The Maya of Mexico and Central America are one of the ancient world's most fascinating, prolific, and mysterious civilizations. They left their mark on the region's culture, architecture, cuisine, and language—and left an indelible impression on the imagination of the modern world. Who were they? How were they able to build such an impressive civilization of towering temples and sophisticated artwork in the middle of the harsh rain forests of Mesoamerica? And why did they vanish?
The earliest Maya lived along the Pacific coast of what is now Guatemala and date to about 1800 B.C.; by 1000 B.C. they were also living in Guatemala's southern lowlands. The period from about 1800 B.C. to about A.D. 250 is referred to as the Preclassic, a time when the early Maya lived as farmers in small villages along rivers and other bodies of water, hunting game, tending gardens, and making use of the abundant natural foods found in the region's marshes and seasonal swamps. In time strong rulers began wielding power over these communities, and Maya culture grew in complexity. Cities rose from the forest floor, boasting stone temples with stuccoed and painted facades created at the behest of elite rulers. People in the new power centers communicated over long distances, and traders using the same routes carried luxury goods such as cacao beans, jade ornaments, quetzal feathers, and jaguar pelts.
The Classic period, A.D. 250-900, is the time of the civilization's greatest glory—and of the greatest depths of political intrigue between rival cities. During these centuries the Maya erected countless stelae, stone monuments inscribed with portraits and hieroglyphs that recorded dynastic histories—the births, marriages, and conquests of the ruling families. There were dozens of important regional capitals at the time, and among the most important were Tikal in Guatemala and its fierce rival Calakmul in Mexico, Palenque in southern Mexico, Caracol in Belize, and Copán in Honduras.
The Classic period is known for artistic and intellectual splendor. The Maya developed a complex religious and ritual system that considered rulers divine beings and called for blood sacrifices. They also grasped the numerical notion of zero, created agricultural timetables and sophisticated calendars to track the heavens, and made beautiful polychrome pottery as well as exquisite ornaments, murals, and carved decorations.
But the Classic Maya were also known for their rancorous political fighting and for being extremely bellicose—warfare was always on the horizon. One by one, the cities in the southern Maya lowlands fell to each other, their downfall often recorded on stelae in the conquering city. By A.D. 900 most of the important Classic period cities had collapsed, and their remaining populations had scattered into the surrounding forests. The last date recorded on stelae that archaeologists have found so far is from 909 in Toniná, in southern Mexico. Among the factors that help explain why the civilization collapsed were the endemic warfare, overpopulation, degradation of the environment, and drastic climate change and drought.
While the cities and ceremonial centers of the southern lowlands were being reclaimed by the jungle, the Maya living to the north were gaining prominence, rising to amazing heights during the Postclassic period (900-1502). Wonderful and wealthy cities in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula flourished, most famous among them Chichén Itzá. Yet it too fell victim to political infighting and by 1200 had collapsed.
The Maya never truly disappeared. Centuries after the major cities were abandoned, small groups of Maya continued to live in the area. It was they who met and resisted the Spanish conquistadors after the first contact, in 1502. And today more than six million Maya live in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, speaking 28 languages and blending ancient and modern ways.
"Mysteries of the Maya: The Rise, Glory, and Collapse of an Ancient Civilization." National Geographic Collector's Edition (August 2008).
McKillop, Heather. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. ABC-CLIO, 2004.
"Maya." Encyclopedia Britannica.
Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens. Thames and Hudson, 2000.
Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Sharer, Robert J., and Loa P. Traxler. The Ancient Maya, 6th ed. Stanford University Press, 2006.
Estrada-Belli, Francisco. "Archaeological Investigations at Homul, Peten, Guatemala." FAMSI, 2003.
Freidel, David. ""Maya Warfare, Myth and Reality.":http://maya.csuhayward.edu/yaxuna/warfare.html
Coe, Michael D., and Mark Van Stone. Reading the Maya Glyphs. Thames and Hudson, 2001.
"Cracking the Maya Code." Nova, April 8, 2008.
Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. Thames and Hudson, 1993.
Stuart, David, and George Stuart. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames and Hudson, 2008.
Other National Geographic Resources
Saturno, William. "The Dawn of Maya Gods and Kings." National Geographic (January 2006).
Stuart, Gene, and George Stuart. Lost Kingdoms of the Maya. National Geographic Society, 1993.
Roberts, David. "Descent Into the Maya Underworld." National Geographic (November 2004).
Stuart, George E. "City of Kings and Commoners: Copan." National Geographic, October 1989.
Stuart, George E. "The Royal Crypts of Copan." National Geographic, December 1997.
