Many books have been written about the Maya. What follows is a very brief overview, colored by my own personal interests and experiences. Inquisitive readers are encouraged to explore other sources, beginning with those cited in In the Land of the Feathered Serpent. To see some of Frederik Catherwood's exquisite paintings of Maya sites click here.
The Maya today number about five million direct descendants of the once-great Maya Civilization that ranged from Tamaulipas south to the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas in Mexico, to Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. They speak around 30 dialects, many that are not cross-understandable (and several that have disappeared since the Spanish conquest). That they survived over 450 years of mass murder and enslavement by Spanish conquistadors, suppression by the Spanish-Americans (criollos) and mestizos, and finally the genocide efforts of Guatemala’s corrupt governments in the twentieth century is little short of a miracle. Despite all those years of abuse, they remain a culture with dignity, cohesion, purpose, and wisdom. In fact, their sense of cultural identity might be stronger now than it has been in many decades.
Maya cultural roots extend back to at least 2500 BC (a radiocarbon date from ceramics of the Maya Cuello site in Belize), and recent evidence from very old sites in the Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala’s Petén State suggests that the Maya could have influenced the beginnings of the great Olmec society (rather than the reverse, as long thought). If this view is correct, the Maya should rightly be called the “Mother Culture” of Mesoamerica. The origin of the Olmec has been an unsolved riddle since their discovery in the mid-nineteenth century.
Uxmál. The Pyramid of the Magician rises in the middle of the photo, and the Nunnery can be seen in the background.
An exquisite Maya vase (reproduction)
The Maya Timeline
Scholars divide the core time of Prehispanic Maya Civilization into three periods: Pre-Classic, Classic and Post-Classic. The Pre-Classic Period is usually said to have begun with the beginning of Maya village life ~2000 BC. Maya expansion during the Pre-Classic extended their civilization northward up Mexico's eastern seaboard all the way to Tamaulipas, establishing the Huastec culture. The Pre-Classic/Classic transition is around AD 250. During the Late Preclassic Period, extensive trade routes began to be established and this was almost certainly one of the driving forces in Maya cultural growth. There was continuous contact with the Valley of Mexico during the early to mid-Classic, as evidenced by the Teotihuacan-style dress and ornamentation of major figures on Maya stelae. The transition from the Preclassic to the Classic Period was not abrupt, as the dating might suggest, but was a long period of gradual growth and cultural awakening. During the Late Classic (~AD 600 to 800) the Maya reached their greatest cultural development, and it was during this time that the great cities of Tikal, Palenque, and Copán flourished.
Maya stela with glyphs. From the National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City
Chichén Itzá: the Caracol, a Maya astronomical observatory
The Classic/Post-Classic transition was around 900 AD. Toward the end of the Classic Period, as Maya cities in the central and southern region suffered collapse, the peak Maya culture shifted north, particularly to a region known as Puuc Hills, centered at the great Maya metropolis of Uxmál, and the Puuc architectural style emerged. Just 100 years after the collapse of the central and southern Maya civilizations, the cities in the Puuc Hills also collapsed, ending the Classic Period. The Post-Classic is generally said to end with the Spanish conquest in 1530.
Frederick Catherwood's painting of the Governor's Palace, Uxmál
Uxmál: Pyramid of the Magician
Uxmál: the Nunnery Complex
Chaac, the Mayan Rain God, on the Palace of the Governors, Uxmál
The Maya Culture
From about AD 250 to 800, the Maya reached intellectual heights that no other people in the New World could match. During this time, the Maya built hundreds of ceremonial centers without metal tools or the use of draft animals or the wheel. They became masters of art and sculpture, astronomy, hieroglyphic writing, mathematics, and calendric logic. Evidence for the advanced nature of pre-Columbian Maya society comes from many aspects of their civilization. The Maya were a highly literate people; their hieroglyphic script being the only known fully developed writing system to have developed in pre-Columbian America (although several other, crude writing systems also evolved). And it was one of only two written language origins in the world, the other being in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Starting around 300 BC, Maya hieroglyphic script became the most elaborated and widely attested writing system in the New World.
