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Date: 2021
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 654 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 1030L

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Mayan Temples Mayan Temples of Gran Plaza or Plaza Mayor at Tikal National Park in Guatemala. Mayan Temples of Gran Plaza or Plaza Mayor at Tikal National Park in Guatemala. Diego Grandi/

The Maya are an indigenous people of Mexico and Central America. The Maya civilization lasted from about 2000 BC to 1500 AD. This civilization was very advanced for its time. The Maya built a network of powerful trading hubs and city-states. They had mathematics, calendars, and forms of writing. They also studied astronomy and had a complex religious system involving a complex journey into the afterlife.

Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the Maya abandoned their cities for an unknown reason. After this, they returned to a rural way of life. Modern Maya still exist in the region today. Many have blended the beliefs and cultures of their ancestors with the Christian influence of the conquistadors.

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Fast Facts

  • Ancient Maya used a form of writing called hieroglyphics.
  • Many Mayan ruins are still being discovered.
  • The Maya used cacao beans to create a type of chocolate drink.

Maya History

The Maya are an indigenous people native to modern Central America and Mexico. Prior to the development of the Mayan civilization, the Maya lived as part of the Olmec civilization. This period, known as the Olmec Period or Pre-Classic Period, lasted from 1500 BC to 200 BC. The Olmec civilization overlapped with the Zapotc civilization, which helped begin the mathematical and astronomical practices that the Maya would later advance.

The Maya founded the famous city Teotihuacan, a cultural and trading hub, in addition to numerous small cities. From that point forward, a group of Mayan city-states developed. These included the historic cities of Piste, Tikal, Chichen Itza, and Uxmal. The Mayan peoples had astronomical calendars, a form of writing, and a complex religion. They built large pyramids to help worship their gods. However, at some point, the Maya abandoned their cities. Experts have not yet discovered the reason for this but the structures were vacant by the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived. The Maya’s desertion of their cities marks the end of the Golden Age of the Maya.

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Critical Thinking Questions

  • What were some of the cultural hallmarks of the Maya?
  • Why do you think the Maya might have left their cities?
  • Why do you think the modern Maya blended their cultural beliefs with Catholicism?

Mayan Culture

The Maya had a complex culture that offered unique views on life and the cosmos. They believed in a cycle of rebirth, within which nothing truly died. This influenced how the Maya created their calendars and mathematical systems. The Maya believed that the dark realm Xibalba was beneath the earth and contained the roots of the tree of life. They believed that the dead traveled through Xibalba, then onto the tree of life, where they could ascend thirteen levels upward and reach a paradise called Tamoanchan.

According to their beliefs, some individuals could skip this journey and ascend directly to Tamoanchan. These people included warriors who died in battle, athletes who died performing the sacred Maya sport poc-a-toc, people who committed suicide, women who died during childbirth, and the victims of human sacrifice. This belief was a reason that the Maya advocated human sacrifice. They believed that the victims were able to skip past the negative parts of the journey to the afterlife and move directly to a happy ending. Some experts believe that the large pyramids built by the Maya were meant to symbolize this journey.

Roughly six million Maya still exist today. Several of the largest groups of Maya exist in Mexico, while others are in Belize, Guatemala, and many other areas of Central America. Mayan communities have kept their beliefs and cultures alive over time and actively work to help preserve them for future generations. Many modern Maya have blended the religious beliefs of their ancestors with the Christian beliefs of the Spanish conquistadors.

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Words to Know

The study of the stars, planets, and other objects in space.
One of the Spanish conquerors who reached Mexico in the sixteenth century.
A collection of shared customs, history, and beliefs.
Native to a particular place.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|LKXMXJ519534472