Learn What The Mayans Were Actually Like According To Historians

Although some people perceive Mayans as heart-eating barbarians, they were actually one of the most advanced civilizations in world history. On top of their advanced calendar system, they built roads and water irrigation that reached over 60,000 buildings.

Over the course of four thousand years, the Mayans created art, medicine, pyramids, and ball games. Although Spanish invaders destroyed many Mayan artifacts, scholars continue to discover new historical sites as recently as 2019. Learn how the Mayans lived, worshiped, and wrote, according to historians and archaeologists. The truth may impress you.

Were Spanish conquerors the only force that eliminated the Maya? The truth is much more complex…

The Mayans Never Declared That The World Would End In 2012

Mayan calendar disk on the ground at Tonina, a pre-Columbian archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

A popular theory about the Mayans arose in the early 2000s that the calendar ended on December 21, 2012, signaling the end of the world. So why didn’t it happen? Among other reasons, historians assert that the Mayans never predicted the end of the world at all.

The Mayan calendar recycles every 8,000 years, or 2,880,000 days. They never claimed the calendar’s restart would cause a doomsday–that theory stemmed from Western culture’s fascination with Armageddon. They also had two more calendars that were more accurate than that one.

They Paved Highways

LiDAR mapping of Mayan structures and highways
Youtube/LSU Beastmode

In September 2018, archaeologists used LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) imaging to explore the Guatemalan jungle. From that, they discovered a series of interconnected highways that linked over 60,000 structures. Although current research estimates that 7-11 million Mayans existed, archaeologists now believe the population was closer to 20 million.

Historians theorize that the Mayans paved these highways to transport agriculture to major cities. The LiDAR even revealed a seven-story pyramid in the 800 square miles of the jungle they explored.

Mayan Society Collapsed Before The Spanish Arrived

The Mayan people in front of a temple
Deviantart/deleted user

Around 700 or 800 A.D., the Mayans started abandoning their southern cities, one by one. Historians have proposed several theories for why this may have happened. One theory states that social uproar within the city-states may have led to the civilization’s collapse.

The Mayans’ high walls suggest that they fought through persistent warfare. Scholars argue that trade may have crumbled during battles, which diminished the power of Mayan leaders, believed to be living gods. This gradual uproar may explain why the Mayan empire gradually succumbed.

Mayans were so advanced that they could farm even in the overgrowing jungle.

Being Cross-Eyed Was Considered Attractive

STONE SCULPTURE of MAYAN GOD of MEDECINE & SCIENCE, COPAN RUINS, HONDURAS.
Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

Unlike other ancient civilizations, the Mayans didn’t spend too much time on beauty standards. Archaeologists believe that they looked similar to people today. But they did engage in unique beauty trends, such as being cross-eyed.

The Mayans also valued sharpened teeth and a flattened forehead. Mothers would press a board against their baby’s forehead to achieve this look, and dangle an object in front of a baby’s eyes to make them cross. Upper-class Mayans received most of this treatment.

They Played Ball

Men play an ancient Mayan ritual game called Juego de Pelota Maya, a Mayan ballgame, at the Iximche ruins.
Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

Archaeologists have uncovered a Mayan ballcourt in Copan that dates back to 800 C.E. The Mesoamericans used to play the game Pok-a-Tok, in which players tried to bounce a rubber ball through a ring without using their feet or hands. Another ballpark in Tikal has a triple-court that likely hosted tournaments.

Pok-a-Tok had a religious significance, as losers would be sacrificed to the gods. Therefore, they orientated the courts north to south, signifying the celestial realm and the underworld, respectively.

Did sacrificial victims receive any reward? According to Mayan belief, they did.

They Modified The Jungle For Farming

Temples I and II from Temple IV in the Mayan archeological site of Tikal National Park, Guatemala.
Fuller/VW PICS/UIG via Getty Images

Because of jungle overgrowth, archaeologists struggled for years to dig up Mayan artifacts. Initially, they assumed that the Mayans couldn’t farm in the tropical wetlands. They were wrong–recently, almost 150 square miles of modified terrain appeared in research, and three times as much farmland.

Researchers speculate that what is now wetland used to be cultivated for farming. The Mayans grew pineapples, chili peppers, cacao, squash, papayas, avocados, maize, and beans. They also used their plants for medicine, incense, oils, and skin products.

