- Definition: Mesoamerican civilization of the Maya peoples
- Location: Parts of Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras
- Origin: 2000 BC
- Periods: Pre-classic period, classic period and post-classic period
- Currency: Cacao
- Achievements: Abstract mathematics and astronomy
- Sites: El Mirador, Kaminaljuyu, Tikal, Teotihuacan
- Dances: Snake Dance, Monkey Dance and Dance of the Stag
- Books: Well of Sacrifice by C. Eboch (1999), Breaking the Maya Code by M. D. Coe (2012)
- Movies: Apocalypto (2006), Mystery of the Maya (1995), Mayan Prophecies and Crop Circles (2010)
K’iche’ is the Most Spoken Mayan Language with 2.3 Million Speakers
Although most people know Mayans only for their powerful ancient civilization, Mayan facts show that the language of Mayans is still present in the modern world. Around 2.3 million people still speak a language called K’iche’, which is the most widely spoken of nearly 30 Mayan languages that are spoken in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras. All these languages descend from Proto-Mayan – a theoretical language that was supposedly spoken in the region more than 5,000 years ago and was reconstructed by 20th century linguists from modern Mayan languages and classic Mayan inscriptions.
The Lives of Mayan People Were Centered around Religion
Mayan facts show that life in the great Maya civilization centered around religion, which had an important effect on many other areas of life. The modern Maya religion, which is still practiced nowadays in Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras and some areas of Mexico, has been influenced by Roman Catholicism over the centuries and is quite a bit different from the ancient Maya religion that is millennia old. The old Maya religion is responsible for many great achievements of the Mayan civilization, including the in(famous) Mayan calendar and spectacular pyramids.
The Mayans Had over 150 Gods in Their Complex Religion
Mayan facts reveal that the ancient Maya religion is very complex, having over 150 gods who are each clearly defined by their characteristics and purposes. Five of these gods were worshipped very often according to ancient texts, and are thus considered to be the most important ones. The first is Itzamn (also known as Zamn), the lord of the heavens and night and day, who was always ready to be called upon in hard times. The second, the right hand of Itzamn, is Chac, sometimes even more important that the lord of the heavens himself, since he is the god of rain and thus in a way also the god of life. The third god is Ah Mun, the corn god and the god of agriculture, the fourth is Ah Puch, the god of death, and the fifth is Ek Chuah, the god of war, human sacrifice and violent death (all of which the ancient Mayan kingdom had plenty).
The Mayan Diet Was Surprisingly Varied for the Time
Although the mighty ancient Maya civilization started millennia ago, the diet of its people was surprisingly good and far surpassed those of most other civilizations of the time. The majority of the early Mayans were farmers who planted their fields as a community, using various farming tools and techniques. Their main crops were corn, beans, avocados, chili peppers, pineapples, squashes and an ingredient which is still very important to many modern diets – cacao. When it comes to animal meat, the Maya people mainly hunted deer, rabbits, fish and turkeys; the latter were also kept as domestic animals. The Mayan diet frequently also included delights such as tomatoes, sweet potatoes and papaya…
The Majority of Mayan Kingdoms Collapsed during the 8th and 9th Centuries
Mayan facts reveal that the majority of the mighty Mayan kingdoms collapsed during the 8th and 9th centuries, but historians are still not quite sure about what might have caused this. Possible reasons include overpopulation, foreign invasion, lower-class uprising, collapse of important trade routes, environmental disaster, epidemic disease and/or climate change. The decline in Mayan power was most clearly seen in the lack of majestic architectural constructions, and once bursting cities becoming deserted. Historians have long been shocked by the apparent suddenness of the great empire’s collapse – in around 800 AD the civilization was at its peak with extremely well developed culture, science and religion, but just a century later it collapsed in a very mysterious way…
Famine Seems the Most Likely Cause for the Collapse of Ancient Mayan Kingdoms
Although there is still not a completely accepted theory among historians regarding what exactly destroyed the powerful ancient Mayan civilization, some previously widely-accepted theories have been discredited recently, leaving only a few classical Maya-doom theories. Among them, the famine theory seems the most likely.
Mayans were skilled farmers and hunters, but as their population rapidly grew, the sheer number of people became a burden to local food production. Even the great technological advancements, such as wetlands draining or hill terracing, couldn’t provide enough food for the mighty civilization. A major famine, possibly connected to the spread of disease, is thus thought most likely to have caused the collapse of many great ancient Mayan kingdoms.
