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.
The Mayans Never Declared That The World Would End In 2012
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
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
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.
Being Cross-Eyed Was Considered Attractive
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
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.
They Modified The Jungle For Farming
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
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
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.
Their Gods Lived And Died As We Do
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
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.
They Constructed Two Different Types Of Pyramids
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
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
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 Mayans May Have Grown Too Big To Sustain
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
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.
Mayan Medicine Was Incredibly Advanced
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
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
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.
Mayans Spoke Over 70 Languages
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
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 throughout southern Mexico and northern Central America, 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.
The Mayans Were Chocoholics
Cacao grows naturally around the rain forests of South and Central America, so it’s no surprise that the Maya eventually found ways to consume it. Archaeological finds suggest that the Maya have been processing cacao as far back as 2,600 years ago, based on cacao signatures that have been found in Maya ceramic vessels that date back to 600 BCE.
Instead of eating cacao like we do today, the Maya mixed it with water, honey, chili peppers, cornmeal, and other ingredients to create a foamy drink that was consumed during celebrations and rituals.
They Invented An Early Version Of The Grill
The Maya had their own ancient version of grills and no, we don’t mean the kind you barbecue on. Rappers today have grills that add gold and diamond embellishments to their teeth and the Maya did something similar when they were still around.
Instead of gold and diamonds, however, the Maya would inlay jade, pyrite, hematite, or turquoise directly into their teeth! They did so by drilling holes into a tooth and filling them with the precious stones. This was a practice among women as much is it was for men.
An Enema Let You Talk To The Gods
As a spiritual civilization, it makes sense that the Maya would have wanted to talk to the spirits and the gods as much as they could. The Maya intoxicated themselves when they wanted to speak to the spirits to predict the future or help them come to terms with events they couldn’t understand.
They would make an alcoholic drink called “balché” that was likely made with fermented and psychedelic honey but to avoid vomiting, they instead administered the substance through an enema. Scenes on Mayan pottery suggest that ritual enemas were a common thing.
They Had More Than 50 Types Of Mushrooms
Historians suggest that the Maya had an abundance of psychedelic mushrooms at their own disposal. At least 54 types of hallucinogenic mushrooms were used by these ancient cultures and some studies suggest that many of these mushroom species can still be found in Mexico today.
These mushrooms were used in religious rituals that are over 3,000 years old. “Those who eat them see visions and feel fluttering of the heart. The visions they see are sometimes frightening and sometimes humorous,” according to General History of the Things of New Spain.
They Also Harvested Toad Skins
Of all the natural drugs that the Maya made use of, the one they got from toads is probably one of the strangest. They sought out toads in the Bufo genus, whose salivary glands excreted a toxic substance called bufotoxins that had psychedelic properties.
In order to take advantage of these bufotoxins, the Maya would add the dried skins of these toads along with tobacco to their alcoholic beverages. The extra potent drink was used prominently by the K’iche’ group of the Maya, who used the toad skins as an ingredient in their balché drink.
Blue Was An Important Color
Maya blue is a vibrant sky color that has been used prominently throughout ancient Maya artifacts but it actually plays a more significant role over adding color to their works of art. The blue was representative of the cloudless sky that came with the plague of a dry season, so the Maya considered the blue the color of Chaak, the rain god.
Whenever the Maya wanted the rain to come, they’d pick a human sacrifice and paint that person in Maya blue before they were thrown onto an altar where their still-beating hearts were cut right out of them.
They Built Some Of The World’s Earliest Saunas
Long before there were the famous baths of the Roman civilation, the ancient Mayans already had it all figured out. The Maya knew that a really good sweat could be cleansing and had numerous health benefits.
One of the earliest known sweatbaths were uncovered at Cuello, in northern Belize, where archaeologists found a 3,000-year-old structure that was used so that the Mayans could sweat as a means of cooling down in their tropical climate. Their sweatbaths were often made of stone or adobe and have also been found in Guatemala and El Salvador.
They Had Their Own Ball Game
If you’ve ever traveled to Maya cities like Chichen-Itza, then you might’ve seen plenty of ancient ball courts. The Maya would gather at these courts to play a game called “pitz” and it was kind of like soccer and basketball combined.
Players would pass around a heavy rubber ball the size of a soccer ball to get it through very high stone hoops. The players weren’t allowed to use their hands but there did wear gear to protect their ribs, knees, and arms.
Pitz Was A Very Serious Religious Game
Unlike basketball and soccer, however, the Mayan game of pitz was a lot more serious. In fact, it wasn’t just a game. Pitz was actually a very important ritual that hearkens back to the Maya creation story recounted in the Popol Vuh.
According to the ancient Mayan text, life on Earth only became possible after two brother deities defeated the supernatural lords of the underworld in a game of pitz. Playing the game was a way of survival for the Maya, who believed it was an opportunity to display their devoutness to the gods. Being the losing opponent in pitz could make you a human sacrifice.
