly the most important conflict was the struggle between Calakmul and Tikal in the fifth and sixth centuries. These two powerful city-states were each dominant politically, militarily and economically in their regions, but were also relatively close to one another. They began warring, with vassal cities like Dos Pilas and Caracol changing hands as the power of each respective city waxed and waned. In 562 A.D. Calakmul and/or Caracol defeated the mighty city of Tikal, which fell into a brief decline before regaining its former glory. Some cities were hit so hard that they never recovered, like Dos Pilas in 760 A.D. and Aguateca sometime around 790 A.D.

Effects of Warfare on Maya Civilization:

Between 700 and 900 A.D., most of the important Maya cities in the south and central regions of the Maya civilization went silent, their cities abandoned. The decline of the Maya civilization is still a mystery. Different theories have been proposed, including excessive warfare, drought, plague, climate change and more: some believe in a combination of factors. Warfare almost certainly had something to do with the disappearance of the Maya civilization: by the late Classic period wars, battles and skirmishes were quite common and important resources were dedicated to wars and city defenses.


McKillop, Heather. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: Norton, 2004.