Mayan Culture Is Best Known for Its Art, Architecture and Mathematical Systems
Mayan facts show that the great Maya civilization was very proficient when it came to creating art, architectural wonders and complex mathematical and astronomical systems that were far ahead of the time. The most prominent accomplishments of Mayans in these areas are certainly the construction of pyramids, the Mayan calendar, Mayan scripture, stone sculptures, wood carvings, murals on the walls of buildings, calculations of the length of the tropical solar year, and the Mayan vigesimal numeric system that enabled them to use huge numbers in their calculations in various areas of life.
The Mayans Built Some Stunning Pyramids that Are Still Around Today
Mayan facts reveal that many large palaces, pyramids and other public buildings that were built in various Mayan city-states are still around today to be admired and show us the amazing architectural skills of ancient Mayan builders. The pyramids are probably the best-known legacy of their old kingdoms – the Mayans built two basic types of pyramid. Both types were built for religious purposes, had steps to the top, and were of the characteristic pyramidal shape. But one type had a temple on the top and was meant to be climbed by priests to offer sacrifices to gods, while the other was built solely for the gods and was not meant to be climbed (steps were deliberately designed to be very steep to ensure they required a huge amount of effort to climb).
One of the most famous Mayan pyramids is El Castillo, a temple to the god Kukulcan in the city of Chichen Itza. It is just under 100 feet tall and has 91 steps on each of its four sides; when adding up the numbers of all steps and adding 1 for the platform on the top, the result is 365 – one step for each day of the year. Another very famous Mayan pyramid is La Danta in Guatemala, which is one of the biggest pyramids on the planet by total volume (around 99 million cubic feet).
The Mayans Had a Large Number of City-States with Their Own Independent Governments
Although most of us believe that the Mayans were a united civilization, Mayan facts clearly show that their civilization consisted of numerous city-states, each of them with its own independent government. Historians believe that there must have been hundreds of these city-states at the peak of the Mayan civilization.
Each city-state was ruled by a king (who was believed to rule by the right given from the gods). Nobles formed powerful councils which ran the government, and priests were powerful figures in the government too, since religion was a central part of the old Mayan civilization. Priests usually served as advisors to kings and thus had a great impact on how the Mayan city-states lived.
The Last Mayan Kingdom Existed Up Until 1697
Although the Mayan civilization reached its peak in around 800 AD, and many of its mighty kingdoms collapsed in the following centuries, the last independent Mayan kingdom – the island city of Tayasal – existed until the end of the 17th century. The kingdom submitted to Spanish conquerors in March 1697, led by the then governor of Yucatan, Martin de Ursua. After that, there was no record of any Mayan kingdoms existing anymore – all of them mysteriously disappeared in history, and most historians nowadays believe that the Spanish conquerors might have carried a virus that killed off a large part of the Mayan population.
Mayans Actually Still Exist – And They Live All around the World
Although the mighty ancient Mayan civilization collapsed centuries ago, Mayan people still inhabit the world. In fact, there are over 7 million Mayans still living in the areas of ancient kingdoms nowadays; many of them try to maintain portions of the ancient Mayan culture while others are more assimilated to the modern cultures of the areas they live in. The largest populations of modern Mayans can be found in certain areas of Mexico (especially the states of Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Chiapas), Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and western Honduras.
The Mayans Had Advanced Writing Skills
Many accomplishments of the Maya civilizations can be attributed to the simple fact that the Mayans were able to communicate and preserve their knowledge in a very efficient manner through their advanced writing skills. Mayan written language was in the form of – similarly to the ancient Egyptian civilization – hieroglyphs, and they used it to write on stones, on wood and even in books that were made out of the soft inner bark of fig trees. Researchers previously thought for a long time that Mayan written language developed around 1,700 years ago, but recent findings show that it might have been well before that, some 2,300 years ago.
According to the Mayan Calendar, the World Was Supposed to End in 2012
The Mayan calendar is one of the greatest achievements of the mighty ancient civilization, as Mayan facts show. Not only because the Mayans’ observations of the sky and their understanding of time were amazing for that era, but also because the calendar has caused much ado in modern times. According to the Mayan calendar, the end of the world was supposed to occur on December 21, 2012, but we are obviously still here, so it seems that those who were expecting the world to end were reading the calendar wrong. And indeed, the date in the Mayan calendar doesn’t actually signify the end of the world, only the end of one of the so-called creation periods in the Mayan long count calendar. In a way, the end of a Mayan creation period is similar to the end of the year we now celebrate each December 31, so it is definitely nothing to be afraid of…
The Mayans Did Some Bizarre Things with Their Children
The ancient Maya people had some very unusual ideas regarding how their children should look; ideas that would nowadays be perceived as abusive. For example, the Mayan upper classes pressed boards against babies’ foreheads to create a flattened surface, which seemed to be a desired look back then. They also dangled certain objects in front of a newborn’s eyes to permanently cross them, and filed children’s teeth to make them pointy or to create holes that would be filled with jade. Another strange, but much less invasive, habit they had involved naming children according to the day on which they were born as every day of the year had a specific name set for boys and girls.
