Mayan Culture: Origin, History, Characteristics, Organization, Culture

The Mayan culture was a civilization that developed in Mesoamerica and occupied the territories of present-day southern Mexico and northern Central America, reaching Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize. Although its beginning dates back to the Preclassic period, its apogee took place during the Classic period, between 250 and 900 AD. C.

From that moment, the Mayan civilization experienced a long decline, with the exception of the cities located in the Yucatan peninsula, where this culture maintained its splendor for a few more centuries. The arrival of the Spanish wiped out the last vestiges of this civilization.

This civilization is considered one of the most advanced among all those that developed in Mesoamerica. Among his achievements is the creation of a complete written language, as well as his contributions to architecture and art. Likewise, they were the inventors of sophisticated astronomical and mathematical systems.

Unlike other Mesoamerican cultures, the Mayans did not create a unitary state, but instead formed city-states with considerable independence of their own. The legitimacy of the kings came from religion, since they were considered divine figures within a society with a marked class character.

Origin and history

The origin of the Mayan culture is located in the Preclassic period, a stage that comprised between 2000 BC. C and 250 d. Already in the classical period the moment of maximum splendor of this civilization arrived.

Preclassic Period (c. 2000 BC-250 AD)

The first settlements built by the Mayans, in Belize, occurred around 2600 BC. Eight hundred years later, they reached the Pacific coast, specifically the Soconusco region. At this stage they already practiced agriculture, although only of some basic products, such as beans, chili or corn.

Already during the Middle Preclassic, the Mayan settlements began to grow larger, until they became cities. The oldest documented locality was Nakbé, located in the department of Petén, in present-day Guatemala. Also during this stage, the Mayans began to populate the north of Yucatan.

The remains found have led archaeologists to affirm that in the 3rd century BC. C. the Mayans had already created a writing system, at least in Petén.

Later, in the late Preclassic, the Mayan cities continued to grow. Among them, El Mirador and Tikal stood out.

However, the evolution of the Mayan culture stopped in the 1st century BC. Many of the great cities built were abandoned, without knowing the reason for this collapse.

Classic Period (c. 250-900 AD)

The Mayan civilization recovered again during the Classic period, a time during which it lived its maximum splendor. Experts divide this period into two parts: the Early Classic, between 250 and 550 AD. C., and the late Classic, which lasted until 900 d. C.

In the early Classic, the Mayan cities picked up the influence of Teotihuacan, a large city located in the Valley of Mexico. The rulers of this town sent a military expedition to Tikal in 378 AD. C. and installed a new royal dynasty.

Its relationship with Teotihuacan allowed Tikal to progress to become the ruler of all the central lowlands. Only Calakmul, located in Petén, could compete with the power of Tikal, so a great rivalry developed between both cities.

Later, during the Late Classic, the Mayans experienced a great cultural explosion driven by the kings of the most important city-states of this period: Tikal, Palenque, Copán, Piedras Negran or Yaxchilán, among others.

As in the Preclassic period, a new collapse affected the Mayan city-states between the 9th and 10th centuries AD. C. There are various theories about the causes of this decline, none of them has been confirmed. On the other hand, the consequences are known: abandonment of many cities and return to the political system of the first stage of the Preclassic.

Postclassic Period (c. 950-1531 AD)

The Yucatan peninsula was the only area that did not suffer the decline suffered by the Mayan cities. In this way, that territory went from being one of the least important to becoming the continuator of its entire culture.

Chichén Itzá was the most important city in the first part of this period. This settlement had arisen in 987 AD. C., when members of the Itzá ethnic group arrived in the area from Tabasco.

Later, the town was invaded by groups of Toltec culture under the command of a leader who received the title of Kukulcán, ‘Plumed Serpent’ in Spanish. These were installed in the city of Mayapán.

In the 13th century, the Itzá were defeated by a coalition made up of the cocom from Mayapán and mercenaries from central Mexico. The consequence was the establishment of a despotic system of government that lasted until 1441. That year, a league of city-states destroyed the city.

The last years of the Postclassic period were characterized by continuous wars that pitted city-states against each other.

After the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, the Mayans lost all their influence and, like the rest of the indigenous peoples, were forced to adopt the religion and customs of the victors. Despite this, some city resisted for a time, such as Tayasal, the last stronghold of the Mayan civilization in Petén, which resisted until 1697.

Geographical and temporal location

The Mayans professed a polytheistic religion and their beliefs were closely linked to nature. The most important gods were Itzamná and Hunab Ku, in addition to others related to rain, sun , agriculture, death and other aspects of their daily life.

