Maya Civilization: A Brief Guide (Religion, Society, Art, Legacy)

The Maya civilization is one of the world’s founding cultural capitals, reckoning with the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Harrapan, and Chinese.

Jan 6, 2023By Nita Gleimius, BA Ancient Near Eastern Cultures & Biblical Archaeology
maize god maya statue kukulkan pyramid


The brilliant Mesoamerican Maya civilization remains a mysterious, awe-inspiring, complex civilization despite great strides in archaeology and interpretation of their ruins and relics in recent years. We do not know their exact origin or the cause of their drastic decline – not once, but twice!


Pre-historic hunter-gatherers, foraged in Mesoamerica over thousands of years. Estimates for human activity vary from around 21,000 – 8,000 BCE. Eventually, some, like the Maya-speaking groups, settled in agriculture-friendly inland and coastal areas. Maya settlements developed into prosperous independent city-states but never united in a central political empire. They were linked by a common root language, architecture, culture, social structures, trade, and religion.


Maya Civilization Settlement

maya enthroned ruler relief
Maya relief with enthroned ruler, early 770s, via Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Maya civilization settled near water sources on agriculture-friendly land in what is known as Maya Lowlands and Maya Highlands where they had access to water and mineral deposits like chert and jade.


Ceibal in the Peten region of Guatemala was considered the cradle of Maya civilization where settlements started around 2000 BCE. The more developed city of El Mirador in the Mirador basin then became a new contender. The largest and oldest monumental Maya structure has since been discovered at Aguada Fenix in Tabasco, Mexico, which may now be the area to consider.


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An estimated six million Maya descendants are still living in modern-day Southern Mexico (the Yucatan peninsula), Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras across Mesoamerican areas of their original settlements.



mesoamerican civilizations timeline
Timeline of Mesoamerican Civilizations used by USA schools, via 6th Grade Social Studies


Maya Civilization Chronology at a Glance, based on a table drafted by scholars at the Mesoamerican Research Center, University of California, Santa Barbara. (For the original, see here)


Archaic Before 2000 BCE Hunter Gatherers and Foragers
Early PreClassic 2000 – 1000 BCE Farming Settlements and Small Villages
Middle PreClassic 1000 – 300 BCE Expansion Across Maya Areas
Late PreClassic 300 BCE – 250 CE N.Belize & Other Areas – Cities Reach Height; Unexplained Abandonment of Great Cities
Early Classic 250 CE – 600 CE Power Shifts to Interior and New City States
Late Classic 600 CE – 900 CE Height of Maya Civilization
Terminal Classic 900 CE – 1000 CE Collapse of the Classic Maya – Again Unexplained Abandonment of Cities
Early Post Classic 1000 CE – 1250 CE Refocus of Populations – Resettlements of Some Old Cities
Late Postclassic 1250 CE – 1521 CE Competition Among States – Wars
Spanish Invasion 1521 CE Disease and Depopulation of Maya Areas



The Maya civilization waxed and waned from around 1500 BCE to 1530 CE, which prompted historians to split their history into Pre-Classic (ca 2000 BCE – 250 CE) Classic (250 – 900 CE), and Post- and Terminal Classic (900 – 1530 CE) eras, further divided into early, middle, and late periods. The Maya civilization tracked their time throughout and recorded events via Maya calendars and remained faithful to Maya gods.


The earliest signs of clearing land for agriculture appeared in the Peten Valley of Guatemala around 2000 BCE by Maya-speaking people. Changes from villages to cities appear to have started in the Guatemala coastal areas before 1000 BCE. The last official Maya City State to be conquered by Spain was Nojpeten, or Sayasal, on Flores Island in Peten Department, Guatemala, in March 1697.


The Maya civilization peaked in the Classic Period, but the histories of most of their City-States are speckled with periods of rapid growth, abandonment, and resettlement. The Maya often built new buildings over and around existing structures, complicating the dating of cities and monuments. Recent discoveries have pushed back several significant achievements from the Classic Period to the Pre-Classic Period, such as writing.


