Mayan Culture | Cultura Maya

Mayan Culture

Explore the rich history of the Mayan Culture: its location, significant contributions,
and the economy that defined this advanced and mysterious civilization.

To fully appreciate the significance of the Mayan Train Route, it is essential to immerse yourself in the rich history and crucial details of the Mayan Culture.

We have developed a detailed analysis of this fascinating civilization, thus providing you with a broad and deep vision that will allow you to understand the importance of the Mayan Train in its entire context.

Introduction to Mayan Culture

Mayan Culture | Kukulcán | Chichén Itzá

The Mayan culture, a prominent Mesoamerican culture, spread mainly in Guatemala and Mexico (specifically in Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Chiapas and Tabasco), as well as in Belize, western parts of Honduras and El Salvador, occupying more than 300,000 km².

This civilization, which lasted for more than two thousand years, distinguished itself in multiple sociocultural facets, including its advanced writing system, unique in the pre-Columbian American continent, in addition to its art, architecture, mythology, and notable systems in numbering, astronomy and math.

In the formative period before 2000 BC, the foundations of agriculture were established and the first sedentary communities were formed. The oldest known Mayan city, Aguada Fénix in the state of Tabasco, dates back to 1000 BC, surpassing other cities such as Ceibal and Cuello in antiquity.

During the Preclassic period (c. 2000 BC to 250 AD), complex societies emerged and essential foods such as corn, beans, squash and chili were grown. By 500 BC, these cities already exhibited monumental architecture, with temples and stucco facades.

Glyphic writing originated from the 3rd century BC. In this era, cities such as Kaminaljuyú in the Guatemalan highlands and the Petén Basin stood out.

The Classic period (c. 250 AD) was characterized by the establishment of sculpted monuments with Long Count dates, the development of numerous city-states interconnected by trade, and the emergence of two great powers in the Mayan lowlands: Tikal and Calakmul . In addition, there was influence of Teotihuacán in Mayan politics.

Tikal, Temple of the Great Jaguar | Mayan Culture

In the 9th century, a general political collapse in the central Mayan region triggered conflict, abandonment of cities, and a population shift northward. The Postclassic period saw the rise of Chichén Itzá in the north and the expansion of the Quiché kingdom in the Guatemalan highlands.

With the arrival of the 16th century, the Spanish Empire conquered this region, and in 1697, the last Mayan city was subdued, marking the end of this notable civilization.

During the classic period of the Mayan civilization, the figure of the “divine sovereign” played a crucial role, serving as a link between human beings and the spiritual world.

Royalty, predominantly inherited through a paternal line, was commonly transferred to the firstborn, although there were situations where women exercised authority as regents or in their own right.

The Mayan political structure was governed by a system of patronage and, although the power configuration of each city-state varied, typically each community had a local leader who was accountable to a regional lord (Ajaw), who in turn was under the command of a divine lord (Kuhul Ajaw).

In certain cases, such as Tikal, there was a maximum ruler, known as Kalomté. For the Late Classic, a significant growth of the aristocracy and a decrease in the absolute power of the divine monarch is observed.

The Mayan civilization excelled in the creation of sophisticated arts, using both ephemeral and permanent materials such as wood, jade, obsidian, ceramics, stone sculptures, stuccos, and intricately painted murals.

In Mayan urban centers, the central areas were occupied by both ceremonial and administrative structures, surrounded by irregularly arranged residential districts.

Often, different sections of the city were interconnected by causeways. The main infrastructure included palaces, pyramid-shaped temples, ball courts, and buildings designed for astronomical observations.

The Mayans documented their history and ritual knowledge in screen-type codices, of which only three authentic copies survive, since the rest were destroyed by the Spanish conquerors.

There are numerous Mayan inscriptions on steles and ceramic pieces. They developed an intricate system of ritual calendars, employed advanced mathematical techniques, and were one of the first peoples to use zero explicitly.

Mesoamerican Cultural Area

Mayan Culture: Zacuelu in Huehuetenango, Guatemala

The Mayan civilization flourished in the region known as Mesoamerica, a vast area stretching from central Mexico to southern Central America. This area is recognized as one of the six cradles of civilization in the world.

Significant cultural advances originated in Mesoamerica, including the establishment of advanced societies, the practice of agriculture, the founding of cities, the development of monumental architecture, the invention of writing systems and complex calendars.

The common traits among Mesoamerican cultures also include knowledge in astronomy and a vision of the world divided into four regions according to the cardinal points, with distinctive attributes, in addition to a vertical structure that includes the sky, the earth and the underworld.

Mayan Culture: El Caracol Mayan City in Belize. Photo:

By 6000 BC, the original inhabitants of Mesoamerica began domesticating plants, leading to the rise of sedentary agricultural communities. Despite the climatic variety that favored different types of crops, essential foods such as corn, beans, and pumpkins were grown throughout Mesoamerica.

All Mesoamerican cultures used Stone Age technology and, after 1000 AD, also processed metals such as copper, silver and gold. The region lacked pack animals and did not use the wheel, with few domestic animals; The main means of transportation was walking or the use of canoes.

The Mesoamericans perceived the world as a hostile environment ruled by unpredictable deities and practiced the Mesoamerican ball game as a ritual.

Mayan Culture: Temple of the Inscriptions of Palenque Chiapas.

The linguistic diversity of Mesoamerica is notable, although most languages belong to a few linguistic families, the main ones being Mayan, Mixezokean, Otomanguean and Uto-Aztec, in addition to other smaller and more isolated families.

The Mesoamerican linguistic area shares important characteristics, including a widely shared lexicon and a number system based on twenty.

The Mayans, with their vast and rich culture, maintained significant interactions with other neighboring civilizations, including the Olmecs, Mixtecs, Teotihuacans, Aztecs, and more.

In the Early Classic period, Mayan cities such as Tikal and Kaminaljuyú emerged as nerve centers of a commercial and cultural network that extended beyond their traditional borders, reaching the central highlands of Mexico. During this phase, a notable Mayan influence was also observed in Tetitla, located in Teotihuacán.

Centuries later, already in the 9th century, the frescoes found in Cacaxtla, another important site in the central highlands of Mexico, showed clear influences of Mayan art.

This phenomenon could be interpreted as an attempt to align with the influential Mayan region, after the decline of Teotihuacán and the subsequent political disintegration in the Mexican highlands. It could also be a manifestation by local residents of an ancient Mayan bond.

Chichén Itzá, an emblematic Mayan city, and Tollan, the distant Toltec capital, shared close ties during their existence, demonstrating a network of connections and relationships between diverse Mesoamerican cultures, which contributed to the rich tapestry of cultural and political exchanges in the region.

Geography of the Mayan Civilization

Mayan Culture: Calakmul Campeche

The Mayan civilization spread over a large territory that included southeastern Mexico and the northern part of Central America. This area included the entire Yucatan Peninsula, as well as all of Guatemala and Belize, and parts of western Honduras and El Salvador. The Yucatan Peninsula is characterized by being a large plain with few elevations and a mostly flat coast.

In the Petén region, we find a limestone plain covered by dense forest vegetation, crossed by a series of fourteen lakes in its central drainage area. Towards the south, the plain rises progressively towards the high terrain of Guatemala.

In northern Petén and Belize, as well as in most of Quintana Roo, southern Campeche and some areas of southern Yucatán, a thick jungle prevails. Further north, the vegetation changes to a lower, denser forest.

Copan Ruinas - Ball Game
Mayan Culture: Ball game in Copán Honduras. Photo: Adalberto. H. Vega

The coastal region of Soconusco, south of the Sierra Madre of Chiapas, consists of a narrow coastal strip and the slopes of the Sierra Madre. The Mayan plateau, which extends from eastern Chiapas to Guatemala, reaches its highest point in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes.

The most important pre-Columbian population centers of the highlands were located in the large valleys, such as Guatemala and Quetzaltenango in the south of the highlands, dominated by a chain of volcanoes parallel to the Pacific coast. The plateau continues to the north in Verapaz and gradually descends to the east.

History of the Mayan Culture

Mayan Culture: Takalik Abaj in Retalhuleu Guatemala. Photo: Pamela Davis.

The historical trajectory of the Mayan civilization is categorized into three fundamental eras: Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic. These stages followed the Archaic Period, an era marked by the formation of the first human settlements and the beginnings of agricultural practice.

Contemporary approaches in Mayan studies interpret these temporal divisions more as useful chronological segmentations for study than as direct reflections of significant cultural changes or eventual Mayan decline.

It is important to mention that the dates that mark the beginning and end of each period can vary slightly, according to different experts, even reaching differences of up to a century.

Chronology of the Mayan civilization

Archaic8000-2000 b. C.
PreclassicalEarly Preclassic2000-1000 b. C.
Middle PreclassicEarly Middle Preclassic1000-600 b. C.
Middle PreclassicMiddle Late Preclassic600-350  b. C.
Late PreclassicEarly Late Preclassic350-1 b. C.
Late PreclassicLate Late Preclassic1 a. C.-159 a. C.
Late PreclassicTerminal Preclassic159-250 a. C.
ClassicEarly Classic250-550 a. C.
ClassicLate Classic550-830 a. C.
ClassicClassic Terminal830-950 a. C.
PostclassicalEarly Postclassic950-1200 a. C.
PostclassicalLate Postclassic1200-1539 a. C.
Contact periodSpanish conquest1511-1697 a. C.

Preclassic Mayan Era (c. 2000 BC-250 AD)

In this era, the Mayans established their first advanced society. The finds in Aguada Fénix, Mexico, date back to 1000 BC, making this the earliest known Mayan metropolis.

This site symbolizes the transition of the Mayans from a nomadic to a sedentary life, marking the beginning of the construction of city-states. Ceibal in Guatemala dates back to 950 BC, and Cuello in Belize around 900 BC.

By 800 BC, the Mayans had already established settlements in the Soconusco region on the Pacific coast, growing staple foods such as corn, beans, squash, and chili. This period was distinguished by the appearance of permanent communities and the beginning of pottery and clay figures.

In the Middle Preclassic, smaller settlements grew into urban centers. Nakbé, in Petén, Guatemala, was one of the first cities in the Mayan lowlands, with architectural structures dating back to 750 BC.

