History of the Maya

Between Myths and Knowledge: An Introduction

History of the Maya: An Introduction

The Maya were excellent mathematicians, architects, astronomers, doctors and very religious people. Their daily life was permeated with rituals and ceremonies.

Native to Mesoamerica (Greek for Central America), they are famous for magnificent buildings. In their knowledge, they were far ahead of other peoples. And yet they remain a mystery. Much of their culture was lost, blamed on the Spanish invasion of Mexico and later Central America.

Mayan History: Books
Chichen Itza: History of the Maya

History of the Maya

A captivating guide to Mayan civilization, culture, and mythology

Mesoamerican History Maya

Mesoamerican History

A captivating guide to four historic civilizations

In this article we give an introduction to the history of the Maya, as it is reproduced today by tour guides in Mexico. We take up different aspects such as religion, knowledge, culture, daily life, social forms as well as ideals of beauty.

It is an introduction to the history of the Maya and we will gradually explain each aspect in further in-depth articles. We hope to whet your appetite for Mexico as a travel destination and the Mayan regions of the Riviera Maya and the Yucatan Peninsula. We look forward to receiving feedback from our readers.

Would you like to experience the Maya at first hand? Take advantage of our wide range of excursions on the Riviera Maya.

Where do the Maya come from?

The history of the Maya: Bering Strait

Mayan History: Where did the people of America come from

How was the American continent settled?

The most widely accepted theory is that the first humans came from Asia to America about 12,000 years ago via the so-called Bering Strait. When the ice masses decreased at the end of the last ice age, the strait between Siberia and Alaska was probably passable on foot.

The first people in America are called Paleo-Indians. They followed mammoth or bison herds and probably came from Russia to Alaska because of the animals. There they slowly spread over the American continent. As early as 9,000 B.C., the Mayan region of Chiapas, Belize, Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula was inhabited by hunter-gatherers.

Presumably, the first people came from Alaska to America via the Bering Strait.
Mayan History: Books
Chichen Itza: History of the Maya

History of the Maya

A captivating guide to Mayan civilization, culture, and mythology

Mesoamerican History Maya

Mesoamerican History

A captivating guide to four historic civilizations

What is Mesoamerica?

Mayan History: Mesoamerica
Hostory of the Maya: Cultural Homogeneity in Mesoamerica, Quelle
When we speak of the Maya in science, the Maya settled Mesoamerica. Mesoamerica is the Greek word for Central America. The German anthropologist and historian Paul Kirchhoff introduced the term in 1943. He used it to describe peoples in Mexico and Central America who have a relatively uniform culture. Similar cultural traits include:

Cultivation of corn
Religion with many gods
The popular ball game
Importance of the jaguar
Intellectual development: writing, astronomy, mathematics, architecture and calendar
Trade, exchange of goods
Human sacrifice

Mesoamerica was not only home to the Maya, however. Other important cultures such as the Olmec, Zapotec, Aztec are also found in this region. They influenced each other, traded and developed their cultural elements such as religion.

Mesoamerica represents the cultures in Central America that have similar elements in agriculture, religion, and lifestyle.

When did the Mayan civilization begin?

The History of the Maya: Timeline Mesoamerica
Mayan History: Civilizations in Mesoamerica began as early as about 2500 BC.
The development in Mesoamerica took place over a long period of time. To describe the different stages of development, scholars use the terms Pre-Classic (ca. 2500 BC – 200 AD), Classic (200 – 900 AD), and Post-Classic (900 – 1521 AD). The Mayan civilization began in the Preclassic period, its boom was in the Classic period, and the decline of the Mayan culture happened in the Post-Classic period. The history of Mesoamerica ends with the arrival of the Spanish.

As early as about 2,500 BC, the oldest culture in Central America developed, that of the Olmecs. They are known for their huge round heads made of stone. The Olmecs populated the Mexican state of Tabasco on the Gulf of Mexico and laid the foundation for the further development of Mesoamerica.