The Mayans Domesticated Turkeys
While Americans consider turkeys a symbol of the Thanksgiving holiday, Mayans have been using the big birds long before the Pilgrims even touched down at Plymouth Rock. While they likely ate turkeys like most civilizations are prone to do, the Mayans considered these birds useful in other ways.
Specifically, the Mayans would pick apart the birds for their bones and feathers to create tools, fans, and even musical instruments. Turkey bones have been uncovered at an archaeological site in Guatemala far from the species’ range in the wild, suggesting the Mayans domesticated the birds for their benefit.
They Named Their Kids According To The Calendar
While people today often veer toward some of the most interesting names for their kids like Apple and North, the Mayans had a much simpler way of naming their new babies. Instead of ruminating over what inanimate object would be a good name for a newborn, the Mayans used one of their three calendars to assign names at birth.
Each day of the Mayan calendar had a particular name for boys and girls, which is what the parents followed whenever they gave birth. It was as simple as that and no parents back then probably got any grief for it.
They Had A Painful Tattoo Process
Of all the ancient Mayan body modification techniques you’ve already hear of, probably the least outlandish one was getting a tattoo. Tattooing was practiced often among the Maya. Men would often wait until they were married to get their first one. When women got one, they preferred to get delicate tattoos on their upper body.
Tattooing back then was a lot more painful than it is today. The tattooist would first paint the design on the body then cut the design into the skin. This painful process often led to illness and infection, which is why Mayans who did get tattoos were revered for their bravery.
Tattoos Were Another Way To Honor Their Gods
It’s not hard to believe that getting tattoo signified a lot more than adding to one’s look. For one, if a Mayan person had a tattoo it meant that they had a high social standing, specialized skills, or religious power. Because the process was so painful, the suffering and blood spent on getting one done was considered a sacrifice to the gods.
The Maya would choose specific symbols to imbue their lives with a measure of power, or they would depict a particular myth in their tattoo to honor their gods.
The Way Mayans See It
The Mayans believed that the world was created on a very specific day—August 11, 3114 BCE, to be exact. To make things even more interesting, they believe the world was created in a way that was quite similar to how the Christian Bible lays things out.
According to Mayan mythology, the first event created the animals. Next came wet clay and wood came after that. Finally, human beings were created out of maize thanks to “artisan gods” who crafted the Earth and the heavens.
The Mayan Language Developed Into 70 Different Languages
The earliest Maya used a single language, based on findings from historians and archaeologists. However, it wasn’t long before the Mayan people expanded and thus, the language branched out as diversity developed among the population.
The Mayan culture still exists today and as a result, we now know that there are at least 70 different Maya languages spoken by around five million people who live in modern-day Mexico and Central America. Many of these people are also bilingual in Spanish.
They Were Violent Peoples
The Mayan people were known for plenty of things such as their interpretation of the stars, their spirituality, and their artifacts, but for people who also practiced human sacrifice, you better believe that the Maya were also pretty violent.
While violence and warfare is largely associated with their northern neighbors, the Aztecs, it turns out that the Maya were privy to war as well. War scenes, massacres, as well their human sacrifices, are scenes that were carved into stone on buildings. Warfare became so prominent that historians believed it led to the civilization’s decline.
They May Have Been Bibliophiles
For a civilization that had their own writing system, it’s not far off to believe that the ancient Maya had their own books as well. This literate civilization had glyphs that could represent entire words or single syllables. It was all put together into books called “codices” that made up Mayan literature.
Unsurprisingly, not all Maya were literate and reading was mostly something exclusive to the priest class. At one point, the Maya had thousands of books but the priests burned most of them when the Spanish arrived. Today, there are only four known Maya codices that survive.
The Kept Track Of The Stars For This Reason
The Maya fancied themselves astronomers but had a very religious reason for doing so. They not only kept tabs on the stars, but also the moon, the sun, and even the planets which were somehow visible to them.
They kept track of eclipses, solstices, and other celestial events in their calendars that have since been regarded with religious ceremonies. They did this because they believed the movement of all these interplanetary figures were the gods moving back and forth between the heavens, the earth, and the underworld, which they called Xibalba.
They Types Of Things The Maya Traded
You’ve already read that the Maya built complex pathways to get them to and fro, which helped them extensively with their trade practices. They likely traded with each other, as the civilization was believed to have millions of people at one point, they likely covered a vast expanse of Central America.
They traded subsistence items such as food, clothing, salt, tools, and weapons to help them get on with daily life. But they also coveted items of prestige, including bright feathers, jade, obsidian, and gold.
The Maya Also Had Royal Families
Each Mayan city-state had its own ruler or king, which they called Ahau. The king was believed to be descended directly from the sun, the moon, or the planets which is why they were considered divine.
Because of his divine blood, the king acted as a liason between the heavens, the underworld, and the realm of man. They employed priests to help them interpret celestial messages, which the king would relay to the people. The king was also expected to lead in warfare and participate in games of pitz. Whenever he died, his son took his place but there was also evidence of queens ruling instead.