The Classic period saw the development of city-states throughout the Maya world, linked by complex road and trade networks. The Maya political system never integrated the entire Maya empire and wars between city-states were common. Most combat was hand-to-hand, but weapons included blowguns, bow and arrow, wooden swords, and eventually the atlatl (spear-thrower). Ritualistic killings and sacrifices were common. In the city-states, the “king” held semi-divine status and could communicate between gods and mortals. Royal succession was patrilineal and typically power was passed to the eldest son, should he have proven himself worthy through successful military combat and the capture of a sufficient number of enemy warriors. Commoners, or those not in the royal family, paid taxes in the form of staple goods.
Frederick Catherwood's painting of a magnificent stela at Copán
Ring in great ballcourt at Uxmál
Tikal: Temple I
Frederick Catherwood's painting of Chichén Itzá
The exquisite Maya artwork included carvings in jade, obsidian, wood, bone, shell, and construction stone (e.g., limestone, tuff, sandstone), as well as highly developed ceramics and exquisite polychrome murals. Eventually, weaving of textiles and baskets also grew to high levels of creativity and craftsmanship. The Maya’s understanding of astronomy and mathematics rivaled that of Europe at the time, including one of the earliest instances of the explicit zero (which the Maya discovered and added to the widespread Mesoamerican bar-and-dot counting system). Their accuracy in predicting positions of the sun, moon, planets, and constellations was extraordinary. Their calendars were as precise as any at the time and included lunar and solar cycles, eclipses, and movements of the planets. The Maya held long-standing trade arrangements with other well-developed cultures throughout Mesoamerica, including the Olmecs, Mixtecs, Aztecs, and Teotihuacanos (there was a strong Maya presence in the city of Teotihuacan).
Feathered serpent heads at base of Temple of Kuculcan, Chichén Itzá
Image of the Feathered Serpent, Temple of Kukulcan (El Castillo), Chichén Itzá
The characteristic architectural style of Maya buildings was unique, with temples built on top of stepped pyramids and usually a single, narrow staircase ascending to the top. They made a strong mortar from limestone, which was burned over an open fire to change its chemical composition. To the cooked and powdered lime, they added water to make a durable mortar and plaster.
Toward the end of the Classic Period, city construction ceased in the central region of the Maya civilization, but a small number of elegant centers were still being built on the Yucatán Peninsula. Nowhere is this last vestige of architectural complexity more evident than at Uxmál, about 60 miles from Merida. One of the most unusual buildings at Uxmál is the Pyramid of the Magician. Its striking oval shape hides four smaller, older pyramids within. The most elegant buildings at Uxmál may be the Nunnery complex, so-named by the Spaniards of the Colonial Period who thought the buildings resembled nunneries in Spain. The Palace of the Governor is also magnificent and comprises ~20,000 finished stones, each weighing 55 to 75 pounds; 150 carved stone masks of the Rain God Chaac and over 10,000 stone “St. Andrew’s Crosses” adorn this remarkable building.
Toltec round columns at Chichén Itzá
Chacmool (Aztec), from Templo Mayor, Mexico City
Copán is a spectacular site in Western Honduras (near the Guatemalan border) located in a lush tropical valley at ~2000 ft elevation. It was one of the most important of the southern Maya cities and had high-yield agricultural production. Copán’s ballcourt is one of the most beautiful of all Classic Period courts. It included three elegantly carved ballcourt markers, the north and south markers depicting two players with a ball suspended between them, the center marker showing both players kneeling (ready to put the ball in motion). Two glyphs on the center marker identify Hunahpu, one of the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh (see below). The Acropolis Pyramid at Copán has a staircase that ascends 90 feet; each of its 63 steps are separated by huge stone block risers that are elaborately carved with a total of around 2200 hieroglyphs.
Tikal is one of the oldest of the great Classic Period Maya cities. Construction started around 100 BC (although there is evidence that people were living in Tikal as early as 600 BC) and reached its peak during the 6th to 8th centuries AD. The site covers an area over six square miles, was occupied by an estimated 50,000 people, and was a highly prosperous center of trade. The great city had an active trading relationship with Teotihuacan in the great Valley of Mexico, and with many Maya cities along the Caribbean coast. By the mid-Classic Period, Tikal had become culturally and politically dominant over most centers in the Maya lowlands. Dos Pilas was founded in 629 as a military outpost to help Tikal protect its position at a strategic location for trade.
