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.