The Mayan civilization is probably one of the most intriguing and interesting of all ancient civilizations. The culture has always been a bit of an enigma and to this day, there are certain aspects of the ancient Maya civilization that even the experts do not agree on. The civilization flourished in the deep, hot jungles of present-day Guatemala, Mexico and Belize and the peak of the culture of the ancient Mayans – known as the Ancient Maya Classic – took place between 300 and 900 A.D. before mysteriously declining. If you are interested in this mystifying civilization and culture, you should definitely learn more about Mayan civilization facts.
Here is a look at 21 interesting facts about the Mayan civilization that you wish you knew before.
First and foremost, one thing that every history buff should know is that the ancient Maya civilization is still being discovered. In fact, in 2015, a group of researchers discovered a 1000-year old pyramid that was built by the ancient Mayans in Mexico, and they say that it might actually be the tallest one to have ever been discovered in the country! This just goes to show just how influential the civilization was. Not only do their structures still stand to this day – but they are also still being discovered!
2. No one knows the Reason for the End of the Mayan Civilization
One of the most interesting ancient Maya civilization facts is that experts have still not found the reason why the Mayans abandoned so many of their large cities in the 2nd and 10th centuries. The Mayan civilization suffered more than a few catastrophic collapses through their history but archaeologists are yet to uncover the reason behind the end of civilization. Although every mysterious calamity that led to the abandonment of cities is referred to as a collapse, the fact is that none of the major calamities actually marked the end of the thriving civilization.
Do you remember hearing about the end of the world back in 2012? Contrary to popular belief, the end of the Mayan calendar was not meant to be an indication of the apocalypse. It was actually designed with the alignment of the stars in mind. All the end of the calendar meant was that a new astrological age was beginning.
Dating back to 1800 B.C., the earliest Mayan settlement was populated by farmers. The people from the ancient Maya civilization grew maize, squash, beans, and cassava. Eventually, their organization and power would grow, becoming the first true Mayan civilization known as the Olmec. One of the most interesting Mayan civilization facts is that the now-famous Mayan calendar was created by the Olmec, who were also responsible for popularizing the myths about Mayan creation.
5. The Mayan Culture and Language exists to this Day
Do you want to know one of the least-known facts about Mayan civilization? Although their civilization has been conquered and declined for hundreds of years, Mayan culture and language persevere to this day in many rural parts of Mexico and Guatemala. In fact, an estimated 7 million Maya still live today in and around the Yucatan Peninsula. How cool is that!
6. Mayan Mothers Flattened their Children’s Foreheads
Yes, you read it right! The pre-Colombian Mayans were known to often seek ways to “enhance” their children’s physical features. Researchers have found that mothers of the Maya civilization would press boards on their children’s foreheads so that they would become flatter. This was practiced mostly by the upper class of the ancient Mayans. One of the most curious facts about Mayans is that being cross-eyed was considered a desirable feature. Mothers often dangled objects close to their baby’s eyes until they became cross-eyed. Again, this was practiced mostly by the nobility.
One of the well-known ancient Mayan facts is that they practiced blood sacrifice. But did you know that it is still practiced in this modern day and age by some Mayans? The good news is that they no longer practice human sacrifice, so you can breathe easy. Nowadays, when Mayans have to make a blood sacrifice, they use chickens only.
The traditional view of the ancient Mayans was that they were peaceful, content to trade with one another for pretty feathers and precious stones like jade and gazing at the stars. However, after they deciphered glyphs that were left behind on temples and statues, modern researchers discovered that Mayans from the ancient Maya civilization were as warlike and fierce as the Aztecs, their neighbors to the north. Archaeologists found many scenes depicting wars, human sacrifices, and massacres carved into stone and also left behind on their cities public buildings.
Another one of the ancient Maya civilization facts that you will probably find very interesting to know is that they had books. They were literate people and had a written language. Books from the ancient Mayans look like peculiar dots and scribbles and a series of pictures to the untrained eye. The truth is that the people of this ancient civilization used a complex language in which glyphs could represent a syllable or complete word. But not all the Maya were literate – the priest class seemed to have produced and used the books. They also had thousands of books with the arrival of the Spanish, but most were burned by zealous priests. Today, only four original Maya books – known as “codices”- have survived.
When it came to astronomy, the Mayans were obsessive, keeping extremely detailed records of the movements of the sun, moon, stars, and planets. They were also known for keeping accurate tables that predicted solstices, eclipses, and other celestial events. One of the Mayan civilization facts that you likely did not know is that they believed that the sun, moon, and planets were Gods that moved back and forth between the Earth, the heavens and the underworld, which they called Xibalba. This belief was partly the reason they observed the heavens so obsessively.
