Maya Civilization


At the high watermark of their civilization, the Maya people in Mesoamerica reached a level of complexity comparable to the golden age of ancient Greece, inhabiting dozens of sophisticated cities, with some hosting up to 50,000 inhabitants (watch 101).

The Maya flourished in the regions of modern-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize (see map) from roughly 250 to 900 CE during what is described by historians as the Classic Period, though their roots go back millennia.

Life in the Mayan City

The term "Maya" refers to the collective peoples of this area at that time, though it wasn't used by the Maya themselves. The name "Maya" was pulled from Mayapan, the capital kingdom in the Yucatan peninsula viewed as the last vestige of a Maya empire.

Their landscape consisted primarily of broad plains, with few elevated areas and a low coastline dominating the terrain (tour the region). At the center of city life were massive pyramids with four steep sides laid with steps, a religious and political site often used for sacrifice, including of humans.

Corn—known as maize—was a central feature of Mayan life. According to their creation myth, the gods fashioned humans from yellow and white corn, and commonly grew and ate it together with squash and beans.

Evidence of nearly 1,500 surviving ball courts in the region point to the Maya’s development of a sacred, basketball-like game, with legends suggesting the game’s best players were possibly sacrificed to the gods.

Conflict was prevalent among Maya city-states, with Tikal in Guatemala emerging as one of the most powerful in the early Classic period. Other major archaeological sites include Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and more (watch tour of ruins).

Cultural Accomplishments

The Maya were the only civilization in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica known to have a fully developed writing system, employing hieroglyphics in their codices and on pottery, pillars, and more (browse artifacts). The great warriors north of the Maya who dominated several centuries later, the Aztecs, likely learned this system from the Maya.

Through their writing, the Maya left behind a rich cultural heritage via their myths, such as the tale of Xibalba from the Popol Vuh text, which also details their cosmology.

The Maya independently developed the concept of zero and utilized a vigesimal counting system based on twenties rather than tens (explore more), as seen in their Long Count calendar, which accurately tracked time and guided agricultural cycles.

Despite scattered worldwide panic in the months leading up to its arrival, the end of the Maya Long Count calendar in 2012 simply marked a cycle change, not an apocalyptic event (learn more).


Despite the decline of their ancient civilization, their legacy endures via the approximately 7 million Maya descendants who still inhabit the region, preserving their agricultural and ceremonial practices (see deep dive). Among them, the daykeeper continues a thousand-year-old tradition of interpreting the energy of each day.

Dive Deeper

Relevant articles, podcasts, videos, and more from around the internet - curated and summarized by our team

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How many Mayan words do you know off the top of your head? This article explains how archaeologists in the 1980s were finally able to decipher the ancient Mayan script. Maya expert David Stuart tells Atlas Obscura that cacao is "one of the few words we use that’s actually Mayan." It's also one of the words that helped us decipher Mayan writing. Read more on the ancient role of chocolate in the Maya world.

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The Mesoamerican ballgame, played by the Maya, Aztec, and neighboring cultures, was said to symbolize the cosmic conflict between good versus evil. Despite contemporary misconceptions, winners were rarely sacrificed, and the game wasn't particularly basketball-like. Played on I-shaped fields, the game involved keeping the ball in constant motion, often using paddles. The Spanish would suppress the game due to religious concerns.

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Both ancient Maya and those in the region today believe in the existence of a spirit or animal companion. These companions are associated with the 20 sacred calendar day signs and manifest in various forms, such as animals, natural elements like rain or fire, or objects like obsidian. Each companion is said to reflect the individual's character traits based on their birthdate. To discover your Maya Spirit Companion, input your birthdate here.

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Carved from jadeite, these Mayan ornaments known as "earflares" were believed to serve as portals to the divine, symbolizing sacred pathways into supernatural realms. Jade was valued for its rarity and durability which gave rise to beliefs it symbolized timelessness and vitality. The stone is also difficult to craft intricately, making fine ornaments particularly valued. Earflares were regarded as living entities, imbued with spiritual significance. Find out more here

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The Maya's magical, prophetic dwarfs

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A passage from an ancient Guatemalan text called the Popol Vuh contains a creation myth involving dwarfs before humans ever existed. These dwarfs were endowed with great vision and intellect, and eventually began creating art and ignoring the gods, hubris which led to their destruction in a flood. The gods then created humans from corn, imbuing them with limited vision. Learn more about the fascinating myth here.

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The ancient Maya adorned their teeth with gemstones, believing it purified their breath and linking them to the divine. Recent analysis suggests the sealant used to attach these stones may have also had therapeutic properties, possibly preventing infections. Researchers found plant resins and gums in the sealants, with some containing compounds from pine trees known for their antibacterial properties. Learn more of the evidence around Maya dental practices here.

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