In northern Yucatán, population intensified during this period. By 400 BC, the first Mayan rulers were erecting stelae, and advanced writing was already in use in Petén by the 3rd century BC.

In the Late Preclassic, El Mirador expanded to about 16 km², and although not as extensive, Tikal also stood out as an important city around 350 BC.

In the highlands, Kaminaljuyú emerged as a key center. Takalik Abaj and Chocolá were among the most important cities on the Pacific coastal plain, while Komchén in northern Yucatán became a prominent site.

However, this era of cultural prosperity experienced a collapse in the 1st century AD, and many large Mayan cities of this time were abandoned, leaving the cause of this decline a mystery.

Classic Mayan Era (c. 250-900 AD)

Estela Maya
Mayan Culture: Stela D of Quiriguá. Photo: Stuart Herrera

The Classic period in Mayan history is characterized primarily by the construction of monuments with dates based on the Long Count calendar.

This was a time of splendor in large-scale building, urban planning, the creation of monumental inscriptions and a notable intellectual and artistic flourishing, particularly in the southern lowlands.

The political framework of this era, marked by various city-states interconnected in a network of alliances and rivalries, has been compared to the Italian Renaissance or classical Greece. The main cities had populations of between 50,000 and 120,000 inhabitants and were interconnected through a network of smaller cities.

In the Early Classic, Mayan cities received significant influence from Teotihuacán, the great metropolis of the Valley of Mexico. In 378 AD, Teotihuacán intervened decisively in Tikal and nearby cities, establishing a new dynasty with his support.

Mayan Culture: Tazumal in El Salvador. Photo: Wingston Vasquez.

This intervention was led by Siyaj K’ak’ (“Born of Fire”), who arrived at Tikal in 378 AD. That same day, Chak Tok Ich’aak I, ruler of Tikal, died, signaling a violent change of power.

The following year, Siyaj K’ak’ oversaw the coronation of Yax Nuun Ayiin I, beginning a period of political supremacy in which Tikal emerged as the dominant city of the central lowlands.

Calakmul, located in the Petén basin, emerged as Tikal’s main rival. Both cities developed complex systems of alliances and vassalage; Smaller cities that aligned themselves with one of these powers gained prestige and maintained peaceful relations with other members of their network.

Tikal and Calakmul channeled their allied networks into mutual conflicts; At different times in the Classic period, one or the other achieved strategic victories over their adversary, marking alternating phases of prosperity and decline.

In the year 629, B’alaj Chan K’awiil, son of monarch K’inich Muwaan Jol II, was appointed to establish a new city in Dos Pilas, in the Petexbatún area. This action was interpreted as a maneuver to expand Tikal’s influence, moving it away from Calakmul’s control.

For the next two decades, B’alaj Chan K’awiil fought in alliance with his brother, the ruler of Tikal. However, in 648 AD, he was captured by King Yuknoom Ch’een II of Calakmul and subsequently restored to the throne of Dos Pilas as a vassal of Calakmul, becoming a loyal ally of this city ever since.

Copán, in the Mayan southeast, stood out as the most relevant metropolis. Founded in 426 by K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the city forged strong ties with central Petén and Teotihuacán. Under the command of Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (695-738), Copán experienced its cultural and artistic zenith.

The end of his rule was tragic; He was captured by his vassal, King K’ak ‘Tiliw Chan Yopaat of Quiriguá, and beheaded in a public ceremony. It is likely that this overthrow was supported by Calakmul to weaken a key ally of Tikal.

Palenque and Piedras Negras emerged as the dominant cities of the Usumacinta basin. In the highlands, Kaminaljuyú (Guatemala Valley) was experiencing notable growth around 300 AD.

Mayan Culture: Comalcalco. Photo: Alex Seru.

In the Mayan north, Cobá was the main city, while in the west, in the Tabasco plain, Comalcalco stood out, founded in 700 BC. and notable for its constructions of brick and oyster shell mortar, due to the scarcity of stone.

Comalcalco was a significant commercial and agricultural center, especially in the cultivation of cocoa, used as currency in the Mayan culture and Mesoamerica. In 649 AD, after a war, it was subdued by Tortuguero.

Decline in the Classic Mayan Era

Mayan Culture: El Caracol in Chichén Itzá.

The 4th century marked the beginning of a profound political crisis in the central Mayan region, characterized by the disuse of cities, the cessation of royal lineages and a reorientation of activities towards the north.

Although there is no definitive explanation for this decline, it is considered that it was the result of a mix of factors such as constant war conflicts, excess population with its consequent environmental impact, and prolonged periods of drought.

In this phase, known as the Terminal Classic, a boom was observed in northern cities such as Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, while southern cities stopped building monuments and were gradually abandoned.

The Mayan social structure of this era focused on the ritual power of the ruler, rather than centralized control of trade or the distribution of resources. This leadership model, rigid and limited to traditional responses, was not prepared to adapt to significant changes.

The rulers’ responses, limited by their cultural context, included increased building, rituals, and warfare, which aggravated existing problems and culminated in the collapse of the governance system between the 9th and 10th centuries.

In northern Yucatán, autonomous leadership was replaced by a council formed by elites. In southern Yucatán and central Petén, the kingdoms gradually weakened; In western Petén and other areas, the changes were more drastic and led to rapid abandonment of cities.

Large areas of the central Mayan region were uninhabited in a few generations. Large cities, with populations ranging from 50,000 to 120,000, as well as their satellite cities, were abandoned within 50 to 100 years.

Many of these metropolises stopped sculpting monuments and were eventually vacated; The last Long Count inscription was recorded in Toniná in the year 909. Mesoamerican trade routes were modified, excluding Petén from their itineraries.

Mayan Postclassic Period (c. 950-1540 AD)

Mayan Culture: Zaculeu, Guatemala.

After the decline of large cities in the Classic era, the Mayan presence continued in the Postclassic, although on a much smaller scale, and was mainly centered around permanent water sources.

Unlike previous population contractions in Mayan history, areas abandoned during the Postclassic did not experience rapid resettlement. The focus of Mayan activity shifted to the northern lowlands and highlands, which was possibly related to a migration from the southern lowlands.

This is evident in the migration stories present in many of the Postclassic Mayan myths.

Chichén Itzá and the nearby cities of Puuc experienced a marked decline in the 11th century, an event that could signal the end of the classical collapse period. With the fall of Chichén Itzá, the Mayan region was left without a dominant center of power until the rise of Mayapán in the 12th century.

At the same time, new cities emerged on the coasts of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, such as Potonchán, giving rise to renewed commercial networks adapted to the new times.

Mayan Culture: Mayapan. Photo:

The Postclassic Period was characterized by significant transformations that differentiated its cities from those of the Classic. Kaminaljuyú, an ancient metropolis in the Guatemala Valley, was uninhabited after almost two millennia of continuous occupation.

This reflected widespread changes in the Pacific highlands and coastal zone, where cities in vulnerable locations moved to safer locations, possibly in response to an increase in conflict.

The new cities were located on top of hills, protected by deep ravines that naturally facilitated their defense, and in some cases they were reinforced with ditches and walls.

One of the most prominent cities in the Guatemalan highlands of this era was Q’umarkaj, capital of the aggressive Quiche kingdom. In general, the Postclassic Mayan states, from Yucatan to the highlands of Guatemala, adopted a model of collective governance or governing council.

Although in theory this was shared leadership, frequently one member of the council exercised a dominant role as primary ruler, with the others serving in consultative and advisory roles.

Mayapán, an important Mayan center, was vacated around 1448, marking the end of a phase of political, social and ecological instability similar to that which had characterized the collapse of the Classic period in the south of the Mayan region.

The abandonment of this city was the prelude to a long period of conflicts in the Yucatan Peninsula, which did not subside until shortly before first contact with the Spanish in 1511. Despite the absence of a dominant center of power, the first Spanish colonizers reported prosperous coastal cities and active markets.

In the Late Postclassic, the Yucatan Peninsula was divided into multiple autonomous provinces, culturally united but distinct in their sociopolitical organization. On the eve of the Spanish conquest, several strong Mayan states dominated the Guatemalan highlands.

The Quiché had established an empire that encompassed much of the western Guatemalan highlands and the Pacific coast. However, in the decades before the arrival of the Spanish, the Kaqchikel kingdom had begun to undermine Quiche hegemony.

Era of Contact and Spanish Conquest in the Mayan World (1511-1697 AD)

In 1517, a Spanish ship was shipwrecked in Caribbean waters, and about a dozen survivors arrived on the Yucatecan coast. They were captured by a Mayan leader, and although most were sacrificed, some managed to escape.

Between 1517 and 1519, several Spanish expeditions explored Yucatán and Tabasco. In the latter, in 1519, they fought several battles with the Mayans, highlighting the Battle of Centla against the Chontal Mayans of Potonchán, marking the first major Spanish war conflict in what would later be known as New Spain.

After the fall of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, in 1521, Hernán Cortés sent Pedro de Alvarado to Guatemala with an armed contingent, which included 180 cavalry, 300 infantry, 4 cannons, and thousands of allied warriors from central Mexico. Alvarado arrived in Soconusco in 1523 and conquered the Quiche capital, Q’umarkaj, in 1524.

Shortly thereafter, the Spanish entered Iximché, the Kaqchikel capital, as allies, but the relationship quickly deteriorated due to exorbitant demands for gold tribute by the Spanish, which led to the abandonment of the city. Later, Zaculeu, the Mam capital, fell in 1525.

Francisco de Montejo and his son undertook multiple campaigns against the Mayan cities of the Yucatan Peninsula beginning in 1527, completing the conquest of the north of the peninsula in 1546.

The only Mayan kingdoms that remained independent were in the Petén basin. Finally, in 1697, Martín de Urzúa attacked the Itzá capital, Nojpetén, resulting in the fall of the last independent Mayan city.

Continuity of the Mayan Culture

Although the Spanish conquest was a severe blow to many distinctive aspects of the Mayan civilization, especially due to the vision of the missionaries who saw it as an impediment to evangelization, the Mayan cultural essence managed to persevere.

Numerous Mayan communities managed to maintain a certain degree of autonomy, distancing themselves from Spanish colonial rule and largely retaining their autonomy in the management of their affairs.

In rural Mayan communities, the basic family structure and traditional daily practices prevailed. Agriculture, focused on key crops such as corn and beans, continued, benefiting from the introduction of steel agricultural tools.