Last updated: July 30, 2008
From the rise of their civilization around A.D. 250 to the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, Maya in dozens of cities and kingdoms—spread across present-day Belize, Guatemala, southeastern Mexico, and the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador—practiced a religion characterized by astrology, divination, and bloody rituals involving animal and human sacrifices.
These ancient Maya worshipped nature gods, especially those associated with maize, rain, and the sun. They also used a complex cyclic calendar of days and years to determine the future and to record history and mythology. Their architects oversaw the construction of some of the most complex and beautiful temples in the world, and scribes and sculptors used hieroglyphic texts in these buildings to describe ceremonies and rituals. Other texts were carved into bone and shell, painted on ceramics, and written in screen-fold books, or codices.
When the Spanish arrived in the mid-16th century, they began trying to convert the Maya to Catholicism. Christianity crept into Maya life, and today the most commonly practiced religion in the region is a mix of Roman Catholicism and ancient Maya beliefs and rituals.
An Exploration of Mesoamerican Cultures.
The Maya commonly made sacrifices of humans, animals, and plants, believing they would encourage the fertility of the earth and lead to good crops but also seeing them as a way to celebrate stations in the calendar or victories in war. They also believed that self-sacrifice, in the form of ritual bloodletting, was a way to make contact with the gods or their ancestors. Maya rulers, who were believed to be descendants of the gods, made special blood sacrifices, including drawing blood from the tongue, earlobes, or genitals. Neglecting to perform such sacrifices, they believed, could result in chaos and cosmic disorder.
Sacrifices were only one of many religious traditions used in worshipping the gods. Others included dancing, praying, and playing ball games in special courts. Among the gods of the ancient Maya were:
Itzamná: One of the creators and the chief god, Itzamná was also the god of fire and hearth. According to the Maya, he invented writing and is depicted as an old man with square eyes who’s constantly squinting.
Chac: The god of rain, Chac was believed to influence fertility and agriculture. Like some other Maya gods, he was at times thought of as four separate gods (each belonging to one of the four cardinal directions: east, west, north, and south). He’s depicted as an old man with fangs and a long nose and resembles a reptile or amphibian.
Yumil Kaxob: Known as the maize god, Yumil Kaxob is distinguished by his youth and by his maize crown. Although his fortunes and misfortunes were dictated by rain and drought, which controlled the growth of crops, Yumil Kaxob was an important god.
Maya Sacrifice. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. National Gallery of Art.
El Castillo. Mysterious Places.
Ancient Maya religion held that the soul began its afterlife with a dangerous journey through the underworld—a place known as Xibalba, or Place of Fright. Symbolized by the jaguar, an emblem of the night, Xibalba was a complex realm of nine layers inhabited by sinister gods. The Maya believed those who survived the journey through Xibalba would rise triumphantly like the sun. They also believed that almost everyone was doomed to enter the underworld upon dying and that heaven was reserved for those who’d been sacrificed or had died in childbirth. Access to Xibalba from the living world was granted through caves, still commonly used by the modern Maya as sites for sacred rituals.
Roberts, David. "Descent Into the Maya Underworld." National Geographic (November 2004), 36-53.
Maya Civilization. Canadian Museum of Civilization.
The Maya practiced most of their religious rites and ceremonies according to astronomical calculations they made based on a complex calendar system that reflected the cyclic movements of stars and planets as well as the sun and moon. They used the calendar to predict future events, such as eclipses and the fortunes of kingdoms. The most commonly used calendars were the Haab (365 days), the Tzolkin (260 days), and the Long Count (a thousand years that ended around A.D. 900).
The Long Count calendar started in 3114 B.C., when the Maya thought time began, and was divided into several units of different days. For example, one K’in equaled one day, and one Tun equaled 360 days. This calendar is unique in dating systems around the world but isn’t practical for everyday use.
The Haab calendar, based on an estimate of the solar cycle, consisted of 18 months of 20 days (360 days), followed by a highly unlucky five-day period at the end of the year to approximate the true solar year. During these five unlucky days the Maya feared dangerous situations and feared death.
The Tzolkin was a sacred cycle of 260 days made up of 20 day names and 13 numbers. The number 13 represented the number of gods in the “upper world,” and the number 20 represented man (for his ten fingers and ten toes). Priests likely used this calendar to determine lucky and unlucky days and to advise rulers on the best times to, among other things, plant crops and wage war.
Maya Calendar System. BBC h2g2. September 13, 2000.
Maya Civilization. Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Johnson, Ryan. "How the Mayan Calendar Works." HowStuffWorks.com December 27, 2008.
Mayan Calendar Tools.
Today's Maya follow a religion different from the one practiced by their ancestors. Influenced by the Spanish conquest of the mid-1500s and later missionary work, it combines Roman Catholicism and traditional Maya practices. The cosmology is still predominantly Maya, though the public religion is basically Christianity as practiced by Roman Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals.
