Maya society

Maya society

Maya society shared many features with other Mesoamerican civilizations, for there was a high degree of interaction and cultural diffusion throughout the region. Although aspects such as writing and the calendar did not originate with the Maya, the Maya script and their calendar were among the most developed in Mesoamerica. Maya cultural influences can be detected as far afield as central Mexico, more than 1000 km from their homelands. Equally, many external influences are to be found in Maya art and their architecture, particularly in the Postclassic period; these are thought to be mainly a result of trade and cultural exchange, rather than direct external conquest.


Political structures

A Classic period Maya polity was a small kingdom (ajawil, ajawlel, ajawlil) headed by a hereditary ruler – ajaw, later k’uhul ajaw. Both terms appear in early Colonial texts including Papeles de Paxbolón where they are used as synonyms for Aztec and Spanish terms for rulers and their domains. These are tlatoani and tlahtocayotl in Nahuatl, and the Spanish words rey, majestad, and reino and señor for ruler/leader/lord and señorío or dominio of realm. Such kingdoms were usually no more than a capital city with its neighborhood and several dependent towns (similar to a city-state). There were also larger polities that controlled larger territories and subjugated smaller polities; the extensive systems controlled by Tikal and Caracol serve as examples of these.

Each kingdom had its name that did not necessarily correspond to any locality within its territory. Its identity was that of a political unit associated with a particular ruling dynasty. For instance, the archaeological site of Naranjo was the capital of the kingdom of Saal. The land (chan ch’e’n) of the kingdom and its capital were called Wakab’nal or Maxam and were part of a larger geographical entity known as Huk Tsuk.[citation needed] Despite constant warfare and eventual shifts in regional power, most kingdoms never disappeared from the political landscape until the collapse of the whole system in the 9th century. In this respect, Classic Maya kingdoms were similar to late Postclassic polities encountered by the Spanish in Yucatan and Central Mexico: some polities were subordinate to hegemonic centers or rulers through conquest and/or dynastic unions and yet even then they persisted as distinct entities.

Mayanists have been increasingly accepting the "court paradigm" of Classic Maya societies that puts the emphasis on the centrality of the royal household and especially the person of the king. This approach focuses on the totality of Maya monumental spaces as the embodiment of the diverse activities of the royal household. It considers the role of places and spaces (including dwellings of royalty and nobles, throne rooms, temples, halls and plazas for public ceremonies) in establishing and negotiating power and social hierarchy, but also in producing and projecting aesthetic and moral values that define the order of a wider social realm.

Painting on the Lord of the jaguar pelt throne vase, a scene of the Maya royal court, 700–800 AD.

Spanish sources invariably describe even the largest Maya settlements of Yucatan and Guatemala as dispersed agglomerations of dwellings grouped around the temples and palaces of the ruling dynasty and lesser nobles. Though there was economic specialization among Classic period Maya centers (see Chunchucmil, for example), it was not conducted at a scale similar to that of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Some argue that Maya cities were not urban centers[1] but were, instead, structured according to and conceptualized as enormous royal households, the locales of the administrative and ritual activities of the royal court. Within the theoretical framework of this model, they were the places where privileged nobles could approach the holy ruler, where aesthetical values of the high culture were formulated and disseminated, and where aesthetic items were consumed.[2] They were the self-proclaimed centers and the sources of social, moral, and cosmic, order. The fall of a royal court as in the well-documented cases of Piedras Negras or Copan would cause the inevitable ‘death’ of the associated settlement.

The arts

Artistic expression

Many consider Classic period (200 to 900 AD) Maya art to be the most sophisticated of the ancient New World. The carvings and stucco reliefs at Palenque and the statuary of Copán depict accurate representations of the human form. We have only hints of the advanced painting of the classic Maya; mostly what have survived are funerary pottery and other Maya ceramics. Also a building at Bonampak holds ancient murals that survived by serendipity. With the decipherment of the Maya script it was discovered that the Maya were one of the few civilizations where artists attached their name to their work.