Likewise, the making of traditional crafts such as weaving, pottery, and basketry continued to be an integral part of Mayan life. Community markets and trade in local products continued long after the Spanish conquest.

Sometimes the colonial administration encouraged these traditional economic activities to collect tribute, such as cotton textiles or ceramics, although frequently under European specifications.

Despite the efforts of Catholic missionaries to eradicate them, Mayan religious beliefs and languages survived. The tzolk’in, a 260-day ritual calendar, is still used in contemporary Mayan communities in the highlands of Guatemala and Chiapas.

Today, millions of people who speak Mayan languages live in the regions that were once the cradle of this ancient civilization.

Research on the Mayan Civilization

Mayan Culture: Temple of Kukulcán in Chichén Itzá by Teoberto Maler in 1892. Source:

Documentation efforts of the Mayan civilization began primarily with members of the Catholic Church, who wrote detailed descriptions of Mayan society to facilitate their missionary efforts and the integration of this culture into the Spanish Empire.

Later, Spanish priests and colonial authorities supplemented these accounts with their own observations of ruins in Yucatan and Central America.

World curiosity about the Mayans was sparked in 1839 by John Lloyd Stephens, an American writer and explorer, and Frederick Catherwood, an English architect and draftsman.

His illustrated publications of Mayan ruins captured the public’s imagination. The second half of the 19th century marked a crucial period in the collection of Mayan ethnohistorical accounts and the first attempts to decipher Mayan glyphs.

At the end of the 19th century, Alfred Maudslay and Teoberto Maler began an era of scientific archeology in the Mayan region. In the early 20th century, institutions such as the Peabody Museum funded excavations at sites such as Copán and on the Yucatán Peninsula.

During the first decades of the 20th century, there were significant advances in the understanding of the Mayan calendar, its deities, and religious concepts. Since the 1930s, archaeological explorations in the Mayan region intensified, resulting in large-scale excavations.

In the 1960s, J. Eric S. Thompson, a prominent Mayanist, proposed that Mayan cities were primarily sporadically inhabited ceremonial centers and that the Mayan civilization was characterized as peaceful and governed by priest-astronomers.

However, this vision began to fade with advances in the decipherment of Mayan glyphs, thanks to the works of Heinrich Berlin, Tatiana Proskouriakoff and Yuri Knorozov, who revealed the warrior activities of the classic Mayan kings, disproving the notion of a civilization. exclusively peaceful.

Additional research into Mayan settlement patterns showed evidence of large urban populations, dismissing the theory of cities as mere ceremonial centers.

Political and Territorial Structure of the Mayans

In contrast to the centralized Aztec or Inca Empire, the political organization of the Mayans never unified the entire Mayan cultural region under a single government or empire. During its history, the Mayan region was characterized by political diversity, including states and chiefdoms of different levels of complexity.

These political entities were frequently entangled in a dynamic web of rivalries, periods of dominance or subordination, vassalage and alliances. On occasions, certain entities such as Calakmul, El Caracol, Mayapán and Tikal managed to exercise regional dominance.

The first concrete evidence of political structures in the Mayan lowlands dates back to the 9th century BC.

Towards the end of the Preclassic period, the Mayan political structure transformed into a theocracy, where the ideology of the elite served to justify and reinforce the power of the ruler, often through the performance of rituals and religious ceremonies in public.

In this system, the king, considered divine, was the central axis of political power, with total control over administrative, economic, judicial and military functions.

His authority was so broad that he could mobilize the aristocracy and the common population for large construction projects, with no apparent need for a police force or a standing army.

Some states chose to expand their administration, filling key positions with loyal supporters rather than immediate family members. In each political entity, medium-sized population centers played a crucial role in managing resources and resolving internal conflicts.

The political scene of the Mayan civilization stood out for its complexity and the use of political maneuvers by its elites to gain economic and social advantages over their rivals.

In the late stage of the Classic, certain political entities managed to exert prolonged control over others, such as the case of El Caracol, which maintained its hegemony over Naranjo for decades. Loose alliances were often formed around a major city.

Settlements located in border areas were particularly volatile in their loyalties, alternating alliances between neighboring dominant powers or maintaining periods of independence.

These settlements, strategically located between capitals of rival political entities, were influenced by pressure from their powerful neighbors. The dominant capitals imposed taxes that consisted of luxury goods from the minor centers under their control.

The exercise of power in Mayan society was closely linked to military force. The capture and subjugation of enemy warriors was a common practice and held great importance in the culture of the elites.

The strong sense of honor and pride among the warrior aristocracy often led to protracted conflicts and vendettas, leading to continued political instability and the division of political territories.

Mayan Social Structure

Mayan Culture: Toniná Stele in Chiapas.

From the earliest days of the Preclassic Period, Mayan society was distinguished by a clear separation between the elite class and ordinary citizens. As the population increased over time, greater specialization emerged in different areas of society, and the political structure became more intricate.

By the Late Classic Period, with a considerably expanded population and the connection of hundreds of cities through a network of political hierarchies, an increase in the number of wealthy individuals within Mayan society was observed.

It is suggested that during this time a middle class also emerged, made up of artisans, lower-ranking government and religious officials, merchants, and the military. Commoners included farmers, servants, manual workers, and slaves.

According to indigenous records, land was considered the collective property of noble families or clans. These groups maintained the belief that the land belonged to the ancestors of the clan.

This connection between the land and the ancestors was reaffirmed through the practice of burying the dead within the residential complexes belonging to each clan, thus strengthening the ties between the land and family heritage.

Government and Royal Culture in the Mayan State

The government system of the Classic Mayan State revolved around a monarchy that deeply influenced the culture and art of the time.

The monarch, considered almost divine, played the role of intermediary between humans and deities. Traditionally, the king was associated with the figure of the young corn god, a crucial deity in Mesoamerican civilization due to his connection with this essential crop.

Monarchical succession was mainly patrilineal, reserving kingship for women only in circumstances of inevitable dynastic extinction. Normally, the first-born male inherited the throne.

The term “ch’ok”, initially used to refer to the young prince, was later expanded to designate the nobility. The heir to the throne was known as “b’aah ch’ok” or “chief youth.”

Key moments in the prince’s life were celebrated with specific rituals, the most important being a ritual bloodletting ceremony performed when he was five or six years old.

Despite the importance of the lineage, the heir had to prove his abilities as a military leader, usually through capturing prisoners in combat.

The coronation of a new king was an event of great complexity and symbolism, which included the ascension to the throne on a cushion of jaguar skin, human sacrifices, and the presentation of insignia of royal authority.

These insignia included a diadem with a jade representation of the well-known “jester god”, a headdress luxuriously decorated with quetzal feathers and a scepter representing the god K’awiil.

The governance system in Mayan society centered around the monarch’s court, with no evidence of a formalized bureaucracy. The ruling hierarchy was structured so that officials were sponsored and promoted by members of the aristocratic elite.

These officials, often described as “assets” of their patron, maintained this relationship of dependency even after the patron’s death. The Mayan royal court was a fluid and active political entity, adapting to the specific needs and circumstances of each kingdom.

Epigraphers, when interpreting the Mayan inscriptions, identified several titles used within the royal and noble structure. The term “Ajaw” was commonly translated as “lord” or “king.”

Originally, in the Early Classic, an Ajaw ruled a city, but over time and increasing social complexity, the term came to refer to any member of the ruling class.

In major cities, there could be several Ajaw, each governing different urban areas.

High kings were distinguished from the general nobility by the prefix “k’uhul” in their title, being “k’uhul ajaw” or “divine lord”, a term initially reserved for monarchs of the oldest and most prestigious dynasties.

The title “Kalomte”, although its exact meaning remains enigmatic, was used exclusively by the most influential kings, suggesting a rank of High King or overlord, specific to the Classic period.

By the Late Classic, the absolute power of the Ajaw K’uhul began to dilute due to the emergence of a broader and more diversified aristocracy, which may have been disproportionately large for the time.

In the Mayan political hierarchy, the title of sajal was inferior to that of ajaw. A sajal typically ruled a minor city and was subordinate to an ajaw, who in turn could be under the authority of a kalomte.

The sajal often performed military or regional government roles, and in Mayan inscriptions, they are commonly associated with warlike activities and the capture of prisoners. The word sajal meant “the fearsome one.”

The titles ah tz’ihb and ah ch’ul hun were reserved for scribes. The ah tz’ihb was a court scribe, usually a member of royalty, while the ah ch’ul hun, or Keeper of the Holy Books, was a title linked directly to the ajaw, suggesting that only an ajaw could be ah Ch’ul hun.

There were other court titles, such as yajaw k’ahk (“Fire Lord”), ti’huun and ti’sakhuun, whose exact functions are uncertain, although it is believed that they could have been variants of the same position, possibly related to the spokespersonship. of the ruler.

These titles were predominantly male and, on rare occasions, when awarded to women, appeared to be honorifics for female royalty.

Additionally, it was common for members of the elite to be associated with specific architectural structures in inscriptions, which could indicate a property or location of importance to their functions.

The position of lakam, unlike other court titles, was not exclusive to the elite and was present only in the largest cities. It is believed that the lakam was in charge of collecting tribute from local areas.

Mayan Commoners

The commoners, who represented more than ninety percent of Mayan society, remain largely historically anonymous, as their homes, usually built with ephemeral materials, have left little archaeological evidence.

While some homes were built on platforms that can still be identified, most left no such traces. The identification of these lower status dwellings is only feasible through advanced remote sensing methods, which allow exploring areas that appear to be uninhabited.

The diversity of the commoners was notable, ranging from extremely humble farmers to wealthy artisans and lower-ranking officials.

These citizens engaged in key productive activities, supplying both the elite and themselves with critical goods such as cotton, cocoa, subsistence foods, pottery, and tools.

Likewise, commoners participated in military conflicts, having the possibility of social advancement in recognition of their war exploits. They paid tribute to the nobility with basic products, such as corn flour and game meat.

Those commoners with initiative and outstanding abilities had opportunities to rise in the Mayan social structure.

War and Military Conflicts in the Mayan Civilization

War activity was common in the Mayan civilization. War campaigns were organized for various reasons, including the domination of trade routes and subjugation for the extraction of tribute, as well as the capture of prisoners and the possibility of completely annihilating a rival state.