One of the facts on Mayans that not many people know is that they had a sacred book, called the Popol Vuh. This remarkable document has survived through the centuries, giving modern researchers a glimpse of the ancient Mayans’ religious beliefs. Like the Bible, the Popol Vuh describes the creation of mankind as well as the story of the hero twins – Hunahpu and Xbalanque – and their struggles they went through with the Gods of the underworld. This priceless document from the ancient Mayan civilization is a treasure trove of the culture.
Researchers have found that the Mayans loved jewelry. They used many different materials to make their jewelry. But do you know what holds a special place in their hearts when it came to their bling? Gold and jade of course! Who does not love these precious materials?
13. They were known to love Tattooing and other forms of Body Modification
Have you seen people today who go to great lengths not only to cover their bodies in tattoos but also modify their bodies with piercings and extreme implants? Well, the ancient Mayans started such practices hundreds of years ago. Both men and women got tattoos, but men often waited until they got married, tattooing their faces, arms, legs and back after the formal ceremony.
14. They started wearing Grills long before we ever did
One of the lesser-known Mayan civilization facts is that the Maya were the first people in the world to wear grills! Men, and sometimes women, would use jade to beautify their smiles. Skilled dentists would drill small holes into their teeth and place semi-precious gems in their teeth as well.
For centuries, games that involve balls have been played by various civilizations, and the Maya civilization was no different. They had a game similar to basketball, where a ball had to be hit through a hoop. The only difference was that players could not use their hands and feet, only their bodies. Another catch was that the games played by ancient Mayans often ended in human sacrifice!
The only buildings in Mayan cities that were planned well in advance were their palaces, pyramids, and ceremonial ball-courts. They painstakingly placed these buildings to align with stars, to help in making sure that they could practice stargazing with ease and convenience.
More than 3500 years ago, the first people to realize that you could consume chocolate were probably the Olmecs of Mesoamerica. One of the fun ancient Maya civilization facts that you probably did not know before was that they actually turned into an art form. Archaeologists have found evidence suggesting that the Mayans had found ways to process cacao as early as 2600 years ago! Historians have been able to discover chemical signatures of the bean in numerous Maya ceramic utensils and vessels in Guatemala that historians believe to date back to the 600 B.C.E. Unlike the hot chocolate people drink nowadays, cacao was mixed with water, cornmeal, honey, chili peppers and a wide variety of other ingredients to make a spicy, foamy drink. Maya hieroglyphics and art suggest that drinking cacao was an integral part of their rituals and celebrations.
18. An amateur Archaeologist cracked Mayan Handwriting
Did you know that an accidental archaeologist was the person to crack the Mayan handwriting? A Siberian-born American named Tatiana Proskouriakoff had no formal academic training – she trained to be an architect – but eventually became a Mayanist. She was the first person to recognize that the “upended frog” glyph was a representation of birth while their “toothache” glyph was that of the date of the king’s ascension to the throne.
19. They Talked to Spirits with the help of Intoxicants
One of the known facts on Mayans is that they used hallucinogens and intoxicants in many of their rituals. But did you know that they used these intoxicating substances to talk to spirits? One such substance was balche, made with fermented honey. The Maya used a wide range of natural ingredients to make many hallucinogens and intoxicants which were considered the best way to connect with the spirit world and were an important part of their culture.
As mentioned above, the Mayans consumed hallucinogenic and intoxicating substances to contact spirits. But they may have also administered alcohol and psychoactive through the rectal route to get intoxicated faster, and perhaps to avoid vomiting as well. Maya pottery and other items that archaeologists discovered often have artwork with scenes depicting enemas in rituals.
If you watched “Apocalypto”, you probably saw prisoners painted blue before being sacrificed to the rain god. This is actually an accurate depiction of the rituals that ancient Mayans practiced. Archaeologists have long been fascinated by the vivid pigment called Maya Blue because it is extremely resilient and survived for hundreds of years on stone monuments – even in the harsh conditions of the jungles in Mesoamerica.
As you can see, there are many amazing Mayan civilization facts, and you probably wish that you knew some of them before. There will be many more interesting facts to learn about this great civilization as archaeologists and researchers continue to find artifacts and other evidence.
Foodie, lazy, bookworm, and internet junkie. All in that order. Loves to floor the accelerator. Mad about the Himalayas and its trekking trails. Former life forester. Also an occasional writer and editor