The Olmecs in Mesoamerica: History of the Maya
The Olmec culture is known for its giant stone heads
The Maya culture began in what is now Guatemala. Nomadic at the time, the early Maya discovered corn and agriculture around 1,200 BC. They established small village communities and began to use pottery. The oldest Maya sites in Guatemala and Belize originated as early as 1,000 B.C. with El Mirador, Nakbe and Cerros.
The history of the Maya began as early as 1200 BC with the cultivation of corn and beans.

How did the Mayan civilization develop during the Classical period?

Mayan History: Rain god Chaac
The history of the Maya: Great religious centers consolidated their power
Between 200 and 800 AD we speak of the boom period of Mayan history. For over 600 years they consolidated their power. Enormous ceremonial centers were built and they developed their sciences. It is important to note that the Maya did not have only one ruler. Rather, the city-states competed with each other and sometimes waged brutal wars.

Thus, around 800 AD, important Mayan centers in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador were abandoned. Why, that is not scientifically clear. There may have been a great drought. However, it is also possible that the many wars severely weakened individual centers.

The boom of the Maya was between 200 and 800 A.D., large centers were established and their knowledge was developed.

What happened to the Maya in the Late Classic period?

The center of the Maya world shifted to the Yucatan Peninsula around 800 AD. Here, the cenotes provided sufficient water to supply large cities.
In the Late Classic period, large Mayan cities such as Chizen Itza, Uxmal and later Mayapan were built on the Yucatan Peninsula. The era was characterized by competition among themselves and the emergence and decline of great centers. When Chizen Itza was taken by the Toltecs, the last great power to emerge was the League of Mayapan, which lasted until 1441. Weakened by wars and conflicts, little of the former power was then left.

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1511, they did not have a concentrated Mayan force against them. Rather, individual tribes existed that were easily defeated. The great opponent of the Spaniards therefore waited until later with the Aztecs, who fought united in a strong army under one ruler (Moctezuma) and lost in the end. Thus also the history of Mesoamerica ended.

In the Late Classic period, the center of the Maya world shifted to the Yucatan Peninsula.

The Maya Land

History of the Maya: Maya Land

Mayan history: map Mayan territory and archaeological sites, Source INAH

In the course of their more than two-thousand-year history, the Maya inhabited an area that today is spread over five countries. There are 32 different dialects of the Mayan language that still exist today. Some of these are so different that they cannot understand each other.

The Maya land extends in Mexico over five federal states: Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco and Yucatan. Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras are also Maya land. Throughout the area there are impressive Mayan ruins that can be visited.

The Mayan territory includes five countries: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Hinduras and El Salvador.

The Mayan Universe and the Tree of Life

Mayan History: The Mayan Tree of Life

History of the Maya: The Tree of Life La Ceiba, Source INAH

The Mayan universe was represented by a giant La Ceiba tree (cotton tree). The branches supported the world above with its total of thirteen levels. Roots reached into the underworld with its nine levels, connecting the three worlds of the Maya:

World Above Us (Kaan)
Our world on earth (Kaab)
Underworld (Xibalba)

The Mayan tree of life La Ceiba connects the three worlds.

The Religion of the Maya

Mayan History: The Religion of the Maya

Maya History: Sacrifices in the Mayan religion

The Maya were very religious. Deities represented natural forces that could decide the future of people and the world. Whether it was the sun, the moon, the universe, the wind, the rain, fertility, corn, or war, the Maya had great reverence for the wrath of the gods.

One can roughly imagine what it meant back then if it didn’t rain for weeks, a child became seriously ill, or even a solar eclipse occurred.

Who were the Mayan gods?

Izamna Mayan Gods: History

Izamna – God of the Universe, God of the Gods

Occurs predominantly in the Caribbean coastal regions of the Yucatan Peninsula. He is the ruler of the universe and, according to Mayan belief, created the earth.

The Mayan town Izamal was probably named after him.