The military dynamics and strategies of the Mayans, as well as their logistics, remain largely unknown. Although classical Mayan art and glyphic inscriptions record battles and triumphs, they do not detail the underlying causes or specific tactics of conflicts.

During the 8th and 9th centuries, intensive warfare resulted in the fall of the kingdoms in Petexbatún, west of Petén. The sudden abandonment of Aguateca by its inhabitants after an enemy attack around the year 810 AD. C. reveals information about weaponry and the brutal nature of these conflicts.

In this case, the elite was displaced or captured, with no possibility of return, evidencing a type of war focused on the total eradication of the adversary.

Since the Preclassic period, Mayan leaders were venerated as distinguished warriors, often depicted with trophy heads. This representation evolved in the Classic period, where monarchs were shown dominating over humiliated prisoners of war.

Until the end of the Postclassic period, Mayan kings also served as commanders-in-chief of their armies. Inscriptions from the Classic period show that defeated kings could be captured, tortured and sacrificed.

According to Spanish accounts, Mayan leaders kept records of military movements in painted books.

The impact of a successful military campaign varied: from the total destruction and abandonment of cities, such as Aguateca, to the capture and subjugation of defeated rulers and their families, forcing them to pay tribute or face sacrifices.

Warriors and Military Roles in the Mayan Era

In the era of contact with the Spanish conquistadors, it was observed that high-ranking military positions in Mayan society were reserved exclusively for the aristocracy, inherited from father to son.

These positions entailed the transmission of specialized knowledge, including combat tactics, rituals, and war dances. The Mayan armies of that time were notoriously disciplined, with warriors exercising regularly and participating in practice maneuvers.

Every adult man in suitable physical condition was eligible to be called up for military service. The Mayan states did not have permanent armed forces; The warriors were summoned by local leaders under the direction of commanders-in-chief.

There were also groups of professional mercenaries who followed specific military leaders. Most Mayan fighters, however, were not full-time soldiers, but rather farmers who went about their daily tasks and only participated in conflicts when necessary.

The main purpose of the Mayan war was not the annihilation of the adversary, but the capture of prisoners and pillage.

Beginning in the Classic period, there are indications that women played support roles in war, although they did not participate as combatants or in military leadership roles, except in exceptional cases where a queen served as maximum authority.

During the Postclassic period, indigenous chronicles suggest that women sometimes actively participated in combat.

Weaponry of the Mayan Civilization

The use of the atlatl, a dart-throwing device, was popularized in the Mayan civilization, influenced by Teotihuacán in the Early Classic.

This instrument, approximately half a meter long and equipped with a niche to place darts or javelins, allowed these projectiles to be thrown with greater force and precision than if they were thrown by hand.

Remains found in Aguateca reveal that during the Classic period, darts and spears were the main offensive tools of the Mayan warriors. The lower classes, for their part, used blowguns both in combat and hunting.

The bow and arrow were also part of the Mayan arsenal, used both for hunting and in war. Although present in the region since the Classic period, the bow and arrow was not predominant in warfare until the Postclassic period.

During the period of contact with Europeans, the Mayans used weapons similar to long swords, built with robust wood and equipped with obsidian blades, comparable to the Aztec macuahuitl.

As for defense, Mayan warriors wore armor made of padded cotton that hardened after being submerged in salt water, proving as effective as the steel armor of the Spanish conquistadors.

In addition, warriors carried shields made of wood or leather, often decorated with feathers and animal skins.

Economy, trade and development

Trade played a crucial role in society and the development of the Mayan civilization. Larger metropolises usually managed access to key trade resources or controlled important trade routes.

For example, cities such as Kaminaljuyú and Q’umarkaj in the Guatemalan highlands, as well as El Tazumal in El Salvador, at different times controlled access to obsidian deposits.

In the north of the Yucatan Peninsula, major cities managed access to salt reserves. In the Postclassic, the Mayan region was noted for an active slave trade within Mesoamerica.

Tabasco, during the Classic and Postclassic Maya (600-900 AD), was an epicenter of intense commercial activity, using a network of river routes that positioned it as a prominent Mesoamerican commercial center.

Comalcalco played a significant role in the Classic period, integrating trade routes in southern Mesoamerica. Finds in Comalcalco include yokes, axes, and lithic materials from various regions of Mesoamerica, along with iconography from the central highlands and other artifacts from different parts of the region.

Additionally, artifacts with Mayan styles from Comalcalco have been found in Veracruz and Campeche.

In eastern Tabasco, centers such as San Claudio emerged as important exporters of flint arrowheads, reaching places as far away as Nito in Guatemala and Naco in Honduras.

Cities such as Moral Reforma, Pomoná and Panhalé functioned as key river ports for controlling the traffic of goods from the mountains of the Guatemalan Petén to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

In the Postclassic, Potonchán stood out as a vital commercial port, facilitating the exchange of goods from the central Altiplano to the Honduran coast, while Xonuta developed as an important ceramic manufacturing center, whose products were marketed in distant regions such as Chactemal. and Bakhalal on the Caribbean coast.

The Mayans excelled in extensive trade, connecting not only in their geographical area, but also in Mesoamerica and more distant areas. In the Mesoamerican region, trade networks were focused primarily on central Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico coast.

During the Early Classic, Chichén Itzá was established as a hub of a vast trade network, importing gold discs from Colombia and Panama and turquoise from Los Cerrillos in New Mexico.

This long-distance trade, encompassing both luxury and essential goods, was probably under the control of the Mayan royal family.

The prestigious products obtained through these exchanges were consumed by the leaders of Mayan cities and used as gifts to strengthen the loyalty of vassals and allies. In distant Teotihuacán, in the heart of Mexico, there was an area for Mayan merchants that dates back to this time.

Trade networks not only facilitated the exchange of goods, but also promoted the circulation of people and ideas throughout Mesoamerica.

The evolution of these trade routes was linked to the rise and fall of key Mayan cities and accompanied every significant reorganization of the Mayan civilization, such as its rise in the Preclassic period, the transition to the Classic, and the collapse of the Terminal Classic period.

Even the Spanish conquest did not completely stop Mayan commercial activity; For example, during the conquest period, the Choles of Manché exchanged valuable products such as cocoa, annatto, and vanilla in the viceregal region of Verapaz.

Merchants or Traders

Merchants in the Mayan civilization, although not widely documented, were known for their elegant and noble clothing, as seen in representations on Mayan ceramics. This suggests that some of them were upper class.

During the period of contact with Europeans, it is recorded that the Mayan nobility was also actively involved in long-distance trade.

Although most merchants belonged to the middle class, they focused more on local and regional trade, leaving long-distance trade, considered more prestigious, in the hands of the elite.

Traders who ventured on expeditions to foreign lands were heavily equipped and painted black, imitating their protective deities associated with the underworld, symbolizing a dangerous journey.

Since the Mayans did not have pack animals, goods were transported on foot by porters or, if routes permitted, in canoes along rivers and coasts. Christopher Columbus, on his fourth voyage, encountered a large Mayan canoe, made of a hollow trunk and covered with palm leaves.

This canoe, 2.5 meters wide and moved by 25 paddlers, carried a variety of goods, including cocoa, obsidian, ceramics, textiles, axes and copper bells, as well as food and drink for the crew.

Cacao, used as currency, was so valuable that it was sometimes counterfeited, replacing its contents with dirt or avocado peel.

Trade Centers in the Ancient Mayan Civilization

The identification of markets in the Mayan archaeological panorama is a complex task. Although Spanish historical records describe a vibrant market economy upon their arrival in the Mayan region, the physical evidence is less clear.

In Classic period Mayan cities, architectural structures, possibly market stalls, have been tentatively identified. These constructions, characterized by masonry arches and parallel rows of stones, suggest an established commercial infrastructure.

A 2007 study that compared soils from a modern market in Guatemala with those from Chunchucmil, a possible ancient market site, found high levels of phosphorus and zinc, indicative of activities similar to the production and sale of food.

The density of posts at Chunchucmil points to a thriving market economy as early as the Early Classic. Combining archaeological techniques and soil analysis, researchers have begun to identify markets in a growing number of Mayan cities.

During the Postclassic period, the time of first contact with the Spanish, markets are evident in permanent plazas in the cities of the highlands.

These markets had officials responsible for resolving disputes, enforcing rules, and collecting taxes, reflecting sophisticated economic organization and regulation.

Advanced Agricultural Methods of the Ancient Mayans

Mayan Culture: Agriculture

The ancient Mayans employed a variety of advanced and diversified techniques to grow food.

Previously, it was assumed that the main source of livelihood was nomadic slash-and-burn agriculture, but recent research indicates that other methods such as raised and permanent fields, terraces, intensive horticulture, wild gardens, and crop rotation played fundamental roles in the maintenance of the dense populations of the Classic period.

Current evidence, such as aerial photographs, reveals the presence of ancient raised fields interconnected by canals. Furthermore, in densely populated regions during the pre-Columbian era, the composition of forest species shows a prevalence of plants useful to the Mayans.

Pollen records in lake sediments suggest that from at least 2500 BC. C., crops such as corn, cassava, sunflower, and cotton were grown in association with deforestation.

The mainstays of the Mayan diet included corn, beans, and squash, supplemented by a variety of other plants grown or gathered wild.

A well-preserved record at Joya de Cerén, thanks to a volcanic eruption, shows stored foods that included chili peppers, tomatoes, and cotton seeds possibly intended for oil production.

In addition to these basic foods, the Mayans cultivated prestigious products such as cotton, cocoa and vanilla. Cocoa, highly valued by the elite, was used to prepare chocolate drinks. Cotton was processed to create valuable textiles for trade.

Regarding the domestication of animals, the Mayans had few. Dogs were domesticated around 3000 BC. C., and the creole ducks towards the Late Postclassic. Although ocellated turkeys were not easily domesticated, they were captured to be fattened in captivity.

These animals were mainly for consumption, and dogs were also used in hunting. There is evidence to suggest that the deer may have been bred for fattening.

Artistic Expression in the Mayan Culture

Mayan Culture: Jade funerary mask of King K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, Palenque.

Mayan art, intrinsically linked to nobility, mainly reflects the universe of the elite. Through a range of materials both perishable and durable, Mayan art established a link between the living and their ancestors.