Mayans Rarely Sacrificed Their Own People

Carving of Lord Shield Jaguar and his wife Lady Xoc is performing a blood sacrifice by drawing a thorn rope through her tongue.
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Human sacrifice was considered the most honorable ritual offering to the gods. The Mayans believed that blood was the primary source of nourishment for their deities. Most of the time, they sacrificed high-status prisoners of war. In some ritual settings, though, they would sacrifice their own citizens.

Most of all, the Mayans prized an enemy king as a sacrifice. They killed these people through decapitation. Other methods included shooting the person with arrows and, of course, the well-known heart removal. The Mayans also painted the person’s body with ritualistic significance.

Sacrificed People Were Saved From A Rough Journey

The Tzompantli, or Platform of the Skulls, carved into Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Sacrificial victims did not have to enter the underworld, which spared them from an excruciating journey. Unlike Greek mythos, where underworld deities hardly tortured anyone, the Mayan underworld Xibalba aimed to terrorize souls and steer them in the wrong direction. Even kings ended up in Xibalba after death.

From Xibalba, the Mayans believed that they had to ascend nine levels to reach the earth, and a further 23 levels to enter paradise. Other people exempt from this journey included women and children who died in childbirth, suicide victims and those killed in battle.

Mayan infrastructure made them one of the largest civilizations of all time.

Their Gods Lived And Died As We Do

Lime culture of Chac-Mool, the Mayan rain god of Chichen-Itza in Mexico
Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

The Mayans worshiped over 165 deities. Each god grew up and died, much like humans do. They also perform many human activities, including planting and harvesting, conducting business, fighting wars, forming alliances, and practicing divination.

Mayan gods were also mutable, meaning that they could change gender, age, or morals. The gods oversaw every aspect of human life, from thunder to animals to writing to ball games. Because of their complexity, scholars still struggle to define and name every deity in the Mayan pantheon.

The Mayans Built Massive Infrastructure

Drawing of the Chichen Itza infrastructure in Mexico, dating back to the 5th century B.C.
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Because the Mayan Empire encompassed so many people, the ancients built massive infrastructures to keep their civilization humming. For instance, they built water management systems that spanned hundreds of square miles. They relied on cenotes, surface water pools that connect to underground water. So far, archaeologists have found over 2,200 cenotes.

Mayan city-states were carefully planned out and often included broad plazas. They erected buildings along a north-south axis to easily view the solar and astrological cycles. They also took the land into account, often placing more significant buildings up high.

A cave discovered in 2019 revealed fascinating facts about Mayan worship…

They Constructed Two Different Types Of Pyramids

Aerial view over El Palacio and the Temple of the Inscriptions, archaeological site of Palenque in Mexico.
Getty Images

The Mayans built two types of pyramids, both for a different religious purpose. One type was meant to be climbed, and citizens would ascend them to perform human sacrifice. The other could not be climbed or touched, because it was a sacred temple to the gods.

The sacred pyramids often included fake doors and steep steps to prevent anyone who wasn’t a priest from entering. A pyramid’s steps and architecture often mirrored seasonal and astrological changes. El Castillo, for instance, purposefully reflects the light of the spring equinox to create shadows that resemble a snake, symbol of the god Kukulcan.

Mayans Stacked Newer Structures On Top Of Older Ones

The Pyramid of the Five Storeys in Edzna, Mexico, a temple of the Mayan civilization.
Getty Images

Just like in today’s cities, Mayans built newer structures on top of older buildings. Air spotter photographs revealed an elongated building dated back 2,500 years, with another structure in relatively the same spot only 1,500 years old. The dating was correct; it just meant that later Mayan eras built more on top of an older building.

Their re-decorated buildings included pyramids, most famously the 40-foot-high Temple VI of Tikal dating back to 734 A.D. Palaces featured built-on roofing, where the Mayans would pile flat stones on top of each other to create a unique roof design.

They Performed Religious Rituals In Caves

Cenote cave in the Mayan Riviera on the Yucatan Peninsula
myLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Recently in 2019, archaeologists discovered a Mayan ritual cave on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula that has remained untouched for over 1,000 years. They found 155 artifacts still intact. Holley Moyes, a Maya historian from the University of California, Merced, said that Mayans considered caves to be entrances to the underworld. “They represent some of the most sacred spaces for the Maya.”

The Mayas likely worshipped their rain god, Chaac, in this cave. They offered incense, food in bowls, and clay artworks to this deity. The researchers believe that they left these offerings to ask for rain.

The Maya were more literate than many people assume.