Instead of idolizing nature gods, most Maya today worship saints. One example is the god Maximón—a popular post-Columbian Maya deity who blends aspects of the Christian San Simón with those of a Maya god. The story of Maximón varies from town to town, but the most famous Maximón—a mix of Jesus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot—is found in Santiago Atitlán in Guatemala.
Most Maya still believe the sky is the domain of the sun, the moon, and the stars, but the sun is now associated with God or Jesus Christ, and the moon is associated with the Virgin Mary. They also believe that the forest houses spirits, and to keep evil away, villagers often set up four pairs of crosses and four jaguar spirits, or balam, at their village’s four entrances.
Centuries after the Spanish conquest, ceremonies sometimes still included human sacrifices—people were crucified or had their hearts cut out, and children were sometimes dropped into cenotes, or natural wells, to satisfy the supernatural world or to encourage rain. The last recorded Maya human sacrifice occurred in 1868, though sacrifice of animals is still prevalent. Some Maya continue to worship at mountain and cave shrines, where they make offerings of chickens and alcoholic drinks.
Maya Sacrifice. Encyclopedia Britannica.
The Maya Today. Jaguar Sun. http://www.jaguar-sun.com/mayanow.html
Coop, Dwight. "Maya Religion." Lake Atitlán Guatemala.
Maya Civilization. Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Last updated: July 31, 2008
One of the most famous buildings that offer glimpses into Maya civilization is at Bonampak, in southern Chiapas near the Guatemala border. Bonampak was unknown to the non-Maya world until 1946, when local Lacandon Indians described it to an American photographer named Giles Healey.
Bonampak owes its fame to a single three-room building, each room with one door to the outside and frescoes painted on plaster on its interior walls and ceiling. These murals, which date to A.D. 790, depict rich scenes of Maya life, death, and mythology. The underdrawings were made using red ochre and iron oxide pigments, and important figures were outlined with a delicate black line of carbon pigment.
Room One portrays a musical procession, a costumed reenactment of a maize god ceremony, and the presentation of a royal infant to the nobles at court, including, perhaps, long-ago visitors to Bonampak.
Room Two shows bloody Mayan warfare, including freshly captured heads on the ends of poles and worn around the necks of the victors. The battle scene leads to vignettes of tortured prisoners and a display of captives on Bonampak's great steps.
Room Three's frescoes include the dressing of a nobleman, a worn and barely legible dance for the gods, and a perforation ritual performed by women who then burn their blood as an offering to the gods. The rich colors and patterns of the clothing, the jaguar hides worn by the king and noblemen, the elaborate paper and feather headdresses of the warriors—all are depicted in incredible detail.
Parts of the murals in each room became degraded over time as calcium seeped through the plaster and moisture lifted the ancient pigment off the walls. Once bold, the colors of the paintings are now faded and difficult to see except under special lighting, which is rarely allowed in an effort to preserve the murals from further degrading.
In 1995 National Geographic magazine helped art historian Mary E. Miller, then chair of the Department of the History of Art at Yale University, document the art. Several scenes in the murals were photographed by National Geographic freelance photographer Enrico Ferorelli using color-transparency film. Other sections were photographed by myself, using black-and-white infrared film and controlled lighting. The infrared negatives revealed new details of the frescoes and led to a better reading of the glyphs in Room One than had previously been possible.
In 1996 a larger effort, the Bonampak Documentation Project, began under Miller's direction. She had the help of a group that included Stephen Houston, then with Brigham Young University; Karl Taube of the University of California, Riverside; and Beatriz de la Fuente of the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Photographer Justin Kerr was along to shoot in color, and I was there to take more black-and-white infrared images.
Techniques I'd developed and refined through trial and error allowed me to clearly document the underdrawings rendered in A.D. 790, revealing outlines of important figures that had faded to the visible eye. Infrared also brought to light many other details, including previously unseen glyph figures. Gene Ware of Brigham Young University and Steve Booras of FARMS, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, used infrared vidicon and multispectral imaging devices to gather even more data. The project team has used all these images to learn more about the life of the Maya and the astonishing paintings of the Bonampak murals.
Bonampak Documentation Project.
Coe, Michael D. The Maya. Thames and Hudson, 1999.
Miller, Mary E. "Maya Masterpiece Revealed at Bonampak." National Geographic (February 1995), 50-69.
Miller, Mary E. "Imaging Maya Art." Archaeology (May/June 1997), 34-40.
Miller, Mary Miller. The Murals of Bonampak. Princeton University Press, 1986.
Last updated: July 23, 2008