Kinich Ahau Mayan Gods: History

Kinich Ahau – God of the sun, descending god

This god is sometimes mixed with Izamna, it is difficult to distinguish between the two deities. Kinich Ahau wandered across the sky during the day as the sun, and at night he descended into the underworld as Balam (jaguar).
Ix Chel Gods of the Maya: History

Ix Chel – Goddess of the Moon and Fertility

Ix Chel means pale woman and she is the goddess of the moon, weaving and fertility. She is the mother of the gods and wife of Izamna (or Kinich Ahau).

In the representations she is sometimes seen as a young woman and sometimes as an old goddess. According to Popul Vuh, she flooded the earth when the gods were not satisfied with her creation of humans from wood.

Chaac Gods of the Maya: History

Chaac – Rain God

The god of rain Chaac is often depicted with an oversized, trunk-like nose. From him probably also comes the beauty ideal of large noses, which the Maya wanted to achieve with skull deformations in newborns.

Chaac is responsible for rain and lightning. He is one of the most powerful gods of all.

Kukulkan Mayan Gods: History

Kukulkan – God of the feathered serpent

Kukulkan is one of the most powerful gods of the Maya. He is the main god of Chichen Itza, the pyramid was dedicated to him. In the representations, this god has the form of a snake with feathers.

The Maya in Chichen Itza believed that Kukulkan comes to earth regularly. In Tulum, the power of the wind is also attributed to Kukulkan.

Yum Kaax Gods of the Maya: History

Yum Kaax – God of wild plants and animals

Often misunderstood as a corn god, Yum Kaax is the god of wild plants and animals. He is especially important to hunters.

Before Maya penetrated deep into the wilderness, he had to be asked for permission. As the son of Izamna and Ix Chel, he was quite a young god.

Yum Kaax Gods of the Maya: History

Ah Puch – God of the Underworld

Ah Puch is the god of the underworld (Xibalba) and rules over the dead. He is often depicted as a skeleton with crocodile skin and had various names in Mayan times.
The Maya had a variety of gods representing forces from nature.
Why did the Maya sacrifice to their gods?
The Maya knew a multitude of gods, and new ones were constantly being added. Other gods of the Maya lost importance in the course of time. Now, if Mayans wanted something from their gods, they had to give something in return.

And the more they gave, the more they got back from their gods. So Maya could not just pray for good things to happen. It wasn’t that easy for them, unfortunately; Mayan gods drew their power from sacrifices.

If the Maya wanted something from their gods, they had to give something in return.

What did the Maya sacrifice to their gods?

The history of the Maya: Offerings

The history of the Maya: Offerings

  • Offerings: Valuable stones, jewelry, pottery, animal bones.
    Self-sacrifices: Lacerations, self added with obsidian knives, piercing the skin or tongue with animal or fish bones, etc.
    Human sacrifices: victims were thrown into cenotes, heart taken out or decapitated. Human sacrifices were a crucial part of religions in Mesoamerica and were performed by all cultures. New types of sacrifices continued to emerge, and ideas from other cultures were adopted.Basically, the higher the social status of the victim, the more the sacrifice was worth. Therefore, the peoples of Mesoamerica often waged war to obtain appropriate sacrifices.Each deity had its peculiarities when it came to sacrifices. For example, the cenote at Chichen Itza was found to contain mostly children. The rain god Chaac brings the rain over the earth with lots of little helpers who pour out the rain (kind of like how the Christmas angels help Santa Claus). That is why this deity favored sacrificed children.The ingenuity of the Maya and other peoples of Mesoamerica in terms of human sacrifice will not be shown in detail here.
There were offerings, self-sacrifices, and human sacrifices among the ancient Maya.

What role did the priests play in the Mayan world?

The priests were very powerful people who came in rank right after the Halach Uinich (ruler). They were responsible for religious duties and performed rituals in the name of the gods. They could predict the future, perform miracles and prevent diseases. Priests were each assigned to a god.
Priests had a very high status among the Maya.

Did the Maya believe in life after death?

The Maya believed in an afterlife in which the soul first had to pass through the nine levels of the underworld. After that, the soul entered the thirteen levels of the world above before being reborn.