A stucco relief in the museum at Palenque



As unique and spectacular as any Greek or Roman architecture, Maya architecture spans many thousands of years; yet, often the most dramatic and easily recognizable as Maya are the fantastic layered, stepped pyramids from the Terminal Pre-classic period and beyond.


Maya civilization is regarded as the most technologically advanced of all pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas.[citation needed] It can be classified as a stone age civilization which had just begun experimenting with metals by the time of Spanish conquest. A lack of draft animals (like old world domesticated horses, oxen, donkeys, etc.) in the ancient Americas may explain lack of use of wheels and therefore the need of paved roads. Obsidian (volcanic glass) was a major material for various cutting tools and weapons due to its cleaved sharpness.

Writing and literacy

Writing system

The Maya writing system (often called hieroglyphs from a superficial resemblance to the Ancient Egyptian writing) was a combination of phonetic symbols and logograms. It is most often classified as a logographic or (more properly) a logosyllabic writing system, in which syllabic signs play a significant role. It is the only writing system of the Pre-Columbian New World which is known to completely represent the spoken language of its community. In total, the script has more than a thousand different glyphs, although a few are variations of the same sign or meaning, and many appear only rarely or are confined to particular localities. At any one time, no more than around 500 glyphs were in use, some 200 of which (including variations) had a phonetic or syllabic interpretation.

The earliest inscriptions in an identifiably-Maya script date back to 200 - 300 BC. However, this is preceded by several other writing systems which had developed in Mesoamerica, most notably that of the Zapotecs, and possibly the Olmecs. There is a pre-Mayan writing known as "Epi-Olmec script" (post Olmec) which some researchers believe may represent a transitional script between the Olmec writing and Maya writing, but since there are no clear examples of Olmec writing as yet, the matter is unsettled. On January 5, 2006, National Geographic published the findings of Maya writings that could be as old as 400 BC [1], suggesting that the Maya writing system is nearly as old as the oldest writing found so far (Zapotec). In the succeeding centuries the Maya developed their script into a form which was far more complete and complex than any other that has yet been found in the Americas.

Since its inception, the Maya script was in use up to the arrival of Europeans, peaking during the Maya Classical Period (c. 200 - 900 AD). Although many Maya centers went into decline (or were completely abandoned) during or after this period, the skill and knowledge of Maya writing persisted amongst segments of the population, and the early Spanish conquistadores knew of individuals who could still read and write the script. Unfortunately the Spanish displayed little interest in it, and as a result of the dire impacts the conquest had on Maya societies the knowledge was subsequently lost, most probably within only a few generations.

At a rough estimate, around 10,000 individual texts have so far been recovered, mostly inscribed on stone monuments, lintels, stelae and ceramic pottery. Maya civilization also produced numerous texts using a fine paper called amatl made from the processed inner bark of certain species of fig trees in a folded "book-format", known as a codex. Shortly after the conquest, all of these latter which could be found were ordered to be burnt and destroyed by zealous Spanish priests, notably Bishop Diego de Landa. Out of these Maya codices, only three reasonably-intact examples are known to have survived through to the present day. These are now known as the Madrid, Dresden, and Paris codices. A few pages survive from a fourth, the Grolier codex, whose authenticity is sometimes disputed, but mostly is held to be genuine. Further archaeology conducted at Mayan sites often reveals other fragments, rectangular lumps of plaster and paint chips which formerly were codices; these tantalizing remains are however too severely damaged for any inscriptions to have survived, most of the organic material having decayed.

The decipherment and recovery of the now-lost knowledge of Maya writing has been a long and laborious process. Some elements were first deciphered in the late 19th and early 20th century: mostly the parts having to do with numbers, the Maya calendar, and astronomy. Major breakthroughs came starting in the 1950s to 1970s, and accelerated rapidly thereafter. By the end of the 20th century, scholars were able to read the majority of Maya texts to a large extent, and work done in the field continues to further illuminate the content.

