Maya Civilization: History, Culture, Economy & Characteristics

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Maya Empire: History & Civilization of Mayans

Maya (Mayan) – Civilization settled in Central America since the 20th Century BC until the 15 BC.

Date 20th Century BC – 15 Century BC
Location Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
Religion Polytheistic
Economy Farming

Who were the Mayans?

The Mayans were a civilization, settled in Central America, that lasted from the 20th Century BC until the 15 Century BC, when it came to an end during the conquest of America.

This culture introduced great advances in mathematics, writing, architecture and astronomy, and had its own social, political and religious organization, which influenced the development of later cultures.

Location of the Mayan Civilization

The Mayans occupied the area of ​​the Yucatan peninsula (Mexico) and its surroundings. There they built large pyramids, monuments and temples.

At present they would occupy the territory of several Central American countries, such as part of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and part of El Salvador and Honduras. This geographical area has a variable topography, volcanoes, mountains and jungle areas with some semi-desert coastal areas.

Today there are ruins of the main Mayan cities: Yaxchilán, Tulum, Cuello, Coba, Copán, Palenque and Chichén Itzá.

Location of the Mayan culture

Location of the Mayan culture.

Characteristics of the Maya

Among the main characteristics that define the Maya culture we can highlight the following:

  • They were one of the most important civilizations in America and influenced the emergence and customs of new cultures.
  • They were found in the central zone of America, precisely in the Yucatan peninsula and its surroundings.
  • They were polytheists, that is, they believed in various gods and related them to nature.
  • Its economy was based on agriculture, which was carried out by peasants on the outskirts of the city-states.
  • They developed great knowledge of mathematics, astrology, and writing.
  • They built great pyramids as social centers and temples of worship to their gods.

Mayan Culture Religion

The Mayans were polytheists. They worshiped various gods related to nature.

The interpretation of their deities was linked to the calendar and astronomy. These main gods were Hunab Ku and Itzamná, but they also had gods of rain, wind, sun, agriculture, death, war, among others.

There are some religious similarities between the Mayans and the Aztecs, probably due to the close connections they may have had in their origins.

The main people in charge of the religion were the priests, who were dedicated to worship, divinatory acts and ritual sacrifices. For the worship of the gods, the Mayans built pyramids as worship temples.

The religious beliefs of the Mayans were reflected in their famous book Popol Vuh.

Mayan Gods – Maya God

The main Mayan gods were the following:

Name Function
Hunab Ku Main God, creator of all.
Itzamna God of wisdom.
Ixchel Goddess of fertility and water.
Yum kaax God of agriculture.
Kauil God of fire and medicine.
Kukulkan God of water and wind.

Political and Social Organization of the Mayans

Political Organization of Maya Empire

The Mayans formed city-states with certain independence and their own governments, and had political leaders with divine and hereditary positions. In turn, the Halach uinic leader of each city-state was the chief warrior leader of his community.

Although they were politically organized in States with independent forms of government, all these cities together formed the Mayan civilization, that is, they had the same customs and religion.

Ruins of Chichen Itzá, city-state of the Mayan culture.

Ruins of Chichen Itzá, one of the most important city-states of the Mayan culture.

Social Organization of the Mayan

The social organization of the Maya was hierarchically divided as follows:

  • Priests: Members of the religious class who were given supreme power, as they were believed capable of communicating with the gods.
  • Rulers: Families in charge of governing the city-states. They dressed in a particular and ostentatious way that differentiated them from the rest.
  • Nobility: Warrior chiefs, high officials, chiefs and some merchants.
  • Artisans and Peasants: These used to live on the outskirts of the city in low economic conditions and, in some cases, were considered slaves.
  • Slaves: Lower members of Mayan society, who worked for the nobility and the State in a forced way.

Economy of the Mayan Culture

The Mayan economy was based on agriculture and produced mainly corn, beans and some tubers, such as beans and sweet potatoes.

Through their crops they produced medicines, fabrics and building materials. Its agriculture was highly developed thanks to its advanced techniques of soil irrigation, through canal systems that provided water in the dry season and maintained crops throughout the year.

Mayan Culture Clothing

Mayan clothing depended on the social level in the political hierarchy of each city-state.

Lower-class women wore long skirts and loose shirts made of cotton, which they could embroider in many colors. The farmer men, in turn, wore a “pati”, a kind of basic trousers, and had bare chests.

The royal family and state servants wore more elaborate garb, inlaid with feathers and stones, and also wore belts and sandals.

Knowledge of the Mayan Culture

The main knowledge that stands out from the Mayan culture are the following:

  • Great knowledge of advanced mathematics, with the use of decimals and zero.
  • Hieroglyphic writing advanced for the time.
  • Advanced agriculture and irrigation techniques that allowed them to farm year-round, despite dry seasons.
  • They were experts in astronomy and used this knowledge for the benefit of agriculture.
  • They developed the 365-day-per-year civil calendar, just like the one we use today. In addition, they created other complex calendars, such as a 260-day religious calendar.

End of Maya (Mayan) Culture

One of the theories establishes that due to the great demographic growth and the increase in food needs, natural resources were depleted and, added to long periods of drought, the Mayan civilization was weakening.

On the other hand, a different theory proposes that the invading tribes from the north were weakening the Mayans, and that the Spanish cultures, with the conquest of America, were the ones that ended up destroying the Mayan culture, which was already in decline.

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