BELOW: The great cenotes at Chichén Itzá
The Maya had several different calendars. The Sacred Calendar, the Tzolkin, was based on a 260-day cycle that had twenty named days interspersed with the numbers 1 to 13. 260 days would pass before any given combination would reappear. All other calendars had to be coordinated with the Sacred Calendar. The Solar Calendar (the Haab) was a 360-day period, which was divided into 18 months of 20 days each, to which a short month of five days (Uayayeb) was added at the end of each year. The Solar Calendar was based on the computation of the length of a year at 365.24 days, the same as own modern calculation. The Maya also calculated the synodical revolution of Venus at 584 days, the same as our modern calculations. The Maya’s Calendar Round was a 52-year cycle that combined the Solar and Sacred Calendars—18,980 days (52 years) had to go by in order for a single date to reappear on both calendars at the same time.
The Maya numbering system was vigesimal (based on the number 20) and numbers were written with either hieroglyphs or with bars and dots. A bar represented five and a dot was one. Thus, the number 13 was written as two parallel bars with three dots above. Numbers twenty and above were placed in ascending columns, which increased the number by multiples of twenty. By at least 35 BC, they had also come to understand the concept of zero, for which they had a distinctive glyph. The Olmecs may have invented zero around 400 BC, and the Egyptians may have discovered it as early as 1770 BC. The first known use of zero is the Sumerians, around 600 to 300 BC.
Maya skull wall at "Cemetary," Chichén Itzá
The sacred jaguar, Yucatan Peninsula
Most of the information that was recorded by the Maya concerning their history, mythology, religion, astronomy, and mathematics was lost when their civilization collapsed. By the time Hernán Cortés arrived in the 16th century, few Maya remained who could read their complicated writing. The breaking of the Mayan language code seemed an intractable problem until 1952, when the Russian Maya scholar Yuri Knorosov discovered that it was a combination of word signs with signs that represented sounds alone. Today, about 75 percent of Maya glyphs can be read.
The Late Classic Period (600-800) saw a decline in the artistic and scientific skills of the Maya. For example, the practice of carving elaborate figurines was replaced with molded, simplistic figurines that were “mass produced.” By the end of the Late Classic, most Maya cities had stopped producing fine goods. Within a short span of about 150 years, Maya of the lowlands and central region had fled their cities. Bonampak was abandoned by 795, Palenque and Copán by 800, and Tikál by 879 to 892. The prevailing theory is that a combination of long, repeated droughts (and associated agricultural crises), combined with long-lasting internecine wars between city-states, led to the collapse of the great Maya Empire. Caracol, however, experienced a meteoric rise in power resulting from its military victories, conquests, and sacrifice of conquered kings. Caracol’s dynasties flourished while others were disintegrating around them.
Arrival of the Toltecs
At the beginning of the 10th century, groups of Chichimec-Toltec warriors came from the north and invaded the central highlands and southern lowlands of Mexico. The result was a merging of Toltec and Maya cultural traits. At the end of the 10th century, the Toltecs had built an impressive metropolis at Tula. Architectural styles were dramatic and innovative, including stately columns for elegant walkways for warriors who gathered at important ceremonies. The most well preserved structure at Tula is the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl (“Temple B”). The Toltec priest-king Quetzalcoatl believed in one god—his namesake, the Feathered Serpent deity Quetzalcoatl. The priest-king Quetzalcoatl was one of the most important personalities in pre-Spanish conquest history. Under his leadership, the Toltecs greatly expanded their cultural and intellectual accomplishments. However, throughout Quetzalcoatl’s 19-year reign he was harassed and even attacked by the competing, bloodthirsty Tezcatlipoca cult, whose followers advocated revolution and an emphasis on stronger militarism and human sacrifice. Eventually, the priest-king Quetzalcoatl and his most loyal supporters left Tula in disgrace, traveling to the Gulf Coast where they set sail eastward on a raft covered with serpent skins. When he left, he promised to return in another year of his birth to reclaim his rightful throne.