In reference to the few extant Maya writings, Michael D. Coe, a prominent linguist and epigrapher at Yale University stated:

Our knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and 'Pilgrim's Progress').

Michael D. Coe, The Maya, London: Thames and Hudson, 4th ed., 1987, p. 161.

Most surviving pre-Columbian Maya writing is from stelae and other stone inscriptions from Maya sites, many of which were already abandoned before the Spanish arrived. The inscriptions on the stelae mainly record the dynasties and wars of the sites' rulers. Also of note are the inscriptions that reveal information about the lives of ancient Maya women. Much of the remainder of Maya hieroglyphics has been found on funeral pottery, most of which describes the afterlife.

Writing tools

Although the archaeological record does not provide examples, Maya art shows that writing was done with brushes made with animal hair and quills. Codex-style writing was usually done in black ink with red highlights, giving rise to the Aztec name for the Maya territory as the "land of red and black".


Scribes held a prominent position in Maya courts and had their own patron deities (see Howler Monkey Gods and Maya maize god). They are likely to have come from aristocratic families. One must assume that some scribes were attached to the royal house, while others were serving at temples and were, perhaps, counted among the priests. It seems likely that they were organized hierarchically. Maya art often depicts rulers with trappings indicating they were scribes or at least able to write, such as having pen bundles in their headdresses. Additionally, many rulers have been found in conjunction with writing tools such as shell or clay inkpots.


Although the number of logograms and syllabic symbols required to fully write the language numbered in the hundreds, literacy was not necessarily widespread beyond the elite classes. Graffiti uncovered in various contexts, including on fired bricks, shows nonsensical attempts to imitate the writing system.


Mayan numerals

In common with the other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya used a base 20 (vigesimal) and base 5 numbering system (see Maya numerals). Also, they independently developed the concept of zero by 357 AD (Asian Indians did not embrace zero until the 9th century, and Europeans not until the 12th century). Inscriptions show them on occasion working with sums up to the hundreds of millions and dates so large it would take several lines just to represent it. They produced extremely accurate astronomical observations; their charts of the movements of the moon and planets are equal or superior to those of any other civilization working from naked eye observation.

Also in common with the other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya utilized a highly accurate measure of the length of the solar year, far more accurate than that used in Europe as the basis of the Gregorian Calendar. They did not use this figure for the length of year in their calendar, however. Instead, the Maya calendar(s) were based on a year length of exactly 365 days, which means that the calendar falls out of step with the seasons by one day every four years. By comparison, the Julian calendar, used in Europe from Roman times until about the 16th Century, accumulated an error of one day every 128 years. The modern Gregorian calendar accumulates a day's error in approximately 3257 years.


The ancient Maya had diverse and sophisticated methods of food production. It was formerly believed that slash and burn (swidden) agriculture provided most of their food but it is now thought that permanent raised fields, terracing, forest gardens, managed fallows, and wild harvesting were also crucial to supporting the large populations of the Classic period in some areas. Indeed, evidence of these different systems persist today: raised fields connected by canals can be seen on aerial photographs, contemporary rainforest species composition has significantly higher abundance of species of economic value to ancient Maya, and pollen records in lake sediments suggest that corn, manioc, sunflower seeds, cotton, and other crops have been cultivated in association with deforestation in Mesoamerica since at least 2500 BC.

Contemporary Maya peoples still practice many of these traditional forms of agriculture, although they are dynamic systems and change with changing population pressures, cultures, economic systems, climate change, and the availability of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.


