35 Fascinating Facts About the Mayans
If you're curious about this colorful, mystical culture that held one of the largest empires in the ancient world, check out these facts about the Mayans.
The Incredible History of the Mayans
If you've ever visited Cancun or Playa del Carmen in Mexico, then you’ve likely heard about the Mayans. They are the indigenous culture that ruled southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize for hundreds of years, and they are responsible for some of the region's most popular tourist sites, like Chichen Itza and Tulum in Mexico or Tikal in Guatemala.
But so much more than being the architects of these ancient cities, the Mayan people laid the foundation for all the cultures that exist in this region today. From cuisine and ceremony to legend, spiritual belief and language, what was created more than a thousand years ago still exists today.
There are roughly 6 million direct Maya descendants living in Mexico and Central America, many of whom still speak Mayan dialects, practice ancient shamanism and prepare centuries-old recipes. In fact, if you've ever had cochinita pibil tacos in Mexico, then guess what? You've had Mayan cuisine.
So, if you're curious about this colorful, mystical, ancient culture that held one of the largest empires in the ancient world from roughly 1,800 B.C. to 900 A.D., read on to discover some amazing facts about the Mayans.
There are still Mayan cities and sites being discovered.
The Classic Maya civilization grew to about 40 cities at its peak. Today, for as much as the Mayan world has been discovered, there is still so much more that lies shrouded deep within jungles or buried beneath the Earth.
In fact, it was only a few years ago that a pyramid dating more than 1,000 years was discovered at Tonina in Chiapas, Mexico. The majority of the site of Calakmul in Campeche, Mexico, is less than 50 percent uncovered as well.
They were big chocolate eaters.
The transformation of cacao bean to chocolate was discovered by the Olmec people more than 3,500 years ago. But it was the Mayan people who made chocolate the decadent treat we know it as today. Evidence shows that Mayans were turning cacao to chocolate gold at least 2,600 years ago. We know this because cacao has been found in Mayan pottery in Guatemala.
Mayan chocolate would be mixed with water, honey, chili peppers and cornmeal to create a spicy, savory hot chocolate beverage that is still served in Central America and Mexico.
There are still 70 Mayan languages used today.
The earliest Mayan people spoke one language, but as the centuries went on, several dialects developed. Today, the Mayan people of Mexico and Central America speak about 70 Maya languages.
Most of these people are also fluent in Spanish, though many are not.
They developed intricate hieroglyphs.
Mayan writing dates back to around 300 B.C. The written language is a complex system of more than 800 hieroglyphs, each representing a syllable.
It is one of the most intricate of its kind in Mesoamerica. In fact, it has only been in the last several decades that students of the Mayan culture have been able to decipher the hieroglyphs.
Chichen Itza is a Wonder of the World.
Deep in the heart of the state of Yucatan in Mexico sits the Mayan site of Chichen Itza. It's perhaps one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world and just happens to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
It's an architectural marvel, as its position was determined by the sun and the moon. Each building has its own symbolic meaning. This is one of the best-preserved Mayan cities and one of Mexico's top-visited attractions.
Most cities were abandoned by 900 A.D.
The Mayan empire centered around roughly 40 massive stone cities scattered throughout southern Mexico and Central America. The height of the empire was around the year 250 A.D.
This is the period when we saw the reign of cities like Tikal, Bonampak, Calakmul and Palenque. Each city had anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 people. But by the year 900 most of these cities had been abandoned.
They had an extensive library of written books.
Revisiting the Maya hieroglyphs, the Maya used their written language to fill books. Using strips of paper made from fig tree bark, the Maya created a vast library of books, including three codices that exist today.
But hundreds of books were lost over time, either due to the humid climate of the region or the arrival of Europeans who burned the written texts.
Their main crops are still prominent ingredients in Mexican cuisine.
The Maya people were expert farmers and created hundreds of recipes, many of which are still used in modern Mexican cooking.
In fact, the top crops in the Mayan diet are some of the most popular ingredients in Mexican cuisine: cacao, papayas, pineapples, chili peppers, avocados, squash, beans and maize.
Their calendar did NOT predict the end of the world.
The Maya calendar is one of the most intricately and complexly designed mechanisms from their heyday. The Long Count calendar was impressive because it was one of the first to use zero as a placeholder. The calendar ended on Dec. 21, 2012, which caused some people to believe that that would be the end of the world.