Blood Sacrifice Was Nothing Unusual For the Mayans
Many of the day-to-day habits of the old Mayans were anchored in religion, so it is no surprise that blood sacrifice to the gods was a common occurrence among the Mayans. Little children were usually top choices for such sacrifices because of their pure souls, which were believed to bring prosperity. On some occasions, slaves or prisoners of war were used instead of children. One of the most surprising Mayan facts reveals that some of the modern Maya peoples still perform blood sacrifices, but they – of course – don’t use human blood. They use cattle or chicken blood instead.
If You Got Sick during Mayan Times, It Wouldn’t Have Been Such a Huge Problem
Obviously Mayan medicine couldn’t have been as evolved as modern medicine, but compared to other civilizations of the time and many civilizations that lived centuries after the ancient Mayans, they had a profound knowledge of the human body and possible ways of healing it. This is due to the simple fact that medicine, as were almost all other areas of life, was tightly connected to religion, so the select few who were allowed to heal were given an excellent education. Mayan healers were called shamans, and although a part of their healing relied on sorcery and the good will of the gods, they knew how to suture deep wounds (using human hair), heal fractures, and even carry out some dentistry.
The Mayans Had a Good Knowledge of Painkillers and Hallucinogenic Drugs
Due to the numerous spiritual practices that were a part of everyday life in the ancient Mayan kingdoms, it should come as no surprise to learn that various natural hallucinogenic drugs were used to enhance the experience. But these natural remedies were not only used to connect people to the spiritual world, but were also used in medicine, as painkillers. The most common natural remedies that Mayans used were tobacco, mushrooms, peyote, morning glory, and various other plants that could be used to make alcoholic beverages. The vast knowledge of the Mayan people about plants that could be used in medicine is partially revealed by Mayan pottery and carvings, which often depict healing rituals.
Ball Games Were Significantly More Dangerous during Mayan Times
Mayan facts reveal details of a stunning Mayan ball game that was very popular in the ancient culture. The playing field had two rings, usually mounted on two opposing walls, about 25 feet from the ground, and the goal of the game was to score a goal through these rings. Kicking or throwing the ball was not allowed, despite the fact that the ball was not allowed to touch the ground during play, but players could use their abdomens, thighs, upper arms, backs and maybe also their heads. They also wore protective gear for their hips, forearms and knees.
So, what was so dangerous about the Mayan ball game? Well, for one, the ball weighed around 8 pounds, which was enough to cause serious injuries by itself. In addition, the gameplay itself was very violent, allowing (or even encouraging) the players to hit, tackle and ram their opponents with their full strength. Needless to say, many players of the game died on the field, so it is perhaps not surprising that only one goal was enough to end the game.
The Mayans Were Big Fans of Saunas
Mayan facts reveal that being pure was an important part of the Mayan culture, again a habit without a doubt connected to their religion, so it should be no surprise that Mayans were big fans of saunas. Of course, their version of a sauna was very different to those we are familiar with today, but similar facilities, known as sweat baths, were constructed from stone and had a small opening on the top of the ceiling. Water was poured on hot rocks inside these stony constructions and generated steam that induced sweating. Sweat baths were used on various occasions, including to heal the sick, revitalize future mothers who had recently conceived a child, and to clean one’s body and mind to be closer to the gods.
Mayan Life Differed Greatly Depending on Whether You Were Wealthy or Poor
As in most civilizations – both past and present – the lives of those who were wealthy among the Mayans were very different from the lives of those who were poor. The Maya king and his trusted nobles of course lived very comfortable lives in large stony palaces, having all of their needs tended to by commoners, and wearing colorful clothes of fine materials with jewelry. But commoners had to work hard to earn their right to live in the community. Most of them worked as farmers and/or crafters from morning until night and wore simple clothes – usually just loincloths for men and long skirts for women – while living in simple mud-and-stone huts.
Mayan Facts — Facts about the Mayans Summary
The ancient Maya civilization was one of the greatest in our planet’s history. Advanced mathematics, clever astronomical observations, majestic architecture and creative arts are the greatest achievements of the mighty Mayans, whose lives revolved around various religious practices that often included violent rituals such as blood sacrifice. Mayan kingdoms reached their peak in around 800 AD, but most of them mysteriously collapsed in the following centuries. The last Mayan kingdom was conquered by the Spanish at the end of the 17th century. About 7 million Mayans still exist today in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras, and some of them still follow some of the traditions of their ancient ancestors.