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5 Mayan Inventions That Will Surprise You

The Maya are the best-known civilization of Mesoamerica, with incredible inventions that are as impressive as their architectural stone cities and pyramids.

Ball game in Maya ball court, with black rubber ball at the center, K1209, photo Justin Kerr, Mayavase Database
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Ball game in Maya ball court, with black rubber ball at the center, K1209, photo Justin Kerr, Mayavase Database

 

Amazing things have been discovered from the Maya, and their inventions are just the beginning. The ancient Maya of present-day Mexico and Central America subsisted from 2600 BC until the Spanish arrival in the sixteenth century. They were gifted architects, artisans, engineers, and scientists, with doctrines principally based on science and cosmology. Read on to discover five remarkable Mayan achievements you might not know about.

 

Chichen Itza, Yucatán, Mexico, Civilization V – World Wonder
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Chichen Itza, Yucatán, Mexico, Civilization V – World Wonder

 

When the Spanish conquistadores first explored the inland mountainous trails that led through Eastern Guatemala into Honduras, they wrote about astonishing sights. All the while, however, they had unknowingly discovered the most highly advanced civilization ever to emerge in the New World. 

 

In his book Finding Out About The Maya (1963), p. 9, Charles Gallenkamp details the Spanish discovery:

In the vast wilderness they had found gleaming stone cities with towering, flat-topped pyramids, ornate temples, palaces, and causeways… Chronicles told of elaborate rituals performed by priests bedecked in robes of jaguar skins, headdresses of bright quetzal feathers, and ornaments of gold and polished jade, and of desperate battles waged against legions of archers and spearmen commanded by richly costumed chieftains” 

Along with the following achievements, other notable accomplishments of this civilization include architecture, astronomy, art, their calendar and writing system, and the mathematical models not mentioned in this article.

 

5. The Concept of Zero

Zero signs (in red) from page 43b of the Dresden Codex, via famsi.org
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Zero signs (in red) from page 43b of the Dresden Codex, via famsi.org

 

The first surprising Mayan invention is their unique number system. Although the Maya created their own way to count, they were not alone in this invention. In fact, most human cultures, even dating back to the prehistoric period, have had at least some basic grasp of numbers. However, within the Maya’s ingenious system of numerical notation, there is one mathematical idea that precedes any other civilization: the concept of zero. The only other civilization to invent the “zero” were the Hindus, whose merchants passed it on to Arabs, who then introduced it to Europe in the Middle Ages. But according to Gallenkamp, “the Maya were using the zero in their mathematics long before the Arab invasions of Europe, representing it in their inscriptions as a sea shell, an open hand, or by one of several glyphs in the form of human heads” (p. 39). 

 

Ornate spelling of the word mih, “nothing, zero” from Stela 63, Copán, © David Stuart
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Ornate spelling of the word mih, “nothing, zero” from Stela 63, Copán, © David Stuart

 

Numbers one to nineteen were subsequently illustrated as bars and dots expressing a value of five and one. While figures above nineteen “were written in vertical columns and each ascending number was twenty times that of the lower one: it was similar to our system where every number to the left of the decimal point is ten times the preceding figure” (p. 40). 

Fun fact: The Mayan zero further served as a proxy in their impressive calendar systems.

 

4. The First Chocolate Scholars 

Drinking Cup for Cacao, Guatemala or Mexico, Maya, 550–700, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum Acquisition Fund, image © Museum Associates/LACMA
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Drinking Cup for Cacao, Guatemala or Mexico, Maya, 550–700, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum Acquisition Fund, image © Museum Associates/LACMA

 

Creating chocolate (from cacao) was, again, not an exclusive Mayan invention. Instead, the first “chocolate makers” were probably the Olmecs, the forerunners of the Maya. Still, due to a lack of Olmec written history, classic-period Maya scribes were the authors of the oldest writings on the subject. Thus, the Maya were the first chocolate scholars! Archaeological evidence exists on Mayan ceramics, stone carvings, codices, and murals, where glyphs feature the word kakaw. Such inscriptions are the only proof of the term’s existence before the arrival of Europeans in America in the sixteenth century.

As well as consuming cacao, the Maya also incorporated it into religious life, gave it as a tribute to their leaders, and later used it as currency. 

Fun fact: Unlike today’s version, sugar was not present in a “Mayan hot chocolate.” However, it wasn’t entirely bitter. For flavor, the Maya added honey, chili peppers, and other spices.

 

3. Ritualistic Hallucinogenic Drug Use 

Maya vase K8792, depicts a Maya ruler and his wife in a hallucinogenic trance. Based on the ruler’s mushroom-inspired headdresses, this drinking vessel most likely contained a mushroom beverage, photo by Justin Kerr, 2004, via Mayavase.com
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Maya vase K8792, depicts a Maya ruler and his wife in a hallucinogenic trance. Based on the ruler’s mushroom-inspired headdresses, this drinking vessel most likely contained a mushroom beverage, photo by Justin Kerr, 2004, via Mayavase.com

 

Although this invention might seem surprising, when you think about it plausibly, it naturally makes sense. Plants containing hallucinogenic particles have existed for thousands of years, and they were used not only by the Maya but also by the Aztecs and Incas. Various easily obtainable species enabled the Maya to “trip out.” From “tobacco” (Nicotiana spp.), mixed with the leaves of the psychedelic plant “datura” to “magic mushrooms” (k’aizalaj Okox) to “water lilies” (nymphaea ampla) to the intoxicating plant “morning glories” (oloiuqui), to finally, a “toad” (Bufo Marinus).
Physical evidence, including the discovery of “mushroom stones,” suggests the Maya used these “drugs” in healing rituals and religious ceremonies to induce altered states of consciousness—whether by drinking or eating the hallucinogens, or absorbing them via enemas.
 