The Toltecs who went to Chichén Itzá (in the northern Yucatán) rebuilt and expanded portions of that great Maya city, and similarities to that of Tula are evident, such as the use of columns, serpent-forms, chacmool figures, and the use of jaguar and eagle symbols to identify the Toltec warrior groups. Chacmools are reclining figures with their heads facing 90 degrees from the front, supporting themselves on their elbows and with a bowl or a disk on their stomach. These figures might have symbolized slain warriors carrying offerings to the gods, the bowl on the chest being used to hold sacrificial offerings, such as pulque, tamales, tortillas, feathers, and incense. The largest structure at Chichén Itzá is the Temple of Kukulcán, also called El Castillo. Both Toltec and Maya features appear on this temple-pyramid. A wide staircase ascends each of the four sides to the sanctuary on top, each with 91 steps, for a total of 364 steps. Adding the top step of the north platform, there are 365 steps, the number of days in the solar calendar. Stairs bisect each of the nine levels of the pyramid, creating a total of 18 sections on each side, corresponding to the 18 months of the Maya year. Each side of the pyramid has 52 recessed panels, representing the 52-year cycle of Venus. One of the ballcourts at Chichén Itzá, near the Castillo, is the largest in all of Mesoamerica—480 feet in length. Behind this ballcourt is a Tzompantli, or skull rack, which is a wall carved with images of human skulls. There are two massive cenotes at Chichén Itzá, and one of them (200 feet in diameter) is one of the largest known in the Yucatán Peninsula. The cenotes were ceremonial pilgrimage sites of great importance to the Maya during the Classic Period. Underwater excavations of these cenotes have recovered thousands of ceremonial objects, including gold masks and disks, copper bells, jade objects, pottery, knives, figurines and human bones.
According to chronicles in the Mayan codex of Chilam Balam, a group of Toltec warriors arrived in the Yucatán in the year of Quetzalcoatl’s abdication and conquered the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá. They were led by a high priest called Kukulcán, the Mayan word meaning Plumed, or Feathered Serpent. However, according to Lathrop (2016) there is no evidence that Kukulcán and Quetzalcoatl were one and the same person—other than the coincidence of time and name. The records suggest that Kukulcán was a bloodthirsty conqueror far different from the gentle leader at Tula.
From the Post-classic Period until today, both the traditional lowland and mountain Maya have tried to live quiet, peaceful lives as subsistence farmers, relying heavily on the ancient Mesoamerican native food foursome of maize, beans, chiles, and squash. Cotton and cacao have also long been important Maya crops. Cacao beans (from which chocolate is made) played a particularly important role in Maya life during the Classic Period, being a ritual ingredient, pleasurable drink, and form of currency. Many of the Maya medicinal herbs and practices, and even the temescal ritual have also persisted for thousands of years.
Early in the 21st century, archeologists used a new technology called Lidar, which uses finely-tuned lasers to reveal structures hidden beneath jungle and forest foliage, even penetrating to lake bottoms, to discover over 61,000 previously unknown Maya structures in the Petén Department of northern Guatemala. The discovery revealed that the Late Classic (AD 600-900) Maya civilization was far larger and more widespread than anyone had imagined. The area around Tikal was a vast landscape of suburban and rural Maya villages and farms, with a population of seven to eleven million people, all connected by a complex system of large raised causeways.
The Popol Vuh
The Popol Vuh is the sacred book of the Maya Quiché and the literary jewel of the Maya civilization. It is the Quiché story of creation, including mythic stories of Maya gods, demigods, and noble rulers. Beginning with the creation of the world, the stories stretch over thousands of years of history of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. The Popol Vuh describes the creation of man from corn, and the line of K’iche kings up to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Originally written in Mayan script, as codices on bark paper, these were burned by the Spaniards. The Spanish priests considered Mayan codices to be pagan material, and only four are known to have survived. Thus the stories had to be passed along by oral tradition until, in 1558, a Maya scholar who had learned to write the Mayan tongue using Latin characters transcribed the stories of the Popol Vuh into written script. But the text was lost in antiquity. In 1701, Father Francisco Ximénez discovered the manuscript in the Santo Tomás church in Chichicastenango and translated it into Spanish. However, Ximénez’s translation was also lost for more than a century, only to be rediscovered in 1854. It was taken to Guatemala’s San Carlos University library, and from there to Europe by Abbott Brasseur de Bourbourgh, who translated it into French. de Bourbourgh eventually sold the manuscript to another collector, named Alfonso Pinart. When Pinart died, his widow sold it to Edward Ayer, who brought the book back to America and deposited it in Chicago’s Newberry Library, where it resides today.