The dark planes of the underworld could be left out who had left his life in the birth of a child, in the defense in war or in a sacrifice to the gods.

Life was understood as a cycle, time as circular and therefore infinite.

The Mayan soul went through a certain cycle after death.

The social organization of Mayan society

Mayan History: Society

History of the Maya: Their Hierarchy

Mayan society was strongly hierarchical. The individual social classes remained among themselves, they did not mix with each other. Thus, ceremonial centers were inhabited only by the powerful of Mayan society, that is, priests, scientists, merchants. The lower social classes lived in huts outside the centers and provided food for the rulers and the powerful.

Halach Uinich: Ruler of a Mayan city

Priest: Responsible for religious ceremonies

Warriors: Strong men and fighters

Scientists, artists and traders

Farmers, hunters and gatherers: Responsible for provisioning, usually under the supervision of a priest

Slaves: Maya knew the concept of slaves. Often enslaved prisoners of war or waged wars to gain slaves (and human sacrifice).

The Maya grew corn, beans, chili peppers, tomatoes, and squash. Cotton and cacao beans were used to trade for other goods.

Mayan society was organized in strong hierachies.

The writings of the Maya

History of the Maya: Dresden Codex

History of the Maya: Dresden Codex, Source

Unfortunately, nowadays only a few writings about the Maya are preserved. The most famous are

Dresden Codex (in Mayan script)
Peresanius Codex from Paris (in Maya script)
Tro-Cortesanius Codex from Madrid (in Maya script)
Grollier Codex Mexico City (in Maya script)
Chilam Balam from Yucatan (in Latin script)
Popol Vuh (in Latin script)

The Maya had their own script, with about 700 logograms and hyphenators. Mayan writing is considered almost completely deciphered. Although the Maya were able to make paper from bam roots and there were some scripts, only four of them, classified as authentic, are preserved today. They are in museums in Dresden (Dresden National Library), Paris, Madrid and Mexico City.

Very few writings with original Mayan logograms remain.

Why are there so few Mayan writings left?

Mayan History: The Mayan Scripture

Mayan History: The Mayan Scripture

Many Mayan works, writings and images of deities fell victim to destruction by Diego de Landa, later the first bishop in Yucatan, during the Conquista. Diego de Landa’s goal was to introduce the Christian religion to Yucatan.

Even though it can be assumed that the Maya included the Christian god among their deities, not all of them could or wanted to leave their own powerful deities overnight. The fear of divine wrath was too great, old traditions too deeply rooted.

In order to exorcise “devilish thoughts,” Diego de Landa burned all Mayan works made of combustible material that he could get his hands on July 15, 1562. He justified this act by saying, “We found among them a great number of books with these letters, and because they contained nothing free from superstition and the wiles of the devil, we burned them all, which the Indians deeply regretted and deplored.”

Later, Diego de Landa wrote his report “Relación de las cosas de Yucatán,” today one of the most important sources on Mayan life.

Order here at Amazon: Diego de Landa: Report from Yucatan

The Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote an interesting article about Diego de Landa: How the mysterious Maya script was deciphered

The Spaniard Diego de Landa burned many Mayan works in a single night.
The best books about the Maya
Mayan History: Reports from Yucatan

Mayan History

Mayan History: Reports from Yucatan, Diego de Landa

Mayan History: Poopol Wuuj

Poopol Wuuj

The Holy Book of the Maya

Do the Maya have some kind of Bible?

Popol Vuuj: Mayan History

The bible of the Maya: Popol Vuh

The Popol Vuh describes the creation of the world and the gods of the Quinche-Maya in Guatemala. It was made by the Dominican priest Fransisco Ximenez in Latin script. He probably copied it from an older document and added (Christian) elements.

According to the Poppl Vuh, the gods formed the first man from clay, but he was soft and had no movement. The next man was carved from wood, but he had no soul. In the last attempt to create man, the gods used corn. This man made of corn worshipped his creators and thanked them.