Although only a fraction of Mayan artistic production has survived, it encompasses a broader diversity of subject matter than any other artistic tradition in the Americas.

This art, characterized by its variety of regional styles, is distinguished in the pre-Columbian sphere by its ability to incorporate textual narratives. The most sophisticated works date from the Late Classic.

Mayan Culture: Sacul Ceramic Vessel

The Mayans had a predilection for green and blue-green tones, and did not differentiate between blue and green in their language, which led to a special appreciation of green jade and other stones of similar hues, associated with K’inich Ajau, the solar god

Their artistic creations ranged from delicate beads and mosaics to heavy sculptures weighing up to 10 pounds.

The Mayan nobility practiced dental modification, often inlaying jade into their teeth, and mosaic funerary masks were often made from this gemstone, as in the case of the mask of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, ruler of Palenque.

Mayan stone sculpture, present in archaeological finds as an already developed art form, suggests a possible evolution from the wood tradition, although most works in this material have been lost due to its biodegradability.

Rare surviving examples include three-dimensional figures and inscribed panels. Stone stelae, often accompanied by low circular “altars”, are common features at Mayan urban sites.

Other forms of stone sculpture include relief limestone panels, such as those found at Palenque and Piedras Negras, and decorated stairs at sites such as Yaxchilán and Dos Pilas. The Copan Glyph Staircase, with its 2,200 individual glyphs, represents the longest known Mayan glyphic text.

At the height of their civilization, the Mayans created impressive architectural facades using stucco. These works began with a layer of smooth plaster on the walls, followed by the addition of small stones to form a three-dimensional structure.

This base was then covered with stucco, molding it until it reached the desired shape; First the human figures were modeled and later their outfits were added.

These sculptures were eventually painted in bright colors. Since the Late Preclassic, the facades of the temples were adorned with enormous stucco masks, a tradition that was maintained during the Classic.

Mural painting was an ancient practice for the Mayans, as evidenced by the polychrome murals of San Bartolo, which date from 300 to 200 BC. These murals were painted on smooth plaster walls.

Although many murals have not survived, some have been preserved, especially in Early Classic tombs at Caracol, Río Azul and Tikal, notable for their cream, red and black colors. The best preserved murals are those from the Late Classic in Bonampak.

As for stone craftsmanship, although flint, flint and obsidian were mostly used for practical purposes, finely crafted pieces that were not intended to be tools were also discovered.

The eccentric flints are an outstanding example of the skill of Mayan craftsmen. Technically complex to produce, they required great skill. The largest obsidian specimens could measure more than 30 cm.

Their shapes varied widely, representing human figures, animals and geometric shapes linked to the Mayan religion, including crescents, crosses, snakes and scorpions.

Larger, more elaborate eccentric flints often feature multiple human heads, from which smaller heads sometimes emerge.

Despite their scant presence in the archaeological record, Mayan textiles were probably considered goods of great value, even in comparison to other pre-Columbian cultures such as the Aztecs and Andean civilizations.

Although only fragments of textiles have been found, their importance is evidenced through representations in other media such as murals and painted ceramics. These secondary images illustrate the Mayan elite dressed in luxurious fabrics, primarily cotton, but also including jaguar skins and deer leather.

Ceramics constitute the most frequent artifact of the Mayan culture in archaeological finds. The Mayans created vessels without the aid of the potter’s wheel, employing rolling techniques to mold clay into desired shapes.

Although they did not use glaze, their ceramics had polished finishes, achieved by burnishing and painted with a mixture of clay and minerals to give color. The exact cooking techniques of the Mayans are still a mystery today.

A notable find is the delicate ceramic figurines discovered in Late Classic tombs on the island of Jaina, northern Yucatán. These figurines, ranging from 10 to 25 cm in height, were modeled by hand in great detail.

Furthermore, the corpus of polychrome ceramics of the Ik style, originating from Motul de San José in the Late Classic, stands out for its finely painted plates and cylindrical vessels.

These pieces are known for their glyphs in shades of pink or pale red and detailed scenes of masked dancers and realistic depictions of everyday life, including court scenes, diplomatic meetings, celebrations, ritual acts of bloodshed, warriors in action and the sacrifice of prisoners of war.

The Mayans exercised their artistic skill not only on conventional materials, but also on human and animal bones. These carved bones could have served as trophies or as relics of revered ancestors.

In their appreciation of seashells, especially of the genus Spondylus, the Mayans displayed a meticulous technique to reveal the exquisite orange inner layer of these shells, removing the white exterior and spines.

Around the 10th century AD, the arrival of metallurgy in Mesoamerica marked a new chapter in Mayan art. They began creating small objects out of gold, silver, and copper, usually making sheets of metal hammered into shapes such as beads, bells, and discs.

In the centuries before contact with the Spanish, they adopted the lost wax technique to cast smaller metal pieces.

A fascinating and less explored aspect of Mayan art is that of graffiti. These additional drawings, not planned as part of the formal decoration, were found engraved in stucco on interior walls, floors and benches of a wide range of buildings, including temples, residences and warehouses.

The graffiti, discovered at 51 Mayan sites, primarily in the Petén Basin, southern Campeche, and the Chenes region of northwestern Yucatán, represent a rich variety of subjects.

In Tikal, for example, a large number of these graffiti were discovered, with subjects ranging from representations of temples, people, deities and animals, to banners, litters and thrones.

Often spontaneously etched, these graffiti overlap and combine elements of rough, unrefined art with examples of artists showing familiarity with the artistic conventions of the Classic period.

Innovations in Mayan Architecture

Mayan Culture: Sayil, Yucatán.

The Mayan civilization is recognized for its impressive architectural legacy, which places it among the great pre-industrial civilizations of the world. Its architectural structures not only stand out for their magnificence, but also for the integration of hieroglyphic texts and various forms of art.

Mayan masonry, in particular, is testimony to the existence of notable artisanal specialization within their society, as well as a centralized organization capable of mobilizing large quantities of labor.

Construction of an elite residence in Copan, for example, required approximately 10,686 man-days, while a commoner’s home required around 67 man-days. This contrast highlights the complexity and effort devoted to elite constructions.

Mayan Culture: Temple of the Great Jaguar in Tikal.

It is estimated that approximately 65% of the labor required to build a noble residence was focused on the extraction, transport and finishing of the stone, and another 24% was dedicated to the manufacture and application of plaster coating.

The construction of a noble residence in Copán could take two to three months, employing between 80 and 130 full-time workers.

Cities of the Classic period, such as Tikal, with its 20 km² area and an urban core of 6 km², required an extraordinary amount of work, amounting to millions of man-days.

Interestingly, the largest structures of the Mayans were erected during the Preclassic period.

As the Late Preclassic progressed, craft specialization in Mayan society diversified, including bricklayers and plasterers, as well as planners and architects, who played a crucial role in the creation of these impressive buildings.

Design in the Mayan Cities

Mayan Culture: City of Chichén Itzá.

Urban planning in Mayan cities was characterized by its organic and spontaneous nature. These metropolises did not follow a preconceived design, which resulted in a disorderly and unique expansion.

This growth pattern meant that palaces, temples and other buildings were added in an unstructured and adaptive way.

In most Mayan cities, there is a tendency to expand radially from their urban centers. Furthermore, these cities developed vertically, building new structures on top of existing ones in a process of architectural superposition.

This construction method reflects continuous adaptation and urban development that evolved with needs and time.

Techniques and Materials in Mayan Architecture

The engineering of the Mayan cities was based on primitive technologies, where the use of stone and biodegradable materials predominated. Depending on the resources available in each area, a specific type of stone was chosen that influenced the architectural style.

Limestone, common in much of the Mayan region, hardened when exposed to air, although its quality varied significantly in different areas. In the Usumacinta basin, high quality limestone was found, while in the north of Yucatán, the quality was inferior.

Copán was characterized by the use of volcanic tuff and Quiriguá by sandstone. In Comalcalco, due to the absence of suitable stone, the use of fired brick was chosen.

For the production of cement, plaster and stucco, limestone was calcined at elevated temperatures. A lime-based cement served to join the stone blocks, which were cut by abrasion with ropes, water and obsidian tools.

Due to the absence of the wheel, transportation of materials was carried out on bunks, barges or rolling on logs, and heavy loads were lifted with ropes, probably without pulleys.

Wood was essential for beams and lintels, even in masonry structures. Throughout their history, the Mayans built common huts and some temples with wooden posts and thatched roofs.

Adobe, a mixture of mud and straw, was used as a covering on the walls of structures woven from sticks.

This technique, like wood and straw, remained in force throughout Mayan history, even with the development of masonry techniques, and was used in monumental architecture in regions where stone was not available.

Architectural Variety in the Mayan Cities

At the height of their civilization, the Mayan metropolises were distinguished by their architectural diversity, which included structures such as temple pyramids, royal residences, ball fields, sacbeob (paved roads), as well as open spaces such as courtyards and plazas.

In some of these cities, the presence of complex water management systems and robust fortifications for defense stood out. A notable aspect of these buildings was their façade, often highlighted with bright colors or decorated with pictorial representations.

Additionally, many of these buildings were embellished with sculpted and painted stucco ornaments, adding a distinctive aesthetic touch to Mayan architecture.

Centers of Power: Mayan Palaces and Acropolis

In the heart of the Mayan cities, next to the central plazas, the palace complexes and acropolis were erected, symbols of the power and status of the elite. The palaces, built on elevated platforms, were characterized by their horizontal extension and a series of interconnected rooms.

The notion of “acropolis” in these ancient cities refers to a set of structures arranged on platforms of different levels, intended mainly for the residence of high society.

These complexes, for the most part, had limited access and expanded horizontally, in contrast to the imposing pyramids of the region.

Acropolis residences could include ornamental crestings and rooms equipped with stone sleeping benches and niches for curtains. Notable palaces such as those at Palenque had their own water supplies and nearby or integrated steam baths.

On certain occasions, Mayan rulers were buried under these structures, especially during the Early Classic. Some palaces included throne rooms for significant events, such as the coronation of kings.

Furthermore, the palaces, often decorated with reliefs and sculptures, were organized around one or several patios, with facades facing the interior of these enclosures. Glyphic inscriptions on some of these palaces served to identify them as residences of specific rulers.

