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.
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
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. This idea was also independently conceived in India, 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).
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
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
2. Sizable Ancient Ball Courts
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.
1. The Manufacture of Rubber
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
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’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.