The Popol Vuh tells about the creation of the world from the point of view of the Quiche Maya.
Cenotes and caves in the history of the Maya
Mayan History: Cenotes and Caves

Mayan history: Cave with Mayan offerings

The cenotes in Yucatan and caves were sacred places for the ancient Maya. They were the entrance to the underworld Xibalba. Ruler of the cenotes was the rain god Chaac, who demanded a large number of sacrifices. Sacrifices could be incense, pottery, jade and human remains.
For the ancient Maya, cenotes were entrances to the underworld Xibalba.

Mayan Pottery

History of the Mayan: Pottery

History of the Maya: Ceramic

Ceramics was invented by the Maya relatively early. It was an important trade good and was used in daily life as well as for ceremonies. Ceramics are often richly decorated and have writings on them. This gives us today an interesting insight into the life of the Maya.
The Maya used ceramics for everyday and ceremonial purposes.

The clothes of the Maya

History of the Maya: Clothes

Feather ornaments (here from the Aztec ruler Moctezuma)

Clothes of high-ranking people were made of cotton and richly decorated. The Maya obtained colors from seeds, flowers, roots and fruits.
Especially important people had impressive feather ornaments and jewelry. Clothing with jaguar elements also represented power and high rank.

Priests were adorned analogous to the gods they represented.

Feather ornaments and jaguar elements were signs of high rank.

Mayan beauty ideals

The history of the Maya: skull deformations

Mayan History: Scull deformations

Maya had to endure a lot for their beauty. Newly born children had their heads tied off with wooden boards so that the skull grew backwards. This was supposed to visually ensure a long nose. This ideal of beauty was exemplified by the rain god Chaac with his trunk-like nose.

Squinting was also considered beautiful. For this purpose, a stone was attached to a strand of hair, which hung in front of the eyes of small children. Since the children then always looked at this stone, their eyes crossed over time. This ritual has long been practiced by Mayan tribes who still live deep away from civilization.

Rings in the lips, nose and ears, and inlays of jade and stones in the teeth gave men a dangerous appearance. Teeth were also sharpened to a point. Before warlike conflicts and for aesthetic reasons, the ancient Maya painted their bodies.

Long noses, squinting, polished teeth and rings through the lips, nose and ears were considered beautiful.

The Mayan Mathematics

The history of the Maya: numbers

Mayan History: The numvers 1  – 20

The system of Mayan numbers was as simple as it was ingenious. They needed only three characters to express numbers. It was counted in steps of twenty, the number of fingers and toes.

One dot represents one, two dots represent two, etc., five is a dash. A dash with one dot represents six, a dot with two dashes represents seven.

The ancient Maya were one of the first peoples to know the concept of the number zero. It is depicted as a shell. Therefore, a 20 is a shell with one dot, a 40 is a shell with two dots, etc.

The ancient Maya had an ingenious counting system, the numbers consisted of dots and dashes.

The Mayan Calendar

The history of the Maya: Calender

Mayan History: Calendar

The Maya believed that time is cyclical, that is, infinite. They had a system of different calendars, the best known being three calendars.

The idea of the calendar originally came from the Olmecs. They invented the so-called Tzolkin, a calendar with 260 days, which was used by the Maya to calculate ceremonies and divine events. It consists of 13 months of twenty days.

The Haab, the solar calendar, had 365 days or 18 months of 20 days each and one month of only 5 days (Uayeb). It was used to calculate daily life and agriculture. The long count, the long count, stands for year numbers.

The Maya had a system of different calendars.


  • The ancient Maya look back on a history of more than two thousand years
  • They were far superior in their knowledge to other peoples
  • The Maya had a multitude of gods to whom natural powers were assigned
  • Mayan society consisted of individual city-states that competed with each other
  • The Maya had a system of calendars, numbers, scripts and architecture
  • Unfortunately, only a few Mayan writings are preserved today


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Hello, my name is Birgit and I write about interesting topics around vacations in Mexico and traveling on the Yucatan peninsula. I would love to hear from you and I am always happy to receive ideas and recommendations for new articles.

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