The Mayan religion affirmed that there had been four previous historical ages, which had been destroyed by the effect of a different natural element in each case: air, water, earth and fire.

For the Mayans it was very important to perform various religious ceremonies. These ranged from fasting to sacrifices, through prayer or dance. All these ceremonies were led by priests and, in many cases, were performed in pyramids that served as worship temples.

A good part of their beliefs and mythology are collected in two different works. The first, considered the Mayan Bible, is the Popol Vuh , or Book of the Community . The second is the Chilam Balam , already written at the time of the conquest by a Spaniard, Diego de Landa.


War and warriors had great importance within the Mayan culture. During its history there were very frequent military conflicts that, in most cases, pitted the different city-states against each other.

All this caused the warriors to acquire great social prestige and form part of the upper class.


The main economic activity of the Mayans was agriculture, an activity from which they obtained a great return.

Ownership of farmland was a reflection of their political and religious organization. Thus, all the land belonged to the ruler (Ahau), who was in charge of assigning it depending on the needs of each family.

The peasants had the right to keep what they harvested, although they had to hand over a part of the crops to the government. In return, the rulers helped the peasants in times of scarcity and prayed to the gods for a plentiful harvest.


The king had under his control all the trade that took place between the different Mayan city-states. The merchants, for their part, formed their own caste, of a hereditary nature. Over time, these created a vast merchant network.

Merchants brought luxury products, such as jade or salt, to cities such as Teotihuacan and others throughout Mesoamerica. In addition, they also used to transport local agricultural products and handicrafts.

The importance of trade over the centuries led to the emergence of a monetary system, although quite basic.


In addition to those mentioned above, the Mayan economy relied on another important factor: the payment of taxes. These could be paid for through personal labor, which provided labor for the construction of public buildings.


As in other Mesoamerican civilizations, social class determined the type of clothing within the Mayan culture.

Thus, the men of the lower class wore very basic pants and wore their breasts uncovered. For their part, women of the same class wore wide shirts of various colors, made of cotton, as well as long skirts.

The upper class, made up of the royal family and high officials, wore higher quality clothes. In them the ornaments made with feathers and stones stood out.

Arithmetic and astronomy

The Mayans brought great advances to astronomy and arithmetic, something that influenced later cultures. Among his contributions is the creation of a base 20 numbering system and, as a great novelty, it introduced a sign to reflect the number 0. It should be noted that zero took much longer to appear in the Arabic numerals.

The creation of this system was motivated by the astronomical studies carried out by this culture. Mayan astronomers needed a way to record their observations of the sky, something they used to regulate the agricultural cycle.


The two branches of science mentioned were used by the Maya to create two different calendars: the tzolkin (ritual) and the haab (solar).

The first of them divided the year into 13 months of 20 days each, giving a total of 260 days. The priests used it to divine the future of each individual. For its part, the second was made up of 18 months of 20 days, with a total of 360 days. To these had to be added another 5 days called unfortunate.

When both calendars were combined, the Mayans obtained 52-year cycles called short chords.

Apart from the above, the Mayans created another more complex calendar called the long count. This was destined to count the time that had passed since the world was created, something that, according to their beliefs, happened in 3114 BC. C.


Another great contribution of the Mayan culture was its writing system. His alphabet was made up of more than 700 symbols, many of them still undeciphered. His spelling consisted of both phonetic and ideographic signs.


The Mayans excelled in their use of mathematics, they invented a vigesimal numbering system, especially as an instrument to measure time. 

Political organization

One of the great differences between the Mayan culture and others such as the Aztec or Inca is that the former never came to form a unified state. Its domain area was made up of independent city-states or chiefdoms.

The relationships between all these political entities have varied enormously throughout history. Thus, it was very common for periods of tension to appear between them which could lead to some settlements becoming vassals of others. Similarly, conjunctural alliances were also common to defeat a common enemy.

Despite the above, in some periods cities powerful enough to control an entire region appeared. Some of these dominators were Tikal, Mayapán or Calakmul.


Each city had its own government, each with a king in charge. This ruler, called Halach Uinic, had the status of a god and his position was hereditary.

The Halach Uinic (true man in Spanish), also called Ahau, and his family held all the high administrative, religious, judicial and military positions.

The absolute power of the monarch was based on his function as an intermediary between the gods, with whom he was related, and men. From the capital of their dominions, the Halach Uinic controlled all aspects of the community.