The Mayas employed warfare in each period of their development for the purposes of obtaining sacrificial victims, settling competitive rivalries, acquiring critical resources and gaining control of trade routes. Warfare was important to the Maya religion, because raids on surrounding areas provided the victims required for human sacrifice, as well as slaves for the construction of temples. Large-scale battles were also fought to determine and defend territories as well as secure economic power. The Mayas defended their cities with defensive structures such as palisades, gateways, and earthworks. Some cities had a wall within the outer wall, so advancing enemies would be trapped in a killing alley, where they could be slaughtered in great number. During the post-Classic period, the amount of internal warfare increased greatly as the region became more politically fragmented. Armies were enlarged, and in some cases mercenaries were hired. The resulting destruction of many urban centers contributed to the decline of the Maya.

Military Organization

The ruler of a Maya city was the supreme war captain. Some only dictated military activity, while others participated in the battle. There was a core of warriors that served year-round as guards and obtained sacrificial victims, but most large Maya cities and religious centers had militias. These men were paid to fight for the duration of the battle. Then they would return to their fields or crafts. The militia units were headed by nacoms, hereditary war chiefs, that employed ritual as well as strategic methods in warfare. Some nacoms were only chief strategists, and the troops were led into battle by batabs, or officers. In a large war, even commoners who did not have weapons would fight using hunting tools and by hurling rocks. “In the highlands, women occasionally fought in battles according to native chronicles” (Foster, 144).


The jungle terrain of Mesoamerica made it difficult for large armies to reach their destination. The warriors who were familiar to the battle landscape could strategically retreat into familiar wilderness. Other war tactics included the siege of cities and the formation of alliances with lesser enemies to defeat more prominent ones. There is evidence that canoes were used to attack cities, located on lakes and rivers. In the late Classic period, destructive warfare methods, such as burning, became more prevalent.


Warfare was a ritual process, believed to be sanctioned by the gods. Military leaders, in many instances, also had religious authority. Before going into battle, the armies would call upon the gods with dances and music of drums, whistles, conch shell horns and singing. The drumming and war cries would signify the start of the battle. The armies also carried religious idols into battle to inspire the warriors. They fought fiercely because they believed that death on the battle field secured them eternal bliss, whereas capture by the enemy was regarded as worse than any death.[citation needed] When an enemy was defeated, the victorious army exploited the religious icons and sometimes humiliated the defeated leader with prolonged captivity. The treatment of prisoners by the victorious was brutal and often ending in decapitation. The Maya also had a ritual of giving blood. The reason that they gave blood was to show respect to their gods. They gave blood from their genitals and tongue. Afterwards, they would drip their blood onto a piece of paper and burn it into the sky to show respect to their gods.

Weapons and Uniform

Weapons used by the Maya included spear-throwers known as atlatls, blowguns, obsidian spiked clubs, and spears, axes, and knives tipped with flint or obsidian blades. Bow and arrows were also used, but not as extensively. Though there were few helmets, they used decorated shields made from woven mats or wood and animal skins for protection. The Maya war leaders dressed to inspire their warriors and terrify their enemies. They usually wore padded cotton armor, a mantle with religious insignias, and elaborate wooden and cloth headdresses, that represented the animal spirit or “way” of the warrior. Metal was not used in battle because of the limited supply.


  1. ^ Sanders and Webster 1988:523-524.
  2. ^ Sanders and Webster 1988:524.


  • Aoyama, Kazoa. (2005) Classic Maya Warfare and Weapons: Spear, dart, and arrow points of Aguateca and Copan. Ancient Mesoamerica 16(2): 291-304.
  • Barrett, Jason and Andrew Scherer. (2005) Stones, Bones, and Crowded Plazas: Evidence for Terminal Classic Maya Warfare at Colha, Belize. Ancient Mesoamerica 16(1): 101-118.
  • Bunson, Margaret R., and Stephen M. Bunson. (1996) Warfare, Maya. Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1996.
  • Foster, Lynn V. (2001) Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. New York: Facts on File, Inc.
  • Martin, Simon, and Mary Miller. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
  • Sanders, William and David Webster (1988) The Mesoamerican Urban Tradition. American Anthropologist 90(3): 521-546.

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