Mayan Civilization: Economy, Politics, Culture & Religion

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  • 0:01 Mayan Civilization
  • 0:42 Basics
  • 1:43 Economy & Politics
  • 3:40 Culture & Religion
  • 6:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Mayan civilization of Southern Mexico and Central America. A rich and culturally-vibrant civilization, its sudden disappearance from the annals of history have puzzled scholars for years.

Mayan Civilization

Do you remember 2012? All year long - particularly when it was a slow news day - news anchors usually got around to discussing the supposed Mayan prophecy that the world was going to end sometime near the end of December. Today, the Mayans also pop up often in popular culture as possible civilizations that communicated with or were visited by extraