Mayan History (250-1697 AD)

Topics on the Page

external image Chama_Style_Vessel%2C_Maya_Art_and_Architecture%2C_1999.jpg
  • Overview
  • Timeline
  • Location, Food, Trade
  • Kingship and Government
  • Rituals
  • Architecture
  • Economy
  • Slaves
  • Written Language
  • Women's Roles
  • Mayan Ball Game



Map of Aztec and Mayan Location (Mayan in green, Aztec in orange)

The Mayans are probably the best-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica.
  • Originating in the Yucatán around 2600 B.C., they rose to prominence around A.D. 250 in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras.
    • Building on the inherited inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations such as the Olmec, the Maya developed astronomy, calendrical systems and hieroglyphic writing. Here is a link describing the many advancements of the Maya.
      • The Maya were noted as well for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools.
        • They were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizeable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater.
          • The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.
The equation "5 + 8 equal 13" written with Maya numerals
The equation "5 + 8 equal 13" written with Maya numerals

Maya history can be characterized as cycles of rise and fall: city-states rose in prominence and fell into decline, only to be replaced by others.
  • It could also be described as one of continuity and change, guided by a religion that remains the foundation of their culture. For those who follow the ancient Maya traditions, the belief in the influence of the cosmos on human lives and the necessity of paying homage to the gods through rituals continues to find expression in a modern hybrid Christian-Maya faith.

Cause of 100-Year Maya Dark Age Has Been a Mystery--Until Now
  • Eruption in 540 AD of the El Chichon volanco produced a period of war and decline

Once Dismissed as Fake, Maya Calendar is Americas' Oldest Manuscript Say Brown University Scientists, Washington Post (September 8, 2016)

New discoveries of Mayan structures buried under jungle reveal new understanding about Maya civilization. The discoveries of these structures have led researchers to conclude that the Maya population was much larger than previously estimated. Also, the discovery of fortresses indicates that Maya were more warlike than previously thought. Here is a video link about the discoveries.

Mayan calendar created by a modern craftsman
Mayan calendar created by a modern craftsman

timeline2_rus.svg.pngMayan History Timeline
  • 11,000 The first hunter-gatherers settle in the Maya highlands and lowlands.
  • 3113 The creation of the world takes place, according to the Maya Long Count calendar.
  • 2600 Maya civilization begins.
  • 2000 The rise of the Olmec civilization, from which many aspects of Maya culture are derived. Village farming becomes established throughout Maya regions.
  • 700 Writing is developed in Mesoamerica.
  • 400 The earliest known solar calendars carved in stone are in use among the Maya, although the solar calendar may have been known and used by the Maya before this date.
  • 300 The Maya adopt the idea of a hierarchical society ruled by nobles and kings.
  • 100 The city of Teotihuacan is founded and for centuries is the cultural, religious and trading centre of Mesoamerica.
  • 50 The Maya city of Cerros is built, with a complex of temples and ball courts. It is abandoned (for reasons unknown) a hundred years later and its people return to fishing and farming.

  • 100 The decline of the Olmecs
  • 400 The Maya highlands fall under the domination of Teotihuacan, and the disintegration of Maya culture and language begins in some parts of the highlands.
  • 500 The Maya city of Tikal becomes the first great Maya city, as citizens from Teotihuacan make their way to Tikal, introducing new ideas involving weaponry, captives, ritual practices and human sacrifice.
  • 600 An unknown event destroys the civilization at Teotihuacan, along with the empire it supported. Tikal becomes the largest city-state in Mesoamerica , with as many as 500,000 inhabitants within the city and its hinterland.
  • 683 The Emperor Pacal dies at the age of 80 and is buried in the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque.
  • 751 Long-standing Maya alliances begin to break down. Trade between Maya city-states declines, and inter-state conflict increases.
  • 869 Construction ceases in Tikal, marking the beginning of the city's decline.
  • 899 Tikal is abandoned.
  • 900 The Classic Period of Maya history ends, with the collapse of the southern lowland cities. Maya cities in the northern Yucatán continue to thrive.