To exercise that control, the king relied on the batabood, relatives of his who administered the secondary centers of the territories. In addition, these high officials were in charge of collecting tributes, presiding over local councils and dispensing justice.

Social organization

As early as the Preclassic, the Mayans created a type of strongly hierarchical society. In this way, there was a great social division between the elite and the lower class, that of the commoners.

This society evolved over time, especially when cities began to grow. With this population increase appeared new trades exercised by specialized workers.

On the other hand, in the late Classic there was a considerable increase in members of the wealthiest and most powerful classes.

According to experts, these changes could lead to the development of a kind of middle class. It would include low-ranking officials and priests, merchants, artisans, and soldiers.

Royal family

At the top of the social pyramid were the king and the rest of his family. The monarch, as has been pointed out, assumed all the powers of the kingdom, including the religious ones. The king was practically considered a god and had the role of mediating between deities and men.

The position of king was hereditary, from father to son. Women could only access the throne if there was no other possibility, although it was considered a lesser evil in the face of the disappearance of the dynasty.

State servers

Below the royal family were state officials. This class was made up of the directors of the ceremonies, the military, and the tax collectors. In this same social class were also the priests, who, in addition to their religious tasks, dealt with the study of astronomy and other sciences.

Another sector that was in this second social echelon were the nobles. Their titles were hereditary and, together with the priests, they advised the kings when they had to decide on any matter.

Lower class

Not counting the slaves, who did not have rights of any kind, the lower class of society was made up of all those who did not belong to the previous classes. It was, therefore, the vast majority of the population. Most of these commoners were farmers, although artisans were also included in this class.

Being an eminently agricultural society, the peasants formed the largest group within the lower class. Apart from their work in the fields, they were obliged to enlist in the army in case of war. This activity was one of the few options that the commoners had to improve their position, since the most outstanding warriors were recognized by the government.


The Mayan civilization was one of the most important in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Among the most important cultural contributions are those made in architecture and the creation of its calendars.


As it appears in the Popol Vuh , one of the sacred books of the Maya, this civilization always had a very close relationship with the products of the land, especially with corn. In fact, according to their beliefs, the human being was created from that cereal.

Corn was, precisely, the basis of the Mayan diet, along with other essential foods such as beans. The latter was used to make a kind of puree that was eaten spread on tortillas.

Later, according to experts, the Mayans began to introduce fruits and vegetables to their diet. Among the most common were pumpkin, guava, papaya, and avocado.

One of the best known recipes of the Mayans was the so-called “drink of the gods.” This consisted of a mixture of chili, honey and cocoa and was taken hot. The name of this drink was “xocolatl”.

Finally, specialists affirm that the Mayans also consumed meat, although it is not abundant. Evidence has been found that they domesticated animals intended for their consumption, such as turkeys or dogs. Likewise, he also ate wild animals and fish.


Among the best known Mayan traditions is the “pok a pok” or ball game. In many cities, such as Chichén Itzá, Tulum or Cobá stadiums were built where the Mayans practiced this sport.

Apart from the previous one, the Mayans also performed religious ceremonies in the cenotes. According to experts, the worship of these natural places was due to their sacred character, since they were considered as the door to the underworld. For this reason, their priests celebrated rituals, in addition to making sacrifices.

Precisely, these human sacrifices were another of the main characteristics of the Mayans. The main reason for doing them was to feed and thank the gods. In addition, they thought that the sacrificed enjoyed eternal life in the afterlife.

Other motives for the sacrifices were to ensure that the universe would continue to function properly. This included from the passage of the seasons to the growth of crops, as well as the weather being favorable.


In the Mayan culture, art was something reserved for the upper class, who thought that artistic works had the function of connecting them with their ancestors.

Among his most relevant creations are carvings and reliefs, such as those that appeared in Palenque, as well as anthropomorphic statues. Likewise, they also achieved great mastery in the paintings that adorned ceramics, both funerary and otherwise.

A novel aspect compared to the rest of Mesoamerican cultures is the fact that artists signed their works, something that was discovered when some remains of writing were deciphered.


The temple of Coba is one of the main Mayan ceremonial centers.

Mayan architecture is considered its most important artistic manifestation. However, the style of their constructions varied depending on the city, in addition to the materials available, the topography and the taste of the upper class.

Historians claim that Mayan architecture reached a high level of sophistication, especially in the construction of palaces, temples, observatories, and pyramids. Its architects began to use arches and vaults in these buildings and, in addition, they decorated them with paintings and sculptures.

However, the houses of the commoners did not present any of these characteristics. In his case, the materials were weak and perishable, so no examples have been preserved.


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