The Mayan palaces transcended their function as mere residences; They were nerve centers of court activities, including audiences, formal receptions and ritual ceremonies, reflecting their importance in the political and social life of this advanced civilization.

Sacred Mayan Architecture: Pyramids and Temples

In Mayan cosmology, temples were venerated as “houses of God”, as indicated by their hieroglyphic texts that call them k’uh nah. These sacred structures were raised on platforms, and commonly on the top of imposing pyramids.

The first signs of Mayan temples suggest that they were originally huts situated on modest platforms. However, as we moved into the Late Preclassic, construction techniques evolved to incorporate stone walls and the innovative Mayan arch, allowing for solid stone roofs.

During the height of the Classic Period, the roofs of Mayan temples were adorned with elaborate cresting, elevating their stature and providing a platform for monumental art.

The interiors of these temples, generally consisting of one to three chambers, were sacred spaces dedicated to prominent deities, such as the city’s patron gods or deified ancestors.

These temples were not only places of worship, but also monuments that reflected the deep reverence of the Mayans for their deities and ancestors, playing a crucial role in the integration of religion and architecture into their society.

Mayan Astronomical Centers: Observatories and Celestial Alignments

The Mayan civilization, known for its meticulous observation of celestial bodies such as the Sun, stars and planets, built specific temples for this purpose, called “E Groups”

These complexes, widely distributed in the Mayan region, were inspired by the design found in Uaxactún. A typical E Group was composed of three smaller structures aligned in front of a larger fourth, serving as an instrument to mark the solstices and equinoxes, a practice dating back to the Preclassic.

At Tikal, the well-known Lost World complex began as a Group E built in the Middle Preclassic. These complexes remained consistent in design: a pyramid located to the west of a plaza, oriented towards the cardinal points, facing three minor temples on the opposite side.

From the pyramid, Mayan observers could watch the sun rise over these temples during key astronomical events. Although these E Groups were present in the central and southern Maya region for more than a thousand years, some were not precisely aligned for astronomical observation, suggesting that their purpose may also have been symbolic.

Beyond Groups E, the Mayans built various structures to study celestial movements. Many Mayan buildings showed alignments with stars such as Venus and different constellations.

A notable example is the structure of El Caracol in Chichén Itzá, a multi-level circular building with a conical superstructure, where loopholes were located to mark the paths of Venus.

In Copán, stelae were erected to mark the position of the sun during the equinoxes, underscoring the deep link between Mayan architecture and their astronomical worldview.

Meaning of the Mayan Triadic Pyramids

The Mayan triadic pyramids, which emerged in the Preclassic era, represent a distinctive architectural structure, composed of a main building and two minor secondary structures, all erected on a common platform.

The most imposing of these pyramids is located in El Mirador, in the Petén region, with a size that is six times that of the Temple of the Double-Headed Serpent in Tikal. The three buildings at the top have stairs that descend towards the central plaza.

The hypothesis suggests that these triadic buildings could have evolved from Groups E, highlighting the configuration of three buildings aligned on the east side. During the Late Preclassic, this form became the main one in Petén.

Up to 88 triadic pyramid sites have been discovered, including numerous examples at Nakbé and up to 36 possible structures at El Mirador.

This architectural form was not limited to Petén, extending to Dzibilchaltún in Yucatán and Q’umarkaj in the highlands of Guatemala. Although these pyramids predominated for centuries, their use continued in the Classic period, with presence in places such as Uaxactún, Caracol, Ceibal, Nakum, Tikal and Palenque.

Q’umarkaj presents the only example of this structure in the Postclassic period. The triadic configuration of these pyramids has strong connections with Mayan mythology, reflecting the cultural and religious importance of these constructions in the Mayan civilization.

Characteristics of the Mayan Ball Courts

Ball fields constitute an emblematic architectural element in Mesoamerica, with the majority of Mayan examples originating in the Classic period.

However, its first manifestations date back to around 1000 BC. in the northwest region of Yucatán, in the Middle Preclassic. At the time of contact with the Spanish conquistadors, these fields were only active in the highlands of Guatemala, in places like Q’umarkaj and Iximché.

Throughout their history, Mayan ball playing fields were characterized by their distinctive ‘I’-shaped design, ending in two transverse areas.

The central area of the game generally measured between 20 and 30 meters long, flanked by two side elevations that could reach between 3 and 4 meters in height. These side platforms frequently housed structures presumably intended for high-ranking spectators.

The ball court at Chichén Itzá is notable for being the largest in all of Mesoamerica. With its impressive dimensions of 83 meters long, 30 meters wide and walls that rise to 8.2 meters high, this field stands out not only for its size but also for its cultural and sporting importance within the Mayan civilization.

Diversity of Architectural Designs in Mayan Cities

The Mayan cities, despite presenting numerous similarities in their structures, exhibited a notable variety in their architectural styles.

This diversity was marked by several factors such as the availability of construction materials in the region, climatic conditions, the configuration of the terrain, and the stylistic trends specific to each area.

By the Late Classic period, these local variations had consolidated into distinctive regional architectural styles, reflecting the richness and complexity of the Mayan civilization in its different geographic areas.

The Architectural Style of the Heart of Petén

The predominant architectural style in the heart of Petén, widely recognized as the “Petén style”, had its heyday in the metropolis of Tikal. This architectural form is distinguished by its elevated pyramids topped by shrines with ornate crestings and a single entrance.

Other distinctive elements include the integration of steles and altars, as well as the use of reliefs on facades, lintels and crestings representing rulers and deities. An emblematic example of this style can be seen in the Temple of the Great Jaguar.

Several other cities such as Altun Ha, Calakmul, Holmul, Ixkún, Nakum, Naranjo and Yaxhá also present this characteristic style of Petén.

Puuc Style Architecture in Uxmal

Uxmal is a masterful representation of the Puuc architectural style, which emerged in the hills of the Puuc region, located in the northwest of Yucatán. Throughout the Terminal Classic, this style spread beyond its original area, encompassing the entire northern region of the Yucatecan Peninsula.

This style is characterized by the use of gypsum cement instead of rubble cores, which gave greater strength to the walls. Likewise, the characteristic arches of Mayan architecture were strengthened, facilitating the construction of more robust and stable entrance arches.

A distinctive feature in the central buildings of the Puuc cities is the decoration of their upper facades with intricate stone mosaics, which form complex figures of long-nosed deities, such as the rain god Chaac and Itzamna, along with geometric patterns, lattices and reels.

These ornaments appear to be influenced by the styles of the Oaxacan highlands, beyond the traditional limits of the Mayan region. In contrast to this upper decorative richness, the lower part of these facades was usually kept unadorned. Furthermore, the presence of crests was unusual at Puuc sites.

Chenes Architectural Style and its Characteristics

The Chenes style, precursor of the Puuc style, stands out for its innovative use of completely ornamented facades, both in its lower and upper sections.

This architectural style is distinguished by its facades that frequently incorporate mosaic masks depicting divine monsters associated with mountains or the sky, symbolizing portals to supernatural dimensions.

In addition, some of these buildings have internal stairs that allow access to several levels, adding notable architectural complexity.

The Chenes style is located primarily in the south of the Yucatan Peninsula, although it is possible to find individual constructions that follow this style in other areas of the peninsula.

Notable cities that exemplify the Chenes style include Dzibilnocac, Hochob, Santa Rosa Xtampak and Tabasqueño, each presenting outstanding examples of this unique architectural tradition.

Characteristics of the Río Bec Architectural Style

The Río Bec style, a variant of the Chenes style, incorporates characteristic elements of the Petén style, such as the notable ridges on its roofs.

This style is recognizable by its palaces with non-functional decorative towers, lack of interior spaces in said towers, steep stairs that border on the vertical, and simulated entrances.

These towers, adorned with representations of deities, were built more to visually impact the observer than for their practical usefulness, being an exclusive feature of the Bec River region.

Notable archaeological sites that exemplify the Río Bec style include Chicanná, Hormiguero and Xpuhil, each displaying this unique design that combines aesthetic elements with architectural grandeur.

Architectural Development in the Usumacinta Basin

The Usumacinta basin, known for its irregular and rugged geography, was the cult hotbed for the development of the Usumacinta architectural style. This style is evident in cities such as Palenque and Yaxchilán, where the natural relief of the hillsides was used to support imposing architectural structures.

It is characterized by an innovation in the construction of false vaults, which led to thinner walls and the possibility of including multiple entrances in the temples. As in the Petén style, the main structures were highlighted with ornamental crestings.

Palaces in this style are distinguished by having numerous entrances, with special attention to the use of lintels and jambs instead of vaults.

In contrast to other regions where stelae predominated, Palenque stood out for the development of intricately sculpted panels that adorned its buildings, marking a milestone in the artistic and architectural expression of the Usumacinta region.

Mayan Linguistic Diversity

The Mayan civilization, throughout its history, was not characterized by linguistic homogeneity, but by a rich diversity of languages that evolved from an ancestral language known as Proto-Mayan, dating back to approximately 2000 BC. c.

The analysis of reconstructed vocabulary of this mother language suggests its origin in the high regions of western or northwestern Guatemala, although the findings are not definitive.

Throughout the Preclassic period, Proto-Mayan fragmented into different languages and subfamilies within the Mayan linguistic family, giving rise to groups such as the Huastecans, Quicheans, Kanjobalano-Chujeans, Mameans, Tzeltalano-Chol and Yucatecans.

These linguistic branches evolved independently, resulting in more than thirty different languages that have survived to the present day.

Classic Choltí, identified as the predominant language in Classic period Mayan texts throughout the Mayan region, was also used in the Late Preclassic records of Kaminaljuyú, located in the high plateau.

This widespread use of classical Choltí in written records does not necessarily imply that it was the everyday language of the local population, but rather it could have served as a language of a liturgical or prestige nature, similar to the use of Latin in medieval Europe.

Classic Choltí may have been the language of the Mayan elite during the Classic period, used in communication between different political entities for diplomatic and commercial matters. In the Postclassic period, the use of the Yucatecan language is also observed in the Mayan codices, coexisting with the classic Choltí.

The Legacy of Mayan Writing

Mayan Culture: Ceramic Vessel with Mayan Writing.

Mayan writing represents an outstanding milestone among the pre-Columbian cultures of America.

