Maya Civilization Facts: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Amy Kasten

Amy has taught middle school social studies and language arts and is currently working on her doctorate in instructional technology.

The Maya people built one of the first major civilizations in Central America. Learn about the mystery surrounding the end of their great civilization, as well as what we know from the written language, calendar and math they left behind.

Different Ideas of Beauty

Imagine this...a new baby was just born into your family. Congratulations! You and your family take care of him in all the usual ways. You help feed the baby, change his diaper and rock him. Each day you dangle an object between his eyes so that he becomes crossed-eyed and tie boards to his head so it grows into a slanted, cone shape.

Feeding, diapering and rocking the baby may all sound like normal baby things, but perhaps you're thinking, 'People don't make their babies have crossed eyes and cone heads!' These are not common practices today, but to Maya people living over two thousand years ago, crossed eyes and a slanted forehead were considered beautiful and handsome.

First Major American Civilization

The Maya people lived in Central America, in the areas of what is now southern Mexico, Honduras, Belize and Guatemala. Maya cities were built in the middle of jungles and rainforests, and included pyramid-shaped temples, palaces, government buildings and ball courts, all made from stone. Most Maya people lived in small houses outside of the city and grew crops including corn, beans, peppers and squash.

Many Gods

Religion was an important part of life for the Maya, who believed in many gods. Mayas believed a different god controlled everything in their lives; they thought there was a god in charge of the sun, and a different god in charge of growing corn. Whenever something went wrong, the Maya believed they had made the gods angry. To avoid this, they offered gifts or sacrifices to keep the gods happy. The Maya believed the best sacrifice they could offer was blood. Can you imagine getting blood as a gift from someone?

Writing, Math and Calendars

While sacrificing blood and giving babies crossed eyes and cone heads may sound unnecessary, the Maya were actually very smart people. Have you ever used the number zero? Believe it or not, zero was first used by the Maya people, who were math geniuses. They were equally brilliant when studying the stars, sun and eclipses. They even developed a 365-day calendar, like the one we use today! Plus, even though they lived long before paper and pencil, they were one of the only ancient civilizations to have a written language, made of picture symbols, or glyphs.

Lucky for us, the Mayas had scribes who made written records about Maya life, which is why we know so much about them, even though they lived long ago.
Some of the glyphs that were the Maya written language.

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