The first section of the Popol Vuh comprises stories of Maya creation myths. The second section tells stories of the gods and demigods before mortal man had appeared on the Earth. Most of the second section dwells on the adventures of two sets of twins, both of whom engaged in battles of wits against the Lords of the Underworld. The first twins were Hun Hunahpu (Jun Junajpu) and Wucub Hunahpu (Wuqub’ Junajpu). The second set of twins was the two sons of Hun Hunahpu, named Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Both sets of twins are sometimes called “Hero Twins,” although the second set is also sometimes called the “Amazing Twins.” The third section of the Popol Vuh describes the founding of the Earthly Tribes of the Maya people.
The first set of Hero Twins, Hun Hunahpu and Wucub Hunahpu (the father and uncle of the second set of twins) were great ball players. However, when they played they were so noisy that it disturbed the Lords of Xibalba, the Underworld. The Lords invited Hun Hunahpu and Wucub Hunahpu to Xibalba to play ball with them, but when they arrived in the Underworld the Lords killed them. Hun Hunahpu was beheaded, and Wucub Hunahpu was disemboweled. Hun Hunahpu’s head was placed on the branch of a calabash tree that had never before borne fruit. When the head was placed in the tree, many round, head-shaped calabashes appeared. The Lords warned everyone to stay away from the tree, but Princess Xkiq (Xquic, or Ixkik’, Blood Woman), daughter of one of the Lords, was curious and visited it. When she stood beneath the tree, the skull of Hun Hunahpu spat into her hand and spoke to her, telling her that his spit had impregnated her with his seed and that she should go back up to the Earth and bear his child. Princess Xkiq went to Hun Hunahpu’s mother, who begrudgingly took her in, and soon gave birth to twin sons – the Amazing Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. The jaguar was a sacred beast in Maya culture and there were a number of different jaguar gods; Xbalanque was notable for having patches of jaguar pelt stuck to his skin.
Like their father, Hunahpu and Xbalanque became great ball players (using their father’s equipment). But they, too, were too noisy for the Lords of the Underworld, and the Lords also challenged them to a ball game. When Hunahpu and Xbalanque arrived in Xibalba, the Lords intended to kill them, but the young men played countless clever tricks on them to avoid their wrath. One of the many things the Lords did to them was throw them into the “Bat House” for the night—this was the hut of Camazotz, the vampire bat. During the night, Camazotz sliced Junajpu’s head off and the Lords hung it in their ballcourt. According to bat specialist Dr. Rodrigo Medellín (National University of Mexico), images of Camazotz from Mayan ruins suggest it was what we now recognize as the giant carnivorous bat (Vampyrum spectrum). Being a good friend of the forest creatures, Xbalanque arranged for the turtle’s shell to be carved to look like Hunahpu’s head, which he placed on the neck of his decapitated brother in the morning before the brothers went to play ball against the Lords. At the ball game that morning, when the Lords were distracted, Xbalanque grabbed his brother’s severed head and put it back on its body, sending the turtle on its way. The Lords of Xibalba were furious over being tricked. They decided to throw the young men into a bonfire. Anticipating this move, the twins threw themselves into the fire. The Lords ground their bones into dust and tossed it into the river. But when the bone dust settled to the bottom of the river, it coalesced back into the boys, who were revived. Five days later, they appeared again, as beggars who knew many magical tricks, such as burning down huts and then making the huts reappear, and even killing people and then bringing them back to life. The Lords were so impressed, they asked the magical beggar twins to kill them and then bring them back to life. They killed two of the Lords, but did not bring them back to life, which made the remaining Lords flee in fear. They then revealed their true selves to the people of Xibalba, who fell to their knees and asked for forgiveness from the Amazing Twins. The boys decried that from that day on Xibalba would no longer control ball games nor take advantage of those who lived on the surface of the Earth. Instead, the Underworld was to be relegated to a domain of sinners, the corrupt, the despondent, and the depraved. The Lords of the Underworld had lost their greatness, and all they could do from then on was cause evil and discord.
The Amazing Twins then climbed out of Xibalba and back to the surface of the Earth. From there, they rose into the sky, Hunahpu became the sun and Xbalanque became the moon, thus bringing light to the Earth so that mortal men could finally begin to walk the land.
The Mayan bat god Camazotz was likely the giant carnivorous bat, Vampyrum spectrum. Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Medellín
Maya sculpture depicting the bat god Camazotz