Introduction to Maya Indians

Maya Indians, a people living in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, whose highly developed civilization reached its peak in the seventh and eighth centuries. At that time, a number of Maya cities were home to tens of thousands of people. The Mayas reverted to a primitive state of existence after their civilization, which had long been in decline, was destroyed by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century.

The MayasThe Mayas built elaborate cities.

The Mayas form a large part of the peasant population of the Mexican states of Yucatn, Campeche, Tabasco, Chiapas, and Quintana Roo; Guatemala; and Belize. Mayas are of short, sturdy build and have broad faces and prominent noses. There are about 30 Mayan languages. The Mayan language of the Yucatn peninsula is Yucatec, or Maya proper. Other Mayan languages, found mainly in the highlands (at the base of the peninsula), include Quich, Cakchikel, Mam, Kekchi, and Pokomam. An isolated Mayan-speaking group, the Huastec, lives in northeastern Mexico.

Civilization of the Mayas

Archeological evidence indicates that the early development of Mayan culture was influenced by the nearby Olmec Indians. The Mayas went on to create a brilliant civilization unsurpassed in North America before the Spanish conquest. They developed an advanced system of hieroglyphics (picture writing), a system of numbers that included zero, and an accurate calendar. Mayan astronomers calculated the movements of the moon and the sun. The Mayas were master architects of gigantic stone temples and produced fine carvings and painted murals. They wove textiles of cotton and made paper of tree bark.

Maya calendarsMaya calendars have proved to be quite accurate.

The Mayas were involved primarily in agriculture, commerce, and warfare. They were never united into one empire, but were divided into city-states, each ruled by elite families whose power was hereditary and who claimed descent from the gods. Warfare between the city-states was frequent. The Mayas developed sophisticated techniques of cultivation, and established an extensive trade network in Mexico and Central America to market such products as pottery, weapons, and jewelry.

The Mayas never made practical use of the wheel (although they put wheels on children's toys), nor did they use domestic animals for labor. Their tools and weapons were made of stone or wood.


Mayan life was controlled by religion, which was concerned with the passage of time and was based on astromony. Each day was ruled by several gods, who determined whether events would be favorable or unfavorable. Priests made astronomical calculations for showing what gods were ruling at any given time. The priests also directed the building of temples and monuments. Ritual bloodletting and human sacrifice were common religious practices.


Each city had at its core a ceremonial center of pyramids and other structures for the performance of religious ceremonies and the conduct of governmental activities. The complex contained many inscribed pillars called stelae, on which were recorded dates, names of rulers, and religious events. There were courts for ball games, and plazas where religious festivals and markets were held. The manufacturing of jewelry, pottery, weapons, and other craft objects was done in the city. Surrounding the ceremonial center were simple thatched huts of the people and the terraced and cultivated fields where they grew corn, beans, squash, and sweet potatoes.

History of the Mayas

Archeologists believe that the ancestors of the Mayas occupied the Yucatn peninsula and northern Central America as early as 10,000 years ago. Primitive Mayan settlements have been dated to at least 2400 B.C. Few traces of Mayan culture from before the fourth century A.D. have been found, however. Mayan civilization was at its highest stage of development during the Classic Period (between 250 and 900 a.D.), especially in the southern Yucatn peninsula. During this period the Mayas built their greatest religious monuments and reached the peak of their artistic and intellectual achievements.

The cities of Uaxactn, Tikal, and Copn in the lowlands and Kaminaljuy in the Guatemalan highlands date from this period. In the ninth century, the great cities in the southern lowland region were abandoned, and the period of creative development came to an end. No one knows the reason for the sudden decline.

In the late 10th century, the Mayas came under the domination of invaders from central Mexico. The warlike Itz, a Toltec people, established themselves in the northern Yucatn peninsula and made Chichn-Itz their capital. Mayan culture survived, however, and the invaders gradually were absorbed into the Mayan civilization. About 1200, the city state of Mayapn conquered all the lowland area, and the Quich tribe in the south took control of the highlands. Warfare and rebellion brought political chaos and further cultural decline.

An expedition led by Hernando Cortez explored the Yucatn coast in 1519. One of his lieutenants, Pedro de Alvarado, subdued the Mayas of the Guatemalan highlands about 1525. Conquest of the Mayas of Yucatn was begun by Francisco de Montejo in the 1520's. Northern Yucatn was brought under Spanish control about 1545, but parts of the interior remained independent for more than a century.

The conquerors, bent on converting the Indians to Christianity as fast as they subdued them, tried to destroy all traces of their traditional religion. The Spanish bishop, Diego de Landa, ordered all Mayan books burned. (Four survived and are now in museums.) The Mayan cities were deserted and became overgrown with jungle and thicket, and the Mayan civilization disappeared.

Discovering A Lost Civilization

In the late 18th century Charles III of Spain ordered an exploratory excavation of Palenque, one of the Mayan cities. The results aroused little interest in Spain, but a report was published in London in 1822 and the Mayan ruins came to the attention of the English-speaking world. In 1839-40 John Lloyd Stephens, a United States lawyer, and Frederick Catherwood, an English architect, made the first of several expeditions into the lost world of the Mayas. Since then many archeologists and scholars have taken up the study. Explorations have been sponsored by various universities, museums, and other organizations as well as by the government of Mexico.

More than 100 sites have been studied. These include Copn in the south; Palenque, Piedras Negras, Bonampak, Uaxactn, Ro Azul, and Tikal in the central area; Chichn-Itz, Uxmal, and Dzibilchaltn in the north.

Thousands of Mayan codices (books) existed before the Spanish conquest but only four, written on folded bark, survive. However, many vases with painted inscriptions have been recovered. There are also innumerable carved inscriptions on stelae and on temples and other buildings. Mayan writing was in a form of hieroglyphics, which for decades defied all attempts at decipherment. A breakthrough came in 1952, when a Russian, Yuri Knorosov, determined that some Mayan glyphs stood for sounds. His methods yielded more and more clues, and by the 1990's most of the glyphs had been deciphered.

After the Spanish conquest, two books were written by Mayan scribes in their own language but in Latin characters. These, The Books of Chilam Balam and Popol Vuh, supply some knowledge of Mayan history and religion.