Maya (250 – 950)

A Mesoamerican powerhouse.

16th century

Who were the Maya?

The Maya were a Mesoamerican civilization that flourished from approximately 250 to 950 CE. They built cities in rainforests, excelled at mathematics, and practiced human sacrifice.

It might not be accurate to call the Maya a medieval civilization. The medieval period is usually defined by the fall of Rome, which did not affect the Maya. But they thrived in the Americas at a similar time to medieval civilizations in Europe and Asia – they were not linked, but they existed in parallel.

By the time Europeans arrived in the Americas, the Maya were well in decline. Nobody knows what caused this, but they faded in strength in the 9th century, and never managed to recover.

The origins of the Maya

The classical period of Maya history is usually dated to 250 CE, but their story goes back much further. Their earliest settlements sprung up around 1800 BCE, when agricultural villages farmed beans and cassava at the edge of the Yucatán rainforests.

These villagers must have migrated to the region from somewhere else, but nobody knows where they came from. Some historians have linked them to the Olmecs – another ancient civilization that lived in Mesoamerica – but this is only a theory.

The Maya themselves believed that the first villagers were put there by the gods. In their origin myth, six gods tried to make people out of mud, but this did not work. They tried wood instead, but this did not work either. In the end, they settled on yellow corn, and created humans as we know them today.

The Classic Period

After hundreds of years in farming villages, the Maya began to expand. This is usually referred to as the Classic Period – the Maya grew into a civilization that could rival any in the world.

At the peak of their development, cities like Chichén Itzá and Uxmal became centers of major power. The Maya built 40 cities in total, housing millions of citizens, and featuring palaces, temples and pyramids. Some of these pyramids were devoted to gods, while others were used as tombs for celebrated kings.


Maya culture was probably influenced by older civilizations like the Olmecs and the Zapotecs; these cultures also built pyramids, with a similar architectural style. But the Maya improved on these inspirations, building structures unlike anything the continent had seen before.

Human sacrifice

The Maya believed in an afterlife. At first, the dead would go to Xibalba, a horrifying realm full of trials and challenges, like swimming across a river of scorpions, or sitting on a burning hot bench. If you made it through these trials, you would go to Tamoanchan – the Maya version of Heaven.


But some people went straight to Tamoanchan without having to endure Xibalba. Human sacrifices, for example, could skip the trials and go straight to paradise instead.

To choose their sacrifices, the Maya played a ritualistic ball game called Ulama. Historians used to think that the losing team would be sacrificed, but some historians have wondered if the winners were killed instead – avoiding Xibalba was a reward for emerging from the Ulama court victorious.

Math and astronomy

The Maya were advanced mathematicians and astronomers. They learned to predict eclipses, and to track the movements of stars in the sky.

They used these skills to create long count calendars which could accurately forecast astronomical events thousands of years in advance. These calendars were extremely advanced for their time, and were probably the Maya’s greatest scientific achievement.

In recent years, one of these calendars sparked a panic known as the ‘2012 Phenomenon’. Supposedly, the Maya predicted that the world would come to an end in the year 2012. Actually, the calendar did no such thing. 2012 was the calendar’s final year, but only because the Maya did not get around to predicting any further.

The decline of the Maya

The decline of the Maya civilization is one of history’s great mysteries. By the 10th century, many once-great cities had been completely abandoned, and there is no real evidence why.

Historians have come up with several theories. The most popular of these is overpopulation: the Maya were so successful, and so populous, that the natural resources of their rainforest home could no longer support them. They were forced to abandon their cities, returning to a small-scale farming lifestyle instead.

Another theory argues that the Maya city-states – formerly united as a single entity – began to fall apart and go to war. Whatever the cause, something disrupted the Maya cities, and hastily brought the Classic Period to an end.

Spanish conquistadors

By the time the first Europeans arrived in the Americas, at the end of the 15th century, most surviving Maya were living in small, agricultural communities, and their cities were buried under layers of overgrown rainforest.

The Spanish still wanted to control the Maya people. In the 1500s, conquistadors began to conquer the Yucatán Peninsula, slowly taking control of the scattered Maya settlements. By 1697, all major Maya settlements were under Spanish rule.

The Spanish brought new diseases to the Americas which decimated the Maya population; some estimates suggest that up to 90% of the Maya people died from disease between 1519 and 1697. The Spanish also brought Christianity to the region, violently repressing traditional Maya beliefs.

Maya codices

The Maya had a writing system called Maya script. They used it to write thousands of codices – folded sheets of bark-paper – to record details about their history, culture and religion.

These codices should have made it easy for historians to study the Maya, and might even have explained why their society collapsed in the 10th century. But most of them were destroyed by Diego de Landa, a Spanish bishop, who thought destruction of the codices would leave the Maya with no other choice but to convert to Christianity.

Only four Maya codices survived this destruction: the Dresden Codex, the Madrid Codex, the Paris Codex, and the Grolier Codex. These codices have helped historians to study the Maya – the Dresden Codex, for example, explains their astronomy – but with thousands of these documents destroyed forever, our understanding may never be fully complete.

The legacy of the Maya

Despite the efforts by the Spanish to conquer the Maya, and eradicate their culture, an impressive number of Maya descendants can be found in the present day.

40% of the population in Guatemala is of Maya descent. Many of them farm the same plots of land that their ancestors cultivated hundreds of years earlier, and practice traditional customs and beliefs. Some communities still worship at Maya shrines, and play the Ulama ball game – although no one is sacrificed at the end.

The Maya also left behind a legacy of ruins that attract millions of tourists from around the globe. The main pyramid in the city of Chichén Itzá is one of the seven wonders of the world. Clearly, the Maya never fully went away; their culture still lives on.

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