The History of the Maya

This page will take you through the history of the Maya from their origins in c. 2000 BC to their conquest by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Maya civilisation flourished in the vast expanse of Mesoamerica, encompassing present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. This enigmatic civilisation, known for its advanced knowledge in mathematics, astronomy, architecture and hieroglyphic writing, thrived for nearly three millennia, leaving behind a rich legacy that continues to captivate scholars and enthusiasts alike.

A Map of the Maya civilisation.

The Maya emerged c. 2000 BC, with evidence of early settlements in the region. Divided into several city-states, they reached their zenith during the Classic period (c. 250-900 AD). This era witnessed the construction of impressive architectural complexes, such as the iconic cities of Tikal, Palenque and Chichen Itza, characterised by towering pyramids, palaces and intricate ceremonial centres. Trade networks connected the Maya to distant regions, facilitating the exchange of goods and ideas.

Maya society was hierarchical, with a ruling elite composed of kings and nobles who held political and religious authority. The majority of the population engaged in agricultural pursuits, primarily cultivating maize, beans and squash. Social structure was rigid, encompassing priests, warriors, artisans, merchants and farmers. They had an intricate system of governance and law, with each city-state functioning independently under the rule of a divine king.

The Temple of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza. (c) Daniel Schwen

Religion played a central role in Maya life, permeating all aspects of society. The Maya believed in a complex pantheon of gods and goddesses who governed various natural forces and aspects of human life. Rituals, including bloodletting and human sacrifice, were performed to ensure the gods’ favour and maintain cosmic balance. Astronomy held significant importance and the Maya developed an elaborate calendar system to track celestial movements, aligning them with religious and agricultural events.

The Maya excelled in various artistic and intellectual endeavours. They developed a sophisticated writing system, utilising hieroglyphs to record historical events, religious texts and astronomical observations. Maya art showcased intricate stone carvings, vivid murals and elaborate sculptures, often depicting rulers, gods and mythological scenes. In mathematics, the Maya utilised a vigesimal (base-20) numeral system and made significant advancements, including the concept of zero and complex calculations.

Lintel 1, 773 AD, from Laxtunich, Guatemala. (c) Getty Research Institute

Around the 10th c. AD, the Maya civilisation experienced a decline, marked by the abandonment of major cities and a decline in monumental construction. Various theories, including environmental degradation, warfare and socioeconomic factors, have been proposed to explain this decline.

Following the decline of the Classic period, the Maya civilisation entered the Postclassic period (c. 900-1521 AD). This era was marked by significant changes and transformations. Many of the major Classic cities were abandoned or experienced a decline in population, while new political entities emerged in different regions. The Postclassic period saw the rise of powerful city-states such as Mayapán and Tulum. These city-states, though smaller in scale compared to their Classic counterparts, still played important roles as centres of political and economic influence.

An Aerial View of the City of Tulum, Mexico. (c) Dronepicr

The Maya experienced increased contact and influence from external cultures during this period. The influence of central Mexican civilisations, particularly the Toltecs and later the Aztecs, became more prominent. This cultural exchange led to the adoption of new artistic styles, architectural elements and religious practices within Maya society.

Religious practices during the Postclassic period also underwent changes. While many traditional Maya religious beliefs and rituals persisted, there was an increasing syncretism with elements of the central Mexican religions. Deities from different cultures were incorporated into Maya pantheon, resulting in a blending of religious practices and cosmologies.

A Map of the Areas of Influence of the Aztecs and Maya. (c) Encyclopaedia Britannica

Despite these developments, the Maya faced increasing pressure from external forces. Around the 13th century, the northern Yucatán Peninsula witnessed the incursion of the Itza people, who established their dominance over the region. Additionally, the arrival of European explorers in the 16th century, particularly the Spanish, marked a significant turning point in Maya history.

The Spanish conquest and subsequent colonization brought about a swift and dramatic decline of the Maya civilisation. The conquest resulted in the destruction of many cities, the suppression of indigenous traditions and the introduction of new socioeconomic and political systems. Nevertheless, Maya culture persevered, adapting to new circumstances and continuing to maintain a distinct identity through the preservation of traditions, languages and customs.

A Portrait of the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, who led the initial efforts to conquer Guatemala.

The Maya civilisation left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of Mesoamerica. From the grandeur of the Classic period to the changes and challenges of the Postclassic era, the Maya exhibited remarkable artistic, intellectual and architectural achievements. Despite the eventual decline and colonisation, the Maya people continue to celebrate their heritage and contribute to the cultural diversity of the region. The Maya civilisation stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of ancient civilisations and their ability to adapt and survive in the face of adversity.

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