The Maya Empire - an Overview


The Maya Empire existed in the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico) and parts of Guatemala and Northern Belize from about 500 BC to 1200 AD.

The foundation for Mayan civilization came from the Olmec--a civilization of Native Americans that lived along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico from about 1200 BC to 600 BC.

The Maya are well known for their architecture as well as their scientific and mathematical achievements and their very accurate calendar.

The Maya were skilled farmers, potters, weavers, and they knew how to efficiently clear jungles for roads and fields.

The golden age of the Maya Empire lasted from about 200 AD to 900 AD. During this time, they had a powerful government and traded with distant peoples.

Much of Mayan history is marked by the tearing down and rebuilding of their city-states over the years.

In about 1200 AD, the Mayan civilization basically merged with the Toltec people for reasons that are currently unknown.

Today, many descendants of the Maya still live in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. They practice many of the same traditions of the Maya, combined with those that were brought by the Spanish after Cortes arrived in Mexico in the 1500s.


Mayan cities were not planned communities like those of Ancient Rome or other civilizations of the Old World. They were built sort of at random as directed by Mayan priests.

One of the largest cities was Tikal. Tikal was home to upwards of 60,000 people and, at its height, had over 10,000 buildings. Some of the buildings of Tikal still stand today.

Some Mayan cities were built away from fresh water sources, so underground reservoirs were built to supply fresh water during the dry season.

Many of the buildings that remain today are temples. These pyramid shaped structures were built much like the early pyramids of Egypt. Like Egypt, many of these pyramids were used as tombs for high priests. The priests were buried with treasure offerings (statues, jade, etc...)

Most of these temples were aligned so that at the equinoxes (first days of spring and autumn), a certain area or room of the temple would fill with light. The temple at the city of Chicen Itza in Mexico was built so that at the equinoxes, an optical illusion was created that made it appear as if Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent god) was coming down the steps of the pyramid to Earth.


The Maya were expert farmers. They cleared jungle and forests by slash and burn (cutting down the trees and then setting them on fire.)

The Maya lived mainly off of maize (corn), but they also planted squash, beans, and tobacco. After using a field for two years, the Maya let it go fallow (unplanted) for ten years. This let the nutrients in the soil come back so that crops would grow well in it.

The farmers usually lived in a village outside of a larger city. The village had thatched-roof huts made of mud. The men tended the fields and built huts. Women cooked, made clothes, and raised the family. After the harvest, many farmers went to the city to help build temples and other buildings.


At the top of Mayan society were the king, his chiefs, priests, and other nobles.

The second level of society consisted of teachers, scribes, warriors, architects, lower-ranking government officials, merchants, and craftsmen.

At the bottom of the Mayan social ladder were the farmers and slaves.


The Maya worshipped over 166 gods and goddesses. Most of them were connected to nature and astronomy.

Priests were very important to Mayan society. They decided when crops should be planted and when and where cities should be built.

The Maya offered human and animal sacrificed to the gods in the hope that power would be given to them in return.

Kings and their wives offered their own blood to the gods. They would cut themselves and soak their blood onto paper. The paper was then burned. The smoke was believed to go to the heavens, and the Maya believed that the gods would return power to kings.

Ordinary people were usually buried under their houses with food in their mouths. Buried with them were religious objects and everyday tools.

Priests and kings were buried with treasures and books. Sometimes nobles were cremated.


The Maya used hieroglyphics (pictures representing words or syllables.)

Generally, the only people in Mayan society that could read and write were priests and scribes. Priests believed that part of their power came from their ability to communicate with the gods in writing.

Priests and astronomers kept a codex (book). The codices were made of deer hide or paper and were covered on the outside by plaster. Only a very few codices have ever been found because in the 1500-1600s, the Spanish burnt them with the belief that they were the work of the devil. Fortunately, some Mayan dictionaries have been found. These help historians to translate codices and Mayan writing found on temples.


We use a base-10 as our number system. Mayan math was a system based on 20. Many Maya could work math problems. They learned math because it was often necessary to do their jobs.

Here are a few examples of Mayan numbers.

Check out this site for an interactive Mayan math calculator.


The Mayan calendar was extremely complex. They used months with 20 days, and they had two separate calendar years, a 260-day-year for religious purposes and a 365-day-year for agriculture.


About 900 AD, the Mayan civilization began to slowly shrink. Here are a few theories for the decline of Mayan civilization.

  • The cities became so large that they used up all the good farmland. This caused starvation and disease.

  • Wars with other tribes

  • The civilization could not support the expensive temples and tombs of the nobles and priests. The temples got bigger and bigger because nobles tried to out do each other, much like the pharaohs of Egypt did with the pyramids.

  • Farmers and slaves escaped and moved to the hills to get away from being used for human sacrifice to the gods.

  • Whatever the case, by about 1200 AD, the Maya Empire was all but gone.


    Today there are about 6-million descendants of the Maya living in 31 different groups in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Each group speaks a different language, but all their languages are related to the Ancient Mayan tongue.

    Modern Maya are still excellent farmers, weavers, and craftsmen. Most of them practice a religion that has elements of the Ancient Mayan religion combined with Roman Catholicism.