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The Maya civilization


Around the sixth century A.D., the Maya civilization, which was based in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala, reached its zenith. Large plains with few hills or mountains and a usually low shoreline make up the majority of the peninsula. The many tribes that lived in this region are collectively referred to as "Maya" in current usage. They did not refer to themselves as "Maya," and neither did they have a political or cultural identity.

Preclassic period (c. 2000 BC – 250 AD)

Around 1800 BC, in the Soconusco region of the Pacific Coast, the Maya established their first civilization. At that time, they were already cultivating the staple crops of maize, beans, squash, and chili peppers. Around 750 BC, the earliest Maya cities began to emerge. By 500 BC, these settlements had monumental architecture. The first significant Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmecs, also rose to prominence during this time period. The Olmec were the source of the Maya's famed calendar, as well as a variety of other religious and cultural characteristics.

The Classic period (c. 250–900 AD)

The Maya Empire was at its height during the Classic Period. It is distinguished primarily by the height of the extensively made buildings and urbanization, the documentation of the monumental inscriptions, and a great amount of intellectual and artistic progress, especially in the southern lowland areas.

There were about 40 cities in the traditional Maya civilisation. There were between 5,000 and 50,000 individuals living in each city. The Maya population peaked at between 2,000,000 and 10,000,000,000 people.

The central Maya region had a severe political collapse in the ninth century AD, which was characterized by the abandonment of towns, the end of dynasties, and a shift in activity to the north. Although there is no single, widely accepted hypothesis explaining this collapse, it probably had a number of root reasons, including endemic intra-group conflict, extreme overcrowding leading to environmental deterioration, and drought.

The Postclassic period (c. 950–1539 AD)

After the great towns of the Classic period were abandoned, a sizable Maya presence continued into the Postclassic period, although greatly diminished. The Postclassic saw a slower rate of settlement of abandoned lands than earlier contraction cycles in the Maya region. The final event of the Classic Period collapse occurred in the 11th century, when Chichen Itza and its surrounding communities saw a severe fall. Before the city of Mayapan rose to prominence in the 12th century, the Maya region was devoid of a centralized power. Near the Caribbean and Gulf coasts, new cities grew, and new trade networks were established.

Spanish conquest (1511–1697 AD)

About a dozen survivors from a Spanish caravel that capsized in the Caribbean in 1511 made landing on the Yucatán coast before being sacrificed. Three different Spanish expeditions visited the Yucatán coast between 1517 and 1519 and fought a series of skirmishes with the local Maya population. The Spanish conquered the final autonomous Maya city in 1697.


The entire Maya cultural region was never united under a single power or empire under the Maya political system. Instead, the Maya region had a complicated mix of kingdoms and chiefdoms that changed over the course of its history.

  • The aristocracy was organized in a hierarchical manner, and higher-ranking members sponsored candidates for official positions.

  • The Maya political system came together into a geopolitical shape during the Late Preclassic, where elite ideology supported the ruler's power and was furthered by ritual, public display, and religion.

  • The divine king served as the seat of government and had complete authority over all legislative, executive, judicial, and military actions. Mid-ranking population centers would have been crucial in managing resources and internal conflict within a polity. Warriors were mustered by local officials who then reported to chosen war leaders; Maya nations did not have standing armies.

  • There were mercenary groups that operated under constant command. From subjugated population centers, dominant capitals extracted tribute in the form of luxury goods. Military might bolstered political might, and elite society placed a high value on the capture and degrading of rival warriors.


  • The elite and common people were sharply divided in Maya society starting in the Early Preclassic. As the population grew over time, different societal segments got more specialized, and the governmental system became more sophisticated. Craftsmen, low-ranking priests and administrators, merchants, and warriors may have formed a middle class. Farmers, domestics, workers, and slaves were all considered commoners.

  • Indigenous histories state that affluent families or clans held the land collectively. These clans believed that the land belonged to their ancestors, and the burial of the deceased within home compounds served to strengthen these connections.

  • The king served as the supreme head of state and had a semi-divine position, making him the go-between between the world of mortals and the world of the gods. A new king was installed through a very elaborate ritual that involved receiving the insignia of royal authority, offering human sacrifice, and being seated on a cushion made of jaguar hide.

  • Royal authority only transferred to queens in the patrilineal Maya system of succession when doing otherwise would mean the dynasty's extinction. Usually, the eldest son received the reins of power. The most significant ritual during the young prince's childhood was a bloodletting ceremony that took place when he was around five or six years old.

Writing and literacy

One of the most notable inventions of pre-Columbian peoples in the Americas was the Maya writing system. Its writing system was the most advanced and complex. In the Petén Basin, the earliest writings in a recognisable Maya script date from between 300 and 200 BC. The use of the zero and the creation of intricate calendar systems like the Calendar Round, based on 365 days, and later the Long Count Calendar, intended to last more than 5,000 years, were among the many mathematical and astronomical innovations made by the Maya under the direction of their religious ritual.

Maya culture today

The Maya produced some of the best pottery, agriculture, writing, calendars, and mathematics ever, and they also left behind an astounding amount of beautiful structures and symbolic artwork. Most Maya villages continued to run their own affairs since they were mostly cut off from Spanish colonial rule. The nuclear family and Maya villages continued to live a traditional way of life. Weaving, pottery, and basketry were still done as traditional crafts.


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