This system, the most advanced and complex among the dozens of systems that emerged in Mesoamerica, has sparked debates among linguists, some of whom question whether Mesoamerican cultures developed a writing system with defined grammatical rules, such as morphology, word classification by gender, number, function, spelling, or an established structure for organizing phrases and words into coherent patterns for the formation of ideas.

The earliest inscriptions recognized as Mayan writing were discovered in the Petén region, dated between 300 and 200 BC. However, this system was based on earlier Mesoamerican writing systems, such as Epi-Olmec and Zapotec.

Early Mayan writing emerged on the Pacific coast of Guatemala towards the end of the 1st century or beginning of the 2nd century AD. The similarities between Isthmian writing and early Mayan writing suggest a parallel development of both systems. By 250 AD, Mayan writing had evolved into a more coherent and formal system.

Unfortunately, many Mayan texts were destroyed by the Catholic Church and colonial officials, particularly by Bishop Diego de Landa, leading to the loss of knowledge about this writing system.

Despite this, three pre-Columbian books from the Postclassic period have been preserved, known as the Madrid, Dresden and Paris Codices, whose authenticity is indisputable. There is a fourth book, the Grolier Codex, although its authenticity has been debated.

Excavations at Mayan sites continue to reveal fragments of what were once codices, including pieces of plaster and paint, but most of these remains are too deteriorated to decipher any inscriptions. Most of the Mayan writing that has survived to the present day dates from the Classic period.

The Intricate Mayan Writing System

The Mayan writing system, often compared to Egyptian hieroglyphics due to their superficially similar appearance, represents a complex logosyllabic system.

This system fuses a syllabary, composed of phonetic signs that denote syllables, with logograms, which represent complete words. Distinguishing itself among the writing systems of the pre-Columbian world, Mayan writing is remarkably close to the spoken language.

At any given period, no more than five hundred glyphs were in use, with approximately two hundred of these being phonetic in nature.

During the Classic Period, this writing system reached its peak, remaining in use until the arrival of the European conquerors. More than 10,000 individual texts have been discovered, predominantly in the form of inscriptions on stone monuments, lintels, stelae and pottery.

In addition, the Mayans produced painted texts on paper made from tree bark, known in Nahuatl as amatl, used in the creation of codices.

Although knowledge of this writing was maintained among various segments of the Mayan population until the Spanish conquest, this knowledge dissipated due to the profound impact of the conquest on Mayan society.

The effort to decipher and restore knowledge of Mayan writing has been an extensive and painstaking process.

The first successes in decipherment, achieved at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, focused on aspects of Mayan numeration, calendar, and astronomy. There were significant advances from the 1950s to the 1970s, and the decipherment process moved rapidly thereafter.

By the end of the 20th century, researchers could read most Mayan texts, and ongoing efforts are still unraveling the nuances and meanings of these ancient texts.

Structure of the Mayan Glyphs

In Mayan writing, the block of glyphs, which transcribe words or phrases, constitutes the fundamental unit of the text. Each block is made up of one or more intertwined glyphic figures.

The blocks are generally organized in a grid pattern, and for study, epigraphers identify them alphabetically from left to right and numerically from top to bottom, assigning each glyphic block a specific “coordinate.”

For example, the glyph located in the third horizontal and fourth vertical position would be labeled C4. In texts with multiple inscriptions, the columns follow a continuous alphabetical sequence, and the numerical rows restart with each different text unit.

Glyphic texts are usually arranged in double columns, with reading beginning at the top left, following a zigzag pattern down and then to the adjacent column. If the text ends in a single column, it is read from top to bottom.

Within a glyph block, several components can be found, such as a main sign and various affixes. The head sign is the most significant component of the block and can represent a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, or phoneme.

These primary signs vary from abstract shapes to literal representations or “head variants” that personify the word represented. Affixes, which are smaller elements, are combined with the main sign or can constitute a complete glyphic block by themselves.

These affixes can denote various linguistic elements, such as prepositions, pronouns, and more. Furthermore, Mayan scribes frequently used fragments of a main sign to represent the complete figure, demonstrating great creativity and adaptability in their use of glyphic elements.

Mayan Writing Instruments

Archaeological finds do not provide direct examples of brushes or stylus, but detailed study of ink marks in Postclassic Mayan codices indicates that brushes with soft, flexible tips, probably composed of bristles, were used.

A Classic statue in Copan, Honduras, shows a scribe holding an ink container made from a snail shell.

Research at the Aguateca site has discovered several objects related to writing that belonged to high society, including trowels and mortars used by scribes.

The Scribes and Literacy in the Mayan Culture

Mayan Culture: Mayan Scribe Vessel

Within Mayan society, literacy was a privilege reserved for the elite, with the majority of the general population remaining illiterate. The profession of scribe, known as aj tz’ib, which translates as “one who writes or paints”, was practiced mainly by individuals of aristocratic status.

Although it has not been confirmed whether all members of the Mayan aristocracy were literate, some evidence, such as artistic representation of female scribes, indicates that both elite men and women could be educated in writing.

It is believed that young Mayan aristocrats were trained in the art of writing in specialized schools. The archaeological record offers clues to the existence and activities of Mayan scribes.

For example, King Jasaw Chan K’awiil I of Tikal was buried with his painting equipment, and in Copán, youths of the royal dynasty were buried with writing tools. A palace decorated with figures holding inkwells has also been identified in Copán, which possibly belonged to a noble family of scribes.

Although information about Mayan scribes is limited, some left their signature on their works, both in ceramics and stone sculptures.

Signed ceramic vessels usually bear the name of a single scribe, while in the case of stone sculptures, such as a stele at Piedras Negras, the names of several sculptors are recorded.

However, a large part of the Mayan artistic creations do not bear the signature of their authors, remaining anonymous throughout history.

Mayan Numbering

Numeration of the Mayan Culture.

The ancient Mayans developed an advanced numbering system based on the base vigesimal, or twenty, shared by other Mesoamerican cultures. Adopted since the Late Preclassic, this system integrated the use of stripes and dots, a method already used in Mesoamerica around 1000 BC.

A key innovation of the Mayans was the introduction of the concept of zero, possibly one of the first known uses of this idea in the world, although there are debates over whether the Babylonian system may have preceded it. The oldest records of the Mayan zero date back to 357 AD.

Initially, zero functioned as a placeholder, indicating the absence of a number in the calendar, but later evolved to be used in mathematical calculations.

In Mayan numbering, a dot symbolizes unity and horizontal stripes represent five. Over time, the symbol of a shell or snail came to represent zero, although in the Classic period other glyphs were used for this purpose.

The Mayans could represent numbers from 0 to 19 with combinations of these signs. The vertical position of a number determined its exact value: each higher level meant a multiplication by twenty of the lower level. Thus, the first level represented units, the second twenty (20), and the third four hundred (400).

For example, the number 884 was represented by four dots at the lowest level, followed by four dots at the middle level and two dots at the third level, equivalent to 4×1 plus 4×20 plus 2×400. This system allowed the Mayans to express very large numbers.

The additions were made by placing the numbers in two columns and adding the dots and dashes to obtain the result in a third column.

The Mayan Calendar

The advanced calendar system of the Mayans, evolved from its origins in the Preclassic period, stood out for its remarkable precision in calculating lunar and solar cycles, eclipses and planetary movements, even surpassing some contemporary Old World calculations, such as the Mayan solar year versus the Julian.

This calendar was deeply intertwined with the ritual and religious practices of the Mayans, combining a long count with three synchronized cycles of different lengths: the 260-day tzolk’in, the 365-day haab’, and the 52-year calendar wheel, which arose of the union of the tzolk’in and haab’.

Other cycles, such as the 819-day cycle, were linked to aspects of Mayan cosmology and the god K’awiil.

The base unit of the Mayan calendar was the day, called k’in, which was grouped in cycles of twenty to form a winal. However, to align the calendar with the approximate solar year, the next level, the tun, was calculated by multiplying 18 winals, giving 360 days. From here, the system resumed vigesimal multiplication.

Mayan calendar periods

PeriodCalculationSpace of timeYears (approx)
k’inone day1 day
winal1 x 2020 days
tun18 x 20360 days1 year
k’atun20 x 18 x 207200 days20 years
bak’tun20 x 18 x 20 x 20144 000 days394 years
piktun20 x 18 x 20 x 20 x 202 880 000 days7885 years
kalabtun20 x 18 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 2057 600 000 days157 700 years
kinchiltun20 x 18 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 201 152 000 000 days3 154 004 years
alawtun20 x 18 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 2023 040 000 000 days63 080 082 years

The tzolk’in, essential in Mayan ceremony and prophecy, lacks a known astronomical basis. It is speculated that its 260 days could be related to human gestation, being essential to determine birth dates and prophecies. In this cycle, twenty day names rotate with numbers from 1 to 13.

The haab’ of 365 days was divided into eighteen winals of 20 days each, plus a period of five days, the Wayeb, considered a dangerous border time between the supernatural and the human. Each day of the tzolk’in was intertwined with the haab’, creating a unique designation that was repeated every 52 years on the calendar wheel.

The Mayans measured time from a fixed starting point, established at the end of the last cycle of bak’tuns, approximately in the year 3114 BC, a date they believed marked the creation of the current world.

They used the long count to place a specific day within a great cycle of Piktun, composed of 20 bak’tunes, although there are variations, such as a cycle of 13 bak’tunes in Palenque and others with 13 + 20 bak’tunes.

A complete long count date included an introductory glyph and five glyphs for the bak’tunes, kat’unes, tunes, winales and k’ines from creation, followed by the tzolk’in part and finally the haab’ part of the date of the calendar wheel.

Alignment of the Mayan Calendar with the Gregorian

The use of the Mayan calendar wheel is kept alive today, while in the Late Classic, the Mayans introduced a condensed version known as the short count, a cycle of 13 k’atunes.

The translation of Mayan calendar dates to European calendar dates is a complex issue, with no direct correlation.

The most widely accepted correlation proposal is the Goodman-Martínez-Thompson (GMT), which synchronizes the Mayan date of 13 Ajaw 8 Xul with November 12, 1539 of the Gregorian calendar.

However, epigraphists Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube have suggested a revision of the GMT correlation, proposing a two-day adjustment.

