How much do you know about the Maya?
When it comes to Latin America, we spend quite a bit of our time talking about the Maya. This ancient, pre-Columbian civilisation left their mark across vast swathes of Latin America, from Mexico to Guatemala and Belize, and the tantalising remnants of their society have intrigued and bewitched explorers and scholars across the centuries.
Holidays to the parts of Latin America where the Maya lived are not complete without stopping at one or more of their famous settlements, whether that’s renowned Chichen Itzá in Mexico or massive Tikal in the Guatemalan rainforest.
But how much do you know about this enigmatic people? Read on to find just some of the most interesting facts about the mysterious Maya.
Their civilisation spread across what is now south eastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and western parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
The Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico is a particular hotspot of Mayan sites, such as the aforementioned Chichen Itzá, Uxmal, and Calakmul—an important city whose rivalry with famous Tikal dominated the Mayan political landscape in the Classic period.
We are barely scratching the surface here of course. Hundreds of Mayan sites have been discovered and explored by archaeologists over the centuries, and a 2005 study documented at least 4,400 sites that have yet to be investigated.
Many Mayan sites are still being explored and discovered
With such a huge number of sites yet to be investigated, it comes as no surprise that archaeologists are still working incredibly hard to learn more about the Maya and their settlements.
Although major new discoveries are rare, with most being smaller sites, one relatively recent find is El Mirador in Guatemala. First discovered in 1926, and subsequently photographed from the air in 1930, it was left undisturbed until 1962 when Ian Graham visited to make a map of the area. A preliminary archaeological investigation was undertaken from 1978-1983, and a much more comprehensive and in-depth one began in 2005 and is on-going today.
El Mirador, which means ‘The Lookout’, features what archaeologists consider to be one of the most massive ancient structures ever found: La Danta temple complex, which comprises a man-made platform topped by three pyramids reaching 72m into the air with a total volume of a whopping 2,800,000 cubic metres.
El Mirador is located so deep in the jungle that only the most intrepid travellers make it there, opting either for a quicker—but pricier—helicopter ride, or a 42km trek through dense rainforest that can take up to three days.
The reward is surely worth it, to climb one of the largest pyramids ever built and gaze out over undisturbed rainforest, while archaeologists continue to work below you to tease out the secrets of this ancient culture.
The Maya invented and discovered a huge amount, but built all their settlements without the wheel or metal tools
A list of Mayan discoveries may astonish you. Here is just a small selection of what they invented, completely independently of any other ancient civilisation elsewhere in the world:
- A system of government
- Underground reservoirs to store water
- Tear gas
- What is generally considered to the be the oldest writing system in Mesoamerica, and perhaps the last writing system to develop entirely from scratch
Not only that, but their astronomy was incredibly advanced and they also came up with a calendar that was on everybody’s mind in 2012—people thought it predicted the end of the world!
However, the Maya never used the wheel or metal tools. The reasoning for the former may be one of pragmatism rather than simply not thinking of it—the landscapes of Latin America are mountainous and full of forest, so wheeled vehicles could have been more trouble than they were worth. Add to that the lack of animals suitable to pull heavy wheeled carts, and we can perhaps understand why they didn’t come up with the wheel when other ancient cultures in more navigable landscapes—such as Mesopotamia or ancient China—did.
The Maya were not the only ancient civilisation in Latin America
Most people have heard of the civilisations that followed the Maya, particularly the Inca and the Aztecs, but there were other peoples who lived alongside the Maya at various points.
None left evidence of their existence behind on the same scale as the Maya, but that didn’t mean we don’t know they were there.
During Mesoamerica’s ‘Formative Period’, from around 2500BC to 200AD, a number of smaller civilisations came into existence: La Blanca, Ujuxte, and the Monte Alto and Mokaya cultures.
The Olmecs were around from 1500-400BC, and there is evidence to suggest the Mayans built off some of their discoveries and culture. The Teotihuacán people lived near modern-day Mexico City from roughly 200BC-800AD, and the Zapotecs were near modern-day Oaxaca from around 500BC-1500AD.
There are many others too, but of all these ancient peoples, none rival the Maya for size or longevity. The earliest estimate for the founding of the Maya civilisation is an incredible 2600BC, and they survived until 1607AD. With 3000 years to build, learn and develop, it’s no wonder they left so many astonishing ruins and discoveries behind.
And lastly, the Maya are not extinct
Although we associate the Maya most of all with their absence from their crumbling citadels and temples, the people themselves are in no way gone from the world.
Research estimates that there were an incredible six million Maya still living in the same area as their ancient predecessors at the start of the 21st century. Some have largely integrated into the majority Hispanic Mestizo cultures of the countries they reside in, but many have maintained a more distinct and traditional way of life. Indeed, some still speak one of the Mayan languages as their mother tongue.
You can visit traditional Maya villages to this day and discover a thriving people and way of life, full of colour and culture and history.
If you’ve enjoyed reading about the Maya and are interested in visiting some of the famous settlements they left behind, why not consider our Mayan World tour? It visits Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico and includes stops at renowned sites like Tikal, Chichen Itza and Kabah—and so many more.