Of course, that was not the case. The date just happened to coincide with the end of a cycle of 5,125 years in the Long Count calendar.
They believed flat foreheads were the most desirable aesthetic.
The Mayan people were a very vain group, always looking to attain the highest aesthetic standard. According to Mayan aesthetic, flatter foreheads were the ideal look.
To achieve this, mothers used to use boards to press the foreheads of their babies to flatten them out. This was most often done among the higher class citizens.
They had intense beauty regimens.
Not only were they brilliant architects and chocolatiers, the Mayan people were fiercely creative when it comes to beauty regimens.
They glammed up their looks with clothing and makeup, from drilling holes in their front teeth to fill with jewels to head-binding as to artificially deform their skulls for a more aesthetic appearance.
They were master tattoo artists.
The Mayans were one of the earliest civilizations to incorporate tattoos into their lives. Both men and women would decorate themselves with elaborate body art.
Tattoos depicted animals, spiritual symbols and symbols of the gods.
Enemas were part of their rituals.
Hallucinogens and other mind-altering substances were not uncommon in Mayan rituals. In fact, they believed that consuming these was the best way to communicate with spirits.
In order to feel the effects as quickly as possible, it is believed that Mayans may have taken their substances via ritual enemas. Researchers believe this to be true because of the many pictures in Mayan art that depict enemas being used in a spiritual setting.
They believed in fairies.
Many cultures from around the world have a belief in fairies. These are also known as sprites, pixies, gnomes, leprechauns and, in the case of the Maya, aluxes.
The aluxes were depicted in sculptures made from clay or wood. The tiny creatures were thought to protect the land, crops and animals. These sculptures would be taken into the forest and hidden in discreet spots, and the Maya believed that they would come to life at night and offer guardianship of the land.
They believed in human sacrifice.
The Mayan people were practitioners of human sacrifice. The purpose of human sacrifice was to offer food to the gods and was viewed as a celebratory and joyous occasion.
Originally, human sacrifice started with nobility, since they were considered to be the most "pure." Later, lower classes were incorporated into human sacrifice, and later, the victims were criminals. Sacrifices were often painted blue.
Caves were considered entrances to the underworld.
For the Maya, Earth existed between Heaven and Hell. The underworld was known as Xibalba, and it was believed that the way to access the underworld was through caves. It was within the caves that the Maya performed their rituals and sacrifices.
Today, it's possible to visit these caves when you explore the jungles of Quintana Roo and Yucatan near Cancun. When tourists go snorkeling in cenotes (underground rivers), guides will often point out locations where Mayan artifacts have been found.
Maya loved to sweat it out.
The Maya were known for their sweat lodges that were built out of stone or adobe. These lodges were integral to their ritual cleansing and healthcare.
Archaeologists have found evidence of sweat houses at important sites like Tikal in Guatemala and Joya de Cerén in El Salvador. One of the earliest sweat lodges to be discovered was found at Cuello in Northern Belize and dates back 3,000 years.
An island Mayan city survived until the 17th century.
Long after other Mayan civilizations had been abandoned or destroyed, there was one that managed to survive until the 17th century. Known as Nojpeten or Tayasal, it was the capital city of the Itza Maya kingdom located in Lake Peten Itza in Guatemala.
Today, travelers may know the town by the name of Flores. Approximately 2,000 people are thought to have lived in the city, and the current-day street plan of Flores is said to be based on the indigenous city's roots. It eventually fell to the Spanish in 1697.
They were devoted to extreme sports.
One of the most significant aspects of Mayan culture is its ball game, pitz. The game held important significance both politically and spiritually. Ballcourts are often important parts of Mayan archaeological sites, particularly at cities like Chichen Itza.
The purpose of the game is to pass a rubber ball through a very high stone hoop without using their hands. But more than just for sport, the game had serious consequences. A loss sometimes resulted in a human sacrifice.
They knew how to use rubber latex.
Speaking of rubber balls, the Mayan people were one of the first cultures to use rubber, which they created using natural latex. Experts believe that the Mayans created different qualities of rubber by mixing the latex with other natural substances.
This is how they were able to produce the bouncy balls that they used in their deadly games.
Mayans may have had domesticated turkeys.
The all-American meal, the turkey, may have actually started with the Mayan culture, who are thought to have domesticated turkeys.
While the Maya used turkeys as a food source in their culture, they also used turkey bones and feathers to create things like tools, musical instruments and fans.