On the other hand, the correlation proposed by Spinden would set the Mayan dates back by 260 years; This theory aligns with certain historical documents and fits better with the archeology of the Yucatan Peninsula, although it generates discrepancies in other Mayan regions.

Alternatively, George Vaillant’s correlation would advance all Mayan dates by 260 years, resulting in a notable reduction in the length of the Postclassic period.

Radiocarbon testing applied to wooden lintels from Tikal has provided evidence supporting the GMT correlation as the most accurate for synchronizing the Mayan calendar with the Gregorian.

Astronomy in the Mayan Culture

Mayan Culture: Photo awarded by NASA by Robert Fedez. Source:

The Mayan civilization was characterized by its meticulous observation of the stars, focusing on the Sun, Moon, Venus and specific constellations.

Contrary to a scientific or agricultural approach, Mayan astronomy had an essentially astrological purpose, used by the clergy to interpret and forecast future events based on previous time cycles.

This practice involved recording solar and lunar eclipses, as well as monitoring planetary and stellar movements, seeking correlations with past events to predict future events.

The records in the Mayan codices, despite their scarcity, reveal surprisingly precise astronomical knowledge for the time, even surpassing contemporary European notions.

The cycle of Venus, for example, was measured by the Mayans with a tiny margin of error, linking it to cycles of the Haab calendar and relating it to cultural and military phenomena.

Venus, particularly in its morning star phase, was associated with war and renewal, and its appearances were crucial times for planning war conflicts and sacrifices. The Caracol at Chichén Itzá is an example of how Mayan architecture aligned with Venus to observe these phenomena.

As for eclipses, both solar and lunar, they were events of great importance, perceived as omens of imminent disasters. The Dresden Codex, for example, mentions a solar eclipse represented as a serpent devouring the symbol of the day.

These types of events triggered the performance of specific ceremonies aimed at preventing catastrophes. In short, Mayan astronomy, although based on empirical observations, was intrinsically linked to their religious beliefs and ritual practices.

Religious and Mythical Culture of the Mayans

Funerary Burial of the Mayan Culture. Photo:

The Mayans, like other Mesoamerican cultures, followed a polytheistic belief system, honoring a spectrum of divinities that inhabited a spiritual domain.

It was essential for them to maintain a harmonious relationship with these divine beings through carefully executed offerings and rituals. At the core of their spirituality was the veneration of deceased ancestors, who were believed to mediate between the living and supernatural entities.

In the early stages of the Mayan civilization, shamanistic figures were seen as the first mediators with the supernatural.

As Mayan society evolved, the ruling class integrated and codified these ancestral beliefs into religious cults, thus establishing a divine justification for their rule. This development culminated in the figure of the ajaw k’uhul, a divine ruler, in the Late Preclassic.

Although it is complex to unravel Mayan beliefs through archaeology, ritual practices have left identifiable traces such as dedicated offerings, sanctuaries, tombs and their corresponding funerary gifts.

Mayan art, architecture, and writing, combined with ethnographic accounts and records of the Spanish conquistadors, provide a window into these ancient beliefs and practices.

The Mayans conceived the universe in a structured way, with thirteen celestial levels and nine underground levels, the earthly plane being an intermediate between these two extremes.

Each plane was associated with cardinal directions, each with a distinctive color. The main gods were linked to these directions and colors, representing the north with white, the east with red, the south with yellow and the west with black.

In Mayan culture, it was common for families to bury their loved ones under the floor of their homes, providing offerings that reflected their social status. Depending on the deceased, items such as jade buttons in the mouth and figurines around the body could be included, intended to assist the soul on its journey to the afterlife.

This practice sought to ensure that deceased ancestors continued to protect the family. Since Mayan society was patrilineal, it was common to pay homage to a prominent male ancestor through a domestic shrine.

This tradition, however, differed from the official doctrines of the Mayan religion, which reserved the notion of the survival of the soul primarily to figures such as the king, heroes, and those who were sacrificed.

As time passed and the elite strengthened, the Mayan royal families established their own sanctuaries within large pyramids that housed the tombs of their ancestors.

Mayan beliefs were based on the idea that supernatural forces permeated all aspects of life, from everyday tasks such as food preparation to more complex aspects such as trade, politics, and elite practices.

The Mayan deities were considered rulers of all the elements of the world, both on the visible and invisible planes.

The Mayan priesthood, composed of members of the elite, recorded complex ritual information in their glyphic codices, including astronomical observations and calendrical cycles, along with historical and mythological events.

Public ceremonies conducted by these priests involved banquets, self-sacrifice of blood, burning of incense, music, ritual dances, and sometimes human sacrifice.

During the Classic period, the Mayan leader also played the role of high priest, acting as the intermediary between gods and mortals. It is likely that among the commoner class, shamanic practices coexisted with the official religion.

In the Postclassic, a change in religious practices was observed, with a greater focus on the worship of images of deities and an increase in the frequency of human sacrifice.

Practices of Human Sacrifice in the Mayan Civilization

Within Mayan beliefs, blood was seen as a highly nutritious substance for their deities. From here arose the notion that human sacrifice, being an act of blood offering, represented the highest tribute to the gods.

This practice was usually reserved for rituals of great significance, such as the inauguration of major architectural projects or the coronation of new rulers.

The subjects chosen for sacrifice were frequently high-ranking prisoners of war, while lower-ranking prisoners were assigned to forced labor.

The ritual death of a captured king was considered the most valuable offering. An example of this was the beheading in 738 AD. of King Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil of Copán, executed by K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat of Quiriguá.

These acts could include ritual recreations linked to the ball game, symbolizing the defeat of the gods of the underworld by the twin heroes, a fundamental story in the Mayan myth collected in the Popol Vuh.

In addition to beheading, other forms of sacrifice could involve beatings, torture, scalping, burning, or evisceration of the victim.

During the Postclassic period, an Aztec influence was observed in sacrificial practices, highlighting the extraction of the heart. This act used to take place in public squares or tops of pyramids.

In certain ceremonies, the corpse of the victim was skinned, except for the hands and feet, and the priest who presided over the ritual dressed in the skin of the sacrificed person, symbolizing the rebirth of life in a ritual dance. Archaeological evidence suggests that heart sacrifice was already a widespread practice during the Classic period.

Overview of the Mayan Deities

Mayan Culture: Mixco Viejo Ball Court Scoreboard.

In Mayan cosmology, the universe was inhabited by a vast array of deities and supernatural entities, whose understanding transcended specific functions and roles. These deities were closely linked to the calendar, astronomical observation and the Mayan vision of the world.

The relevance and attributes of each deity changed according to the movement of the stars, making the precise interpretation of the priests essential to determine which divinity should be appeased and when and how to carry out the appropriate rituals and offerings.

The Mayan divinities presented multiple forms, associating themselves with the cardinal points and distinctive colors, and encompassing dualities such as day and night or life and death.

Among these deities, Itzamna stood out as the creator god and representation of the cosmos, also playing the role of a solar entity. One aspect of it, K’inich Ahau—the “Sun of the Day”—was frequently emulated by Mayan rulers.

On the other hand, Itzamna assumed the form of the “Night Jaguar”, symbolizing the Sun on its journey through the underworld. The Pawatun, in turn, were considered the corner supports of the mortal world, while the Bacab fulfilled a similar function in heaven.

Although the Bacab had four main forms, they also had numerous other facets not yet fully understood. The Chaac, represented in four versions, were venerated as storm gods and guardians of rain, thunder and lightning.

In the underworld realm, each of the nine “night lords” ruled a particular domain. Among the other prominent figures in Mayan mythology were the Moon Goddess, the Corn God, and the legendary Twin Heroes.

The Popol Vuh, a transcendental work of Native American literature, was transcribed using the Latin alphabet during the colonial period, probably based on an ancient glyphic text created by an anonymous Quiche nobleman.

This key text recounts the creation myths, the saga of the twin heroes, and the history of the Quiche in the postclassical era. Among its mythical figures, Hun Hunahpu, the Quiche god of corn, stands out, along with a divine triad led by Tohil, patron saint of the Quiche, and accompanied by Awilix, the lunar goddess, and Jacawitz, the mountain deity.

Worship of the feathered serpent, a common feature in Mesoamerica, had a limited presence in the Classic Maya era, but gained prominence in the Postclassic in both the Yucatan Peninsula and the Guatemalan highlands.

In Yucatán, the serpentine entity was known as Kukulkan, while in the Quiché tradition it was called Q’uq’umatz.

The figure of Kukulkan evolved from the Waxaklahun Ubah Khan War Serpent of the classical era, and is also thought to be a postclassical interpretation of the Vision Serpent, known in classical Mayan art.

This Kukulkan cult, although rooted in ancient Mayan beliefs, was significantly influenced by the Quetzalcoatl cult of central Mexico. Similarly, Q’uq’umatz combined characteristics of Mexican Quetzalcóatl with elements of Itzamná from the Classic Mayan era.

Mayan Archaeological Sites in Mesoamerica

The Mesoamerican region is home to a vast number of Mayan archaeological settlements, spread across Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

Among the most notable for their architecture and sculpture are Chichén Itzá, Palenque, Uxmal and Comalcalco in Mexico, along with Tikal in Guatemala and Copán in Honduras. Sites like Calakmul and El Mirador, although significant, have more restricted access.

In the Puuc region, Kabáh, Labná and Sayil complement the importance of Uxmal. In the east of the Yucatán Peninsula, Cobá and the more modest Tulum stand out.

El Salvador also features places of archaeological interest such as Tazumal, San Andrés, Cihuatán and Joya de Cerén, the latter unique in its representation of everyday Mayan life.

The Bec River area, at the base of the Yucatán Peninsula, includes settlements such as Becan, Chicanná, Kohunlich and Xpuhil. In Chiapas, along with Palenque and Yaxchilán, Toniná and Bonampak stand out. In Tabasco, in addition to Comalcalco, there are Moral Reforma and Pomoná.

The Guatemalan highlands have relevant sites such as Iximché, Kaminaljuyú, Mixco Viejo and Q’umarkaj, also known as Utatlán. Although the northern Petén lowlands of Guatemala have numerous sites, access is difficult, with exceptions such as Dos Pilas, Ceibal and Uaxactún.

Finally, in Belize, sites such as Altun Ha, El Caracol and Xunantunich stand out for their historical importance.

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