The first mysterious abandonment of cities happened in phases between 100 – 250 CE, and the final collapse occurred, again in phases, in what is known as the Terminal Late Classic Period around 850 – 900 CE.


By the time of the infamous Spanish invasion of Mesoamerica (early 16th Century), they found most of the great Maya cities deserted. Maya people were living in small villages and settlements in the jungles. Often when Spanish troops marched on the few still inhabited cities, the Maya would simply disappear into the surrounding jungles.


It is estimated that around ninety percent of the Maya died during and after colonization from European diseases like measles and smallpox and in battles.


Maya City-States

maya city state tikal ruins
Tikal city-state ruins, Guatemala, via BBC Travel


Lidar and satellite mapping projects are contributing immensely to the identification of new sites and additional areas of known sites. In this century, archaeologists and anthropologists have discovered hundreds of previously unknown Maya city-states and ceremonial centers.


Eclectic styles are evident in the building patterns, decorations, building materials, and art of some Maya city-states of the late Classic and post-Classic periods, notably Chichen Itza and Mayapan. In most cases, there is no definitive evidence at these sites whether this multiculturism happened naturally through trade and diplomatic relationships, or by force and in a hostile environment.


maya village ceren preserved like pompei
Small Maya village ca 600 CE covered by 17ft of volcanic ash in El Salvador, photo by Mariordo, via Wikimedia Commons


Nakbe in the Peten Basin was already developing the distinct Maya city style by ca 750 BCE with plazas, monumental stone structures, ballcourts, and paved highways called sacbeob.


Other significant city-states include Palenque, reckoned by many as the most beautiful Maya site, and Kaminaljuyu which is under modern Guatemala City and which thrived at times from the Pre-Classic through to the post-Classic period.


Distinct class structures are indicated in all large Maya cities, inter alia by the abundance of labor-intensive projects. Religious buildings and elite dwellings were stone structures in or near the city centers as opposed to daub and wood homes of the peasants on the outskirts. The elite included army officers, priests, and rulers. Farmers, manufacturing classes, and laborers lived outside. Certain clothing and body paints were reserved for the elite and class distinctions could be expressed through material, colors, styles, and accessories.


Maya Gods & Goddesses

maize god maya corn statue
Statue of the Maya corn (maize) god, 715, via British Museum.


It is nigh impossible to unravel the Maya pantheon. It seems the Maya people had gods for everything, from celestial objects and elements of nature to animal and plant deities like the jaguar-god and maize-god. Their gods were often shape-shifters and had different names in different tribes, areas, and eras, although their traits and various roles remained the same. The most important gods had specific celebrations in the special religious Maya calendar.


Kinich Ahau was one of the upper gods who had several different names and functions. He was a shapeshifter par excellence. Influenced by depictions of this god in one of his roles, Maya parents took to binding baby heads to make their foreheads flatter. They even tried to make their infants cross-eyed by hanging a charm on their foreheads, to resemble ideal images of Kinich Ahau, Hunab Ku, or Itzamna among his several other names and personas.


Kinich Ahau also shifted into a jaguar or a sacred bird. His bird-shaped persona influenced the wearing of the familiar feathered headdresses by Maya elite. He was at times the creator god, Itzamna, the fire god, ruler of the heavens, day, and night. At times he was married to Ix Chel, with whom he had thirteen sons – the actual creators of everything.


kukulkan el castillo pyramid serpent shadow equinox
El Castillo Pyramid of Kukulkan with serpent shadow at equinox, via


The most famous Maya deity is Kukulkan, the feathered serpent, because of his well-known pyramid at Chichen Itza. On the equinoxes the moving sun’s shadow resembles an undulating serpent slithering down the stairway to unite with the sculpted serpent head at the bottom.


He was called Gucumatz by the Quiche Maya tribe, who later called him  Hunab Kuh after the Spanish arrival, Kukulkan by the Yucatec Maya tribe, and taken over as Quetzalcoatl by the later Aztec civilization. His name means “feathered serpent.”


