Maya Culture and Civilization

From Ancient Times to the Present Day

Uxmal Maya Archaeological Site
Getty Images / Dennis K. Johnson

The Maya civilization was one of the major civilizations to develop in ancient Mesoamerica. It is noted for its elaborate writing, numerical and calendar systems, as well as its impressive art and architecture. The Maya culture lives on in the same areas where its civilization first developed, in the southern part of Mexico and part of Central America, and there are millions of people who speak Mayan languages (of which there are several).

The Ancient Maya

The Maya occupied a vast area covering southeast Mexico and the Central American countries of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Mayan culture began to develop in the Pre-Classic period, around 1000 BCE. and was at its heyday between 300 and 900 CE. The ancient Maya are well known for their writing, of which a great part can now be read (it was for the most part deciphered in the second half  of the 20th Century), as well as for their advanced mathematics, astronomy and calendrical calculations.

Despite sharing a common history and certain cultural attributes, ancient Maya culture was extremely diverse, largely due to the range of geographic and environmental conditions in which it developed.

Maya Writing

The Maya devised an elaborate writing system which was largely deciphered in the 1980s. Prior to this, many archaeologists believed that Maya writing dealt strictly with calendrical and astronomical themes, which went hand-in-hand with the concept that the Mayas were peaceful, studious stargazers. When Mayan glyphs were finally deciphered it became clear that the Maya were as interested in earthly matters as other Mesoamerican civilizations.

Mathematics, Calendar and Astronomy

The Ancient Maya used a numerical system based on just three symbols: a dot for one, a bar for five and a shell which represented zero. Using zero and place notation, they were able to write large numbers and perform complex mathematical operations. They also formulated a unique calendar system with which they were able to calculate the lunar cycle as well as predict eclipses and other celestial events with great precision.

Religion and Mythology

The Maya had a complex religion with a huge pantheon of gods. In the Mayan worldview, the plane on which we live is just one level of a multi-layered universe made up of 13 heavens and nine underworlds. Each of these planes is ruled by a specific god and inhabited by others. Hunab Ku was the creator god and various other gods were responsible for forces of nature, such as Chac, the rain god.

Mayan rulers were considered to be divine and traced their geneologies back to prove their descendence from the gods. Maya religious ceremonies included the ball game, human sacrifice and bloodletting ceremonies in which nobles pierced their tongues or genitals to shed blood as an offering to the gods.

Archaeological Sites

Coming upon impressive abandoned cities covered by vegetation in the middle of the jungle caused early archaeologists and explorers to wonder: who built these spectacular cities only to abandon them? Some surmised that the Romans or the Phoenicians were responsible for these magnificent constructions; from their racist perspective, it was difficult to believe that the native people of Mexico and Central America could be responsible for such amazing engineering, architecture and artistry.

The Collapse of Maya Civilization

There is still much speculation about the decline of the ancient Maya cities. Many theories have been put forward, ranging from natural catastrophes (epidemic, earthquake, drought) to warfare. Archaeologists today generally believe that a combination of elements brought about the collapse of the Maya empire, probably brought on by severe drought and deforestation.

Present-day Maya Culture

The Maya did not cease to exist when their ancient cities went into decline. They live on today in the same areas their ancestors inhabited. Although their culture has changed over time, many Mayas maintain their language and traditions. There are over 750,000 speakers of Mayan languages living in Mexico today (according to INEGI) and many more in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Present-day Maya religion is a hybrid of Catholicism and ancient beliefs and rituals. Some Lacandon Maya still live in a traditional manner in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas state.

Read more about the Maya

Michael D. Coe has written some interesting books about the Maya if you would like to read further about this amazing culture.

  • The Maya provides a thorough overview of the development of Mayan civilization from earliest times.
  • Breaking the Maya Code offers an inside view into the study of Maya writing and how it was finally deciphered.