Their knowledge of medicine was advanced.
Mayan healers were known as shamans, and they were integral parts of Mayan society. They were known for performing cleansing rituals and had a deep understanding of how to use plants to help cure ailments.
Shamans were able to create painkillers and anesthetics in order to perform more painful procedures.
The Mayan people still exist today.
When you hear stories of ancient cultures, you tend to think of them as only existing in the past. While the Mayan empire was at its height centuries ago, the Mayan people, language and customs carry on into the present day.
It is estimated that there are about 6 million Mayan people living today, the majority of whom live in Mexico.
Today, their sacrifices look a little different.
Some things have changed when it comes to the present-day Maya, however. While blood sacrifice is still an important part of their culture, today the sacrifices take the form of chickens — not humans.
Blood sacrifice is still practiced among the direct descendants of the Maya who are found in Mexico and Central America.
Their monuments are at risk.
Just like the archaeological sites in Egypt, which had fallen victim to illegal excavations and looting, the archaeological monuments of the Mayan world are at the same risk.
Over the years, looters have managed to smuggle artifacts like statues, vases and other findings into the antiquities market.
The largest Mayan city is in Guatemala.
The majority of travelers are most familiar with Chichen Itza, but it is not the largest Mayan city.
That title is reserved for the ancient city of Tikal in Guatemala. Spanning more than 47 square miles, Tikal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and used to be one of the most powerful capital cities in the Mayan world.
The Maya believed humans originated from clay.
According to Maya tradition, the Earth was first created, and then humans were constructed from wet clay.
Like other ancient stories, the Maya tell the tale of a great flood that wiped all but a few humans off the Earth, which was the gods' attempt to start over in creating the perfect human.
Weapons were made from obsidian.
The Mayans never used iron or steel for tools. Instead they used obsidian, a jet-black volcanic glass and igneous rock.
Obsidian was used for tools like axes, knives and swords. They even used obsidian blades for their bloodletting rituals.
They were masters of invention and astronomy.
From the complex calendar to the architecturally perfect temples and structures, to say the Maya were experts of invention and astronomy is an understatement. What the Maya figured out thousands of years ago continues to affect our lives in the present day.
The Mayans were the first to calculate that the calendar year has 365 days. They observed the cycles of nature and believed that every 52 years there would be a cycle of destruction. The Maya were also the first to use zero as a placeholder.
Mayan noblewomen had pointy teeth.
Forget braces. Did you know that the Maya considered pointy teeth to be beautiful? So much so that they filed their teeth to come to a point, sometimes in a specific pattern.
The wealthier Maya would bejewel their teeth with stones like jade or turquoise, which were drilled into holes in their front teeth.
They believed the Earth was flat.
For as advanced in science and astronomy as the Maya were, they also believed the Earth was flat.
Part of that belief included the notion that the four corners of the Earth were monitored by "brother gods" who kept the sky from falling and crashing to the ground.
The Maya have a sacred tree to this day.
If you've ever traveled to the Caribbean coast of Mexico, you may have noticed the jungle trees with fierce-looking spikes on the trunks. This is the ceiba, or ya'axche tree, and is sacred to the Mayan culture, thought to represent Heaven, Earth and Hell.
It also symbolizes strength, protection, wealth and beauty — kind of like the Tree of Knowledge.
Their priests were messengers of the gods.
Priests were an integral part of Mayan culture and daily life. In fact, everyday people believed priests to be the messengers through whom the gods spoke.
Religious ceremonies were highly common. The only person who had more power than the priest was the king, who was believed to be appointed by the gods himself.
You can experience Mayan culture in person.
The name “Maya” comes from the ancient city Mayapan in the Yucatan peninsula. This was the final capital of the Mayan Kingdom in the Post-Classic period.
"Maya" is the overarching parent term, but the Maya people refer to themselves by specific ethnicity and language, such as the Tzotzil Maya that live in the central highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico.
It is still unclear why the civilization declined.
The Mayan Empire was at its peak during what is known as the Classic Maya period, which lasted roughly 350 years between the years 300 and 660 A.D. Around the eighth and ninth centuries, though, the civilization started to decline. Cities that once saw 70,000 residents began to dwindle to eventual abandonment.
It's still debated why this happened, though scientists and archaeologists have looked at drought, war among different city-states, overpopulation and migration from the inland cities to the coast. Still, there is no clear answer why this magnificent civilization started to wane more than 1,000 years ago.