Mexico: the history of the Maya

There are some seven million Maya still alive today in Mexico and Guatemala. Discover their fascinating history, culture and traditions to add an extra dimension of interest to your holiday to Mexico.

By Kieran Meeke

Published 3 May 2024

It’s easy to assume ancient people have vanished when we see vast empty ruins such as Chichen Itza in the heart of the Yucatán Peninsula. However, there are some seven million Maya still alive today in Mexico and Guatemala, many of them native speakers of Mayan rather than Spanish.

The Maya (Mayan is the language) were a settled people who inhabited Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and parts of the states of Tabasco and Chiapas, as well as modern-day Guatemala, Belize and other smaller parts of Central America.

Their geographic concentration allowed them to resist being swallowed up by larger empires, avoiding the fate that awaited many other smaller pre-Columbian civilisations.

The earliest Maya settlements appear around 1800 BCE and show they were an agricultural people harvesting crops such as maize, beans and squash – all of which are still staples of the Mexican diet.

They cleared jungle for farming but also started to develop sophisticated irrigation and terracing techniques.

However, it is the so-called Classic Period between 250-900 when Maya civilisation was at its height. This is when the great cities appeared, such as Tikal in modern Guatemala, and Becan, Calakmul, Río Bec and Palenque in Mexico.

The number and size of the plazas, palaces, ball courts, temples and pyramids we can still see today give us an idea of their grandeur. At its peak, there may have been two million people in the Maya Empire.

Their rulers led the Maya in elaborate worship of more than 150 gods, to whom they believed their kings were related. The benevolent Itzamna was the creator god, lord of the heavens as well as day and night. Chaac was the god of rain, while Ah Man was the corn god of agriculture.

Other gods controlled subjects such as death, war, sorcery, trade or eroticism. They also believed in three planes of existence: The Earth, The Heavens and The Underworld.

This complex system of deities led them to many advances in mathematics and astronomy, and the Mayan Calendar has become famous for its sophistication.

Their stepped pyramids and other buildings also show a wealth of architecture and art, including beautiful carvings and paintings. They have also left us hieroglyph writing, carved in stone and on fragile paper.

While mostly peaceful farmers, the Maya displayed a violent side, with torture and human sacrifices appearing to be a central part of their religious rituals, judging by the evidence of inscriptions and human remains.

The Maya civilisation had collapsed by 900 and we still don’t know why, although there are some clues. Environmental destruction because of over-population or a long drought has been suggested, as has a violent breakdown in what had evolved into an overly complex ruling hierarchy.

The highland cities of the Yucatán survived the longest. Chichén Itzá, for example, was inhabited until around 1250 and a large population of Maya were farming the area when the Spanish arrived.

In the early 1530s, the Spanish tried to conquer the Yucatán Peninsula and establish Chichén Itzá as a capital called Ciudad Real. They ended up besieged in the city ruins before being driven out in 1534. It was only by recruiting an army of Maya from elsewhere in Mexico that the Spanish were eventually able to subdue the region.

Mexico has some 200 Mayan ruins but many are still buried under thick jungle or off-limits to visitors while archaeologists work to unlock their secrets.

The most visited site is Chichén Itzá, the largest Maya city in Mexico, whose Kukulkan Pyramid is a major attraction. There are 364 steps on each side, plus a top platform to make the 365 days of the year.

It was dedicated to a serpent deity covered in the feathers of the near-extinct Quetzal bird, sacred to the Maya. Californian acoustic engineer David Lubman has suggested that a strange bird-like echo produced by a handclap in front of its steps exactly matches the sounds of the Quetzal, and at the spring and autumn equinoxes, the shadows of the pyramid fall in such a way as to show the serpent wriggling down the staircase.

The Great Ball Court is also an echo chamber that would have allowed the ruler to address large crowds. The court is the largest in the Mayan world and used for a game involving two teams of 13 players who used hips, elbows and wrists (but not hands) to hit a rubber ball through stone hoops. So sacred was the circle to the Maya that it is suggested as a reason why they never adopted the wheel in everyday life. You can see the game being played by Maya-costumed players at Xcaret, a culture and adventure park near the upmarket resort town of Playa del Carmen. It involves great skill and the ability to throw yourself bodily under the ball to allow a fellow player to kick it.

In Xcaret you can also swim in a cenote, underground channels carved by water in the soft Yucatán limestone. The region has no rivers so these cenotes are the only source of fresh water and were considered sacred by the Maya. They were hence often used for sacrificial offerings; the cenote at Chichén Itzá contained gold, jade and incense offerings as well as possible human sacrifices.

South of Xcaret is Tulum, whose amazing clifftop setting has made it a poster child for Mexican tourism. Its old Mayan name was Zama, meaning dawn or morning, and it was built facing the rising sun.

A port with population of up to 1,500, it prospered between 1200 and 1500 but Spanish invaders brought Old World diseases that killed off its people, although local Maya continued to pray here until mass tourism drove them away.

Like Chichen Itza, its Temple of the Frescoes features Maya motifs such as Kukulkan, but its "El Castillo” pyramid was also a lighthouse to guide ships through the reef.

Coba is a sprawling site 30 minutes by car from Tulum. It takes hours to visit, with some 6,500 structures lost in a jungle setting. At its height - somewhere between 400 and 1100 - it was one of the largest Maya cities and home to 50,000 inhabitants.

A network of 50 limestone roads converge at Coba, with one of them running 60 miles from Yaxcun. They take visitors through such sights as the tallest pyramid in the Yucatán. It’s worth climbing the 120 stairs to take in the treetop view and search for the many unexcavated structures still covered by the the jungle.

Palenque marked the western extent of the Maya and has a dramatic mountain setting, rising from thick jungle growth. A medium-size city that lasted into the ninth century, its many inscriptions have given us a very clear picture of its history and relations with neighbouring city-states.

The “Temple of the Inscriptions” held a series of hieroglyphics now in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. Buried inside with a rich cache of jade was Pakal, the king responsible for much of the city’s construction.

There are a number of other dramatic buildings, including several pyramids, even though less than ten per cent of the site has actually been uncovered from the jungle so far. It’s an intriguing thought how many secrets of the Maya are yet to be discovered.

Uxmal has the unusual round-sided “Magician’s Pyramid” and a fascinating system of rainwater cisterns. This area was devoid of springs or rivers and the rain god Chaac was an important deity here.

The ceremonial centre is unusually well preserved – it was still flourishing long after the fall of Tikal and Palenque – and gives the visitor a good idea of how it looked and functioned around the late ninth and early tenth centuries.

Places such as Xcaret are a chance to see Maya culture and costumes but the Maya are also all around you when you travel in Mexico, particularly in the Yucatán Peninsula, which encompasses the states of Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. Yucatán has the highest percentage of indigenous people in any Mexican state: 59%.

The peninsular has always been isolated from the rest of Mexico and more than a million people still speak Yucatec Maya. The Spanish spoken here is also heavily accented by the explosive consonants of Mayan.

Indigenous school pupils are now taught by bilingual teachers, a policy proven to reduce dropout rates and improve Spanish language skills.

The Maya still follow old gods, and rituals in local Catholic churches are heavily influenced by ancient beliefs. The powers of the old gods of rain, love or death were easily transferred to new Christian saints, while the story of the Resurrection was very familiar to those intimately connected to the earth and its gods by the harvesting of crops.

Visit a church in a Maya community and it is not unusual to see a chicken being sacrificed in a ritual perhaps older than Roman Catholicism itself.

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