Fun fact: Modern-day Mesoamerican shamans still perform such rituals, which include the consumption of the same mind-altering stimulants.

 

2. Sizable Ancient Ball Courts 

Largest ball court in Mesoamerica, Chichen Itza, Yucatán, Mexico, photo by Brian Snelson
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Largest ball court in Mesoamerica, Chichen Itza, Yucatán, Mexico, photo by Brian Snelson

 

Just like in modern cultures, games were a significant part of Mayan society. The ballgame was a Mayan invention that was played throughout the entire civilization. According to Gallenkamp, “Every city had a ball court consisting of a playing-field enclosed by viewing platforms where spectators could watch a game called tlaxtli or pok-ta-pok to which the Maya were as addicted as the English are to cricket or the Americans to baseball” (p. 32). At the site of Chichen Itza alone, seven ball courts are visible. A court’s architectural features, like at the site of Pacbitun, Belize, are open-ended and marked by two long, parallel, range-type mounds that have an approximate north-south (long axis) alignment. Such courts were not only the civic-ceremonial center of Mayan cities but also reflected the city’s wealth. 

 

Maya vase depicting Lord Sak Ch’een of Motul de San Jose, according to Mayanist David Stuart, the vase shows a ballgame between Sak Ch’een and the king of El Pajaral, Dallas Museum of Art 
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Maya vase depicting Lord Sak Ch’een of Motul de San Jose, according to Mayanist David Stuart, the vase shows a ballgame between Sak Ch’een and the king of El Pajaral, Dallas Museum of Art 

 

As well as for entertainment purposes, the games were also sometimes serious events. Pok-ta-pok, for example, was played to settle conflicts between warring groups, noblemen, and even kings. The two opposing sides had to try and hit the ball into one of two stone hoops, located at either end of the court, much like basketball. However, they could only pass and shoot the ball using their thighs and hips, much like soccer. Archaeological evidence further suggests that the loser of the tournament might have suffered a dark fate—to be a blood sacrifice for the gods.
 
Fun Fact: The ball used in the games directly relates to the Maya’s #1 most surprising invention…

 

1. The Manufacture of Rubber 

 

A small detail of a reproduction of a mural at the Tepantitla complex at Teotihuacan, Mexico, a ballplayer is using a rubber ball, Daniel Lobo (Daquella manera), Wikicommons
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AA small detail of a reproduction of a mural at the Tepantitla complex at Teotihuacan, Mexico, a ballplayer is using a rubber ball, Daniel Lobo (Daquella manera), Wikicommons

 

Like the present, the Maya made natural rubber using latex. This Mayan invention comes from the milky fluid of local caoutchouc trees. They mixed the latex with the juice of morning glory vines, which made the substance less brittle. Evidence of rubber survived at various sites, including the figurines divers discovered in Chichen Itza’s “Well of Sacrifice.” Through experimentation, the Maya developed “bouncy” rubber and thus were born the balls for their ballgames. Gallenkamp details these balls regarding how “astounded the conquistadores were when they first saw them because they were made of solid rubber… and were among the most priceless items sent back to Europe” (p. 32). 

Fun fact: The conquistadores noted the “rubber footwear of the indigenous peoples,” and yet no physical evidence corroborates this Mayan invention. Perhaps the scarcity is best explained via the many rubber objects consumed by flaming braziers and rubber’s susceptibility to chemical and biological degradation. 

Archaeologists Are Still Scratching The Surface

Map of ancient Maya world, maya.nmai.si.edu
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Map of ancient Maya world, maya.nmai.si.edu

 

The late Mayanist George E. Stuart stated in a 2010 interview with the author of this article that when it comes to interpreting past human cultures and behaviors “we will never know it all, for archaeology alone cannot reveal a lost language in a culture without a system of writing; nor the precepts of an extinct religion; nor many other aspects of the human ways of life. Ethnographical analogy—the extrapolation backwards to explain ancient habits—helps some, but must be used with extreme caution, for many things may have happened over the interval between past and present.”

In another interview, with National Geographic (2011), George also stated, regarding the Maya, that “we hardly know anything.” Back then, there were almost 6,000 Mayan sites, yet archaeologists had only “dug at 40.” –a staggeringly small number, and one that, notably today, has not exponentially increased all that much.

 

George E. Stuart, Chapel Hill, Melinda Y. Stuart
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George E. Stuart, Chapel Hill, Melinda Y. Stuart

 

George’s son, David Stuart, who is also a Mayanist, summed up Mayan studies judiciously when he said, in the same National Geographic interview, “We’re just at the beginning. Archaeology in this part of the world has really only been going on for a little over 100 years, and that’s nothing… just a few generations of science and archaeology.” Who knows how many Mayan inventions have yet to be uncovered?

Bearing that in mind, then, one can dare to imagine the enormity of ancient Maya culture that is still out there… waiting to be unearthed.


Lara Colrain
About the Author

Lara Colrain

Lara is a published author, editor, poet, and archaeologist based in Hobart, Tasmania. She holds two BAs (Arts and Archaeology) and is deeply passionate about ancient history, antiquities, and mythology, with a special interest in indigenous cultures, notably the ancient Maya. She was fortunate to have known the late Mayanist, George. E. Stuart, who was a mentor during her archaeological studies. In her free time, Lara enjoys Painting by Numbers.


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