The Mayans May Have Grown Too Big To Sustain

People surround the Kukulcan Pyramid as a shaman performs a spring equinox ritual at the Mayan archaeological site of Chichen Itza
HUGO BORGES/AFP/Getty Images

Some historians theorize that the Mayans disappeared because of their rapid, unprecedented growth. Although the Mayans cleverly upheld their agriculture–they rotated crops to preserve the soil–scholars suggest that they may have grown too big to support every citizen.

The millions of Mayan people may have naturally caused forest erosion, depleting viable farmland. Other historians argue that if a massive drought struck, they could not distribute enough water, even with their massive irrigation systems.

They Wrote Down Just About Everything

Mayan hieroglyphic carving in the ancient Mayan city of Palenque, Mexico.
Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Maya employed one of the earliest written languages. They carved Maya glyphs (similar to hieroglyphs) into stone, stucco, wood, pottery, and even clothes. Translating these writings is not easy because the system is one of the most complex in the world. The letters expressed ideas, actions, and syllabic sounds. In the early twentieth century, historians finally deciphered it.

Unfortunately, the Spanish destroyed most Mayan written works, but stone monuments in altars still supply us with their literature. The priestly scribes (both men and women) who could write signed all of their work. They wrote about personal property, culture, and religion.

If they didn’t get their calendar right, the Mayans believed that they would perish. Learn why.

Mayan Medicine Was Incredibly Advanced

A man throws white incense into the fire during the Mayan New Year's celebration at the ceremonial center of Iximche in Tecpan
EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images

When it came to medical practices, the Mayans wasted nothing–plants, trees, even their own hair. They used human hair to suture wounds, keeping them closed without antiseptics effectively. They also conducted dental surgery, creating prosthetic teeth from jade, turquoise, and pyrite.

Since the Maya believed that people became sick as a punishment, medicine men would ask the patient about their symptoms and transgressions. These doctors had extensive knowledge of herbalism and performed childbirth similarly to modern doctors. Sometimes, they sent people to sweat baths, similar to a modern-day sauna.

They Never Weaponized Metal

Obsidian knife, one of the weapons the Maya would use
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Mayans knew about metal, but for some reason, they never incorporated it into weapons. They mainly used obsidian, which they sharpened into points brutal enough to pierce Spanish steel. They carved darts and arrows, some of which dare over 40,000 years old.

The Mayans also used an atlatl, a carved stick used to throw darts at enemies. Eventually, they moved on from the atlatl to the bow and arrow, since the obsidian could shatter when thrown by the atlatl.

Their Calendar Meant Life Or Death

The Madrid Codex, a Mayan almanac that organized their calendar
Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

In Mayan mythology, the gods destroyed their first attempt at human beings because these humans would not consult their sacred calendar. So it’s no wonder that the Maya poured their focus and devotion into their calendar creation. They created two calendars: a secular one to track seasons and harvest times, and a Sacred Calendar to chart astrology and plan holidays for the gods.

The Sacred Calendar also predicted the future, or so the Mayans believed. These calendars would be interpreted by scribes and priests, who relayed them unto the king, who in turn told the people.

Most people don’t know that the Maya survived…

Mayans Spoke Over 70 Languages

Mayan indigenous people celebrate a ceremony marking the 21st anniversary of the signing of the peace in Guatemala after 36 years of civil armed conflict.
ORLANDO ESTRADA/AFP/Getty Images

Because the Mayan empire encompassed so many people, Mayan citizens each spoke a different dialect, which each evolved into its own language. Currently, Guatemala recognizes 21 Mayan languages, while Mexico recognizes eight more. Historians count over 70 Mayan languages that still survive today.

Most modern Mayan languages descend from the Proto-Mayan language, a younger dialect in terms of the Maya, dating back only 5,000 years. This language split into six diverse branches: Quichean, Yucatecan, Qanjobalan, Mamean, Co-lan-Tzeltalan, and Huastecan.

The Maya Still Exist Today Today

Members of the Maya people of Guatemala perform a ceremonial ritual in honor of the sun
Alex Peña/LatinContent/Getty Images

Today, over six million people speak one of the many Mayan languages. These descendants of the Maya have preserved their traditions throughout the centuries. However, forest decimation in their area threatens Maya’s agricultural and religious resources.

Mayan descendants live in northern Peru and Mexico, divided into tribes such as the Yucatecs, Tzeltal, and Tzotzil. They still engage in a version of Pok-a-Tok which they call Ulama, and no sacrifice comes to the losers.