Location, Food, and Trade

The ancient Maya civilization occupied the eastern third of Mesoamerica, primarily the Yucatan Peninsula. The Yucaton Peninsula is comprised of both a highlands and a lowlands. The lowlands primarily produced crops, which were used for the Mayans own personal consumption, the prime product being maize. They also grew squash, beans, chili peppers, amaranth, manioc, cacao, cotton for light cloth, and sisal for heavy cloth and rope. The Mayans scavenged the forest for foods including deer, turkey, peccaries, tapirs, rabbits, and large rodents such as the peca and the agouti. The volcanic highlands, however, were the source of obsidian, jade, and other precious metals that the Mayans used to develop a lively trade and stimulate their economy.[1]

Kingship and Government

In both the priesthood and the ruling class, nepotism (meaning that the position of power was passed on to a relative) was the prevalent system under which new kings and priests were chosen. Primogeniture (meaning that the position of power was passed on to the first born son) was used as a way to select new kings, as the king passed down his position to his son. After the birth of an heir, the kings performed a blood sacrifice by drawing blood from his own body as an offering to his ancestors. A human sacrifice was then offered at the time of a new king's installation in office. To be a king, one must have taken a captive in a war and that person is then used as the victim in his inauguration ceremony.[2]

Around 300 B.C., the Maya adopted a hierarchical system of government with rule by nobles and kings.

  • This civilization developed into highly structured kingdoms during the Classic period, A.D. 200-900.
  • Their society consisted of many independent states, each with a rural farming community and large urban sites built around ceremonial centres.
    • It started to decline around A.D. 900 when - for reasons which are still largely a mystery - the southern Maya abandoned their cities.
    • When the northern Maya were integrated into the Toltec society by A.D. 1200, the Maya dynasty finally came to a close, although some peripheral centres continued to thrive until the Spanish Conquest in the early sixteenth century.


The Mayans performed many rituals and ceremonies to communicate with their Gods. At certain intervals, such as the Mayan New Year, or in times of emergency (such as famine, epidemics, or a great drought), the people gathered in ritual plazas to pray to the Gods. Many ceremonies focused on sacrifices to gain the favor of the Gods. These sacrifices took place on the great stone pyramids that rose above the plazas, with stairs leading to a temple and an altar at the top. For major events, the Mayans offered human sacrifices to the gods; usually children, slaves, or prisoners of war.[3]


Mayan architecture is as characteristic as Greek, Roman or Gothic styles. The basic Mayan structure were hay huts, which housed most of the Mayan population. The walls were made of mud or stone and were covered with wooden poles. The stone huts were made from limestone. Perhaps the Mayans are most well known for their elaborate stepped pyramids, which were of great importance to the religious and political structures of the Mayans.[4]


Cacao beans, copper bells and many other things were used as units of exchange. Copper was not only used for exchange, but for ornamentation as well. Other things, such as gold, silver, jade, shell and colorful plumage were also used as ornaments. The use and making of metal tools was relatively unknown.[5]


The lowest level of Mayan society were slaves. The slaves were made up of orphans, criminals, prisoners of war and other enemies, and the children of slaves. Slaves were not necessarily mistreated, but they had no privileges, provided almost all manual labor in Mayan society, and were the most common victims of human sacrifice.[6]

Written Language

The Mayans used hieroglyphics to record events, news, and writings. These hieroglyphics have stumped scholars and historians, and it is still not "solved" completely today. Of the approximate 800 known hieroglyphics, many have been decoded.[10]

Maya Civilization: Writing and Hieroglyphics, Canadian Museum of History

Multimedia.pngTo learn more about the Mayan hieroglyphics, watch "Cracking the Mayan Code".

Ball Game
One of Mayan society's well-remembered rituals was a ball game which is considered by many to be the first team sport in human history. Despite being similar in many regards to the modern day sports of basketball and football, the loser of these games was sacrificed to the gods, giving a different meaning to the phrase: "winner takes all" than we are used to.


The Power and Glory of the Maya Queens

Early Mayan Women were a Powerful Force

Video link about the discovery of Queen K'abel's tomb. She ruled the Snake Dynasty during the 7th century. Here is an article about her as well.

Sample Test Question

Which of the following accurately describes an important relationship between science and society in ancient Mayan civilization?
a) the distribution of wealth was based on statistical studies by Mayan mathematicians
b) the division of labor was based on public health recommendations by Mayan physicians
c) the location of religious temples was based on geologic studies by Mayan scientists
d) the annual agricultural cycle was based on astronomical observations by Mayan priests

Answer: D Source: New Mexico Teacher Assessment Study Guide: Social Studies