The Maya Classic Era

Calakmul was one of the most important Classic period cities.
Calakmul was one of the most important Classic period cities. PhilippN/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

The Maya culture began sometime around 1800 B.C. and in a sense, it has not ended: there are thousands of men and women in the Maya region still practicing traditional religion, speaking pre-colonial languages, and following ancient customs. Still, the Ancient Maya civilization reached its peak during the so-called “Classic Era” from around 300-900 A.D. It was during this time that the Maya civilization achieved its greatest achievements in art, culture, power, and influence.

The Maya Civilization

The Maya civilization thrived in the steamy jungles of present-day southern Mexico, the Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras. The Maya were never an Empire like the Aztecs in central Mexico or the Inca in the Andes: they were never unified politically. Rather, they were a series of city-states independent from one another politically but linked by cultural similarities such as language, religion, and trade. Some of the city-states became very large and powerful and were able to conquer vassal states and control them politically and militarily but none was ever strong enough to unite the Maya into a single Empire. Beginning in 700 A.D. or so, the great Maya cities fell into decline and by 900 A.D. most of the important ones had been abandoned and fell into ruin.

Before the Classic Era

There have been people in the Maya region for ages, but cultural characteristics that historians associate with the Maya began appearing in the area around 1800 B.C.

By 1000 B.C. the Maya had occupied all of the lowlands currently associated with their culture and by 300 B.C. most of the great Maya cities had been founded. During the late Preclassic Period (300 B.C. – 300 A.D.) the Maya began building magnificent temples and records of the first Maya Kings began to appear.

The Maya were well on their way to cultural greatness.

Classic Era Maya Society

As the Classic era dawned, Maya society was clearly defined. There was a king, royal family, and a ruling class. The Maya kings were powerful warlords who were in charge of warfare and who were considered to be descended from the gods. Maya priests interpreted the movements of the gods, as represented by the sun, moon, stars, and planets, telling the people when to plant and do other daily tasks. There was a middle class of sorts, artisans, and traders who enjoyed special privilege without being nobility themselves. The vast majority of Maya worked in basic agriculture, growing the corn, beans, and squash that still make up the staple diet in that part of the world.

Maya Science and Math

The Classic Era Maya were talented astronomers and mathematicians. They understood the concept of zero, but did not work with fractions. The astronomers could predict and calculate the movements of the planets and other celestial bodies: much of the information in the four surviving Maya codices (books) concerns these movements, accurately predicting eclipses and other celestial events. The Maya were literate and had their own spoken and written language.

They wrote books on specially prepared fig tree bark and carved historical information into stone on their temples and palaces. The Maya used two overlapping calendars which were quite accurate.

Maya Art and Architecture

Historians mark 300 A.D. as the starting point for the Maya Classic era because it was around that time that stelae began to appear (the first one dates from 292 A.D.). A stela is a stylized stone statue of an important king or ruler. Stelae include not only a likeness of the ruler but a written record of his accomplishments in the formed of carved stone glyphs. Stelae are common at the larger Maya cities that thrived during this time. The Maya built multi-storied temples, pyramids, and palaces: many of the temples are aligned with the sun and stars and important ceremonies would take place at those times.

Art thrived as well: finely carved pieces of jade, large painted murals, detailed stonecarvings, and painted ceramics and pottery from this time all survive.

Warfare and Trade

The Classic era saw an increase in contact between the rival Maya city-states - some of it good, some of it bad. The Maya had extensive trade networks and traded for prestige items such as obsidian, gold, jade, feathers and more. They also traded for food, salt and mundane items like tools and pottery. The Maya also fought bitterly with one another. Rival city-states would skirmish frequently. During these raids, prisoners would be taken to be used as slaves or sacrificed to the gods. Occasionally, all-out war would break out between neighboring city-states, such as the rivalry between Calakmul and Tikal in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.

After the Classic Era

Between 700 and 900 A.D., most of the major Maya cities were abandoned and left to ruin. Why the Maya civilization collapsed is still a mystery although there is no shortage of theories. After 900 A.D., the Maya still existed: certain Maya cities in the Yucatán, such as Chichen Itza and Mayapan, thrived during the Postclassic era. The descendants of the Maya still used the writing system, the calendar and other vestiges of the peak of Maya culture: the four surviving Maya codices are thought to have all been created during the postclassic era. The different cultures in the region were rebuilding when the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, but the combination of the bloody conquest and European diseases pretty much ended the Maya renaissance.


Burland, Cottie with Irene Nicholson and Harold Osborne. Mythology of the Americas. London: Hamlyn, 1970.

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

Recinos, Adrian (translator). Popol Vuh: the Sacred Text of the Ancient Quiché Maya. Norman: the University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.