The rain god Chaac was one Maya god whom they wanted to keep happy at all costs. He controlled water sources (clouds, surface, and under-ground) and used his jade ax for lightning. The Maya food sources were dependent on his whims. He controlled the winds through four lesser Maya gods.


Hun Hanapu, the maize god, was important because maize (corn) was the Maya staple food. Maize was domesticated from a wild grass species millennia before the Maya. Hun Hanahpu was also associated with the cycle of the seasons and played an important part in the Maya civilization’s creation myths, especially through his twin sons who defeated the lords of Xibalba, the underworld.


One of the female Maya gods, Ix Chel, had so many different roles and appearances that her images and roles may have become mixed up with that of other goddesses through time. She was the goddess of the moon, medicine, childbirth, rain, weaving, and more, and sometimes the wife of Itzamna. Some Maya women honor her today jointly with the Christian Virgin Mary through gifts and prayers on the island of Cozumel.


Maya Gods and their Mythology

Popol Vuh
Popol Vuh: Transcription in Quiché Mayan and Translation into Spanish, by Ximénez Francisco, 1700, via Library of Congress


The Spanish conquistadors were accompanied by missionaries and priests whose top priority was the eradication of pagan belief systems and relics. This led to the burning of Maya records and books in their frenzy to get rid of all indigenous beliefs and convert the Maya to Christianity.


The Popul Vuh is a book of Maya stories, gods, and mythology recorded by the Maya K’iche’ (Quiche) tribe in the 1500s using Latin text. A Dominican friar, Father Francisco Ximinez, copied it with a Spanish translation in columns next to the Maya text. The only authentic copy, according to experts, is housed in the Newbury Library in Chicago.


The antiquity of Maya mythology and creation myth recorded in the Popol Vuh is confirmed by two eight-foot (26 ft) inscriptions discovered by archaeologist Richard Hansen at the site of El Mirador which dates back to the Pre-Classic Maya era.


Maya legends tell of Kukulkan’s arrival from the sea. He was a controversial Maya god with influence over sky, earth, and underworld, representing good and evil, light and darkness. He made everything for the Maya and taught them all their skills before he left again by sea with a promise to return one day.


The Maya believed that the gods lived in a world beyond caves and cenotes, and they could communicate with them and the ancestors in the underworld (Xibalba) through the walls, usually while in a trance. Offerings, paintings, inscriptions, and soot-covered walls have been found in deepest recesses of cave systems where priests lit ritual fires during ceremonies.



Significant Inventions


Maya Calendar

tzolkin calendar maya painting
Painting of the Maya Tzolkin Calendar, by Patricia Martin Morales, via Wikimedia Commons


The most famous Maya invention is their advanced Maya calendars for various purposes. The Maya counted time backward and forward for millennia. Their understanding of zero, mathematics, and astronomy allowed them to develop several accurate Maya calendars. Their solar calendar is more accurate than our Gregorian calendar. The various Maya calendars influenced Maya rituals, lifestyles, and prophecies.




The concept of zero was understood by the Maya long before other civilizations. They were brilliant mathematicians. This is in evidence from their precision architecture, right through their irrigation and water catchment systems, to their road-building projects and beautiful corbelled roofs.




Like many ancient civilizations, the Maya were keen observers of the skies. They tracked the cycles of stars and planets, especially Venus, with such precision that their astronomers and mathematicians could predict eclipses and other cyclical phenomena.




The Maya fully developed an intricate writing system, not unlike Egypt’s hieroglyphs. It appears that the city of Tikal, during its second flourishing phase around 600 CE, had libraries, hospitals, and schools. Their glyphs or logo-syllabic script was considered a sacred gift and reserved for the select elite. The different glyphs number around eight hundred. About eighty percent of their known writing has been deciphered.



maya woman grinding cacao beans plate painting
Woman grinding Cacao Beans for Chocolate Drink, Choco Story exhibit, via Museum Brugge, Belgium


Next time when enjoying chocolate, spare a thought for the Maya people. They invented — or perfected — the making of the world’s favorite treat from cacao beans. They flavored it with honey and chili peppers, and sometimes an intoxicating additive, and it became their celebratory tipple as shown on many depictions of ceremonial occasions. Cacao beans were sacred to the Maya. Sacred groves were planted inside sinkholes in Yucatan. It was even used as currency.


Elastic Rubber

maya civilization ball game revived
Revival of the ancient Maya ball game, via BBC, London


Bouncing rubber balls were perfected by the Maya based on earlier rubber use of the Olmecs. There is much overlapping in these cultures, but the famous ball courts and ball games form an integral part of the entire Maya culture and permeate their creation myths.




How did the Maya folk manage to sustain large populations in cities? It now appears that it was by practicing the Milpa Cycle in their Maya Forest Gardens. They did not exhaust their environment. They planted crops in cycles and rested soil by clearing new areas. And they were experts in companion-plant culture.




Similarities in health concepts, treatments, and observations across time and oceans are mind-boggling. It is interesting to note that, as the ancient Greek Hippocrates, the Maya viewed the concept of health as a question of balance. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Maya sutured wounds and set fractures with a cast. Like ancient (and current) African medicine people, Maya healers were trained rigorously by predecessors in the same family. They also made use of psychedelic plants in religious ceremonies and health treatments.


Some of the Recent Discoveries

maya food included drought resistant cassava
Cassava, one of the Maya civilization’s fifty-nine drought resistant foods, photo via The Herbal Academy


Publications by researchers of the University of California show that the Maya had enough drought-resistant edible plants (59) to weather severe and prolonged dry cycles. This analysis questions the hypothesis that droughts were the main driver of the collapse of the Maya civilization at the end of the Classic Period.


Excavations based on LiDAR images allowed scholars to identify a new suburb of Tikal that was heavily influenced by Teotihuacan. It is readily accepted that the founders and inhabitants of Teotihuacan were a cosmopolitan mix. Tikal was thoroughly Maya, though, and is one of the best-known Maya sites. The discovery of foreigners thoroughly entrenched within this Maya city was a surprise.


oldest structure lidar3d revealed aguada fenix
Aguada Fenix Maya platform structure, by Takeshi Inomata, 2020, via Die Welt


The oldest and largest giant platform with structures in the typically Maya ceremonial category was recently discovered through LiDAR technology in Aguada Fenix, Tabasco, Mexico, dating to ca 1000 BCE. There are indications that ceramics appeared ca 1300 – 1130 BCE in the area.


Lead archaeologist, Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona, posits that the site was possibly developed by sedentary and nomadic tribes working together. There are nine built-up causeways (sacbeob – built-up white roads) leading to this ceremonial site.


Apart from the new sites discovered under the jungle canopies, there are also those discovered during new construction projects, such as a Mexican railway line in the Yucatan which produced hundreds of artifacts, tombs, and structures dating from around 700 BCE to 850 CE.


Legacy of the Maya Civilization

hieroglyphics stairway copan
Copan stairway with hieroglyphics, Copan, via Wikimedia Commons


The influence of the Maya spread across Central and South America mostly through widespread trade. Recent discoveries at Maya, Olmec and other sites are invigorating the debates across the fields of Mesoamerican studies of the originators of their inventions. Who were the leaders and who were the followers and enhancers of everything including astronomy, architecture, writing, Maya calendars, and Maya gods?


The most intriguing questions that remain to be answered are those relating to the Maya Civilization’s seemingly needless abandonment of thriving cities both at the end of the Terminal Pre-classic and the Terminal Classic periods. Further information in the newly discovered areas may throw light on the many different hypotheses currently in circulation.

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By Nita GleimiusBA Ancient Near Eastern Cultures & Biblical ArchaeologyNita holds a BA degree in Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Biblical Archaeology. Her subjects included Ancient (Classical) History and Ancient South Eastern Asia. She has written books, articles, and more as a ghostwriter. Nita has wandered around many ancient sites and museums in several countries. She is an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction alike, and retains a keen interest in reading, researching, and keeping up to date with ancient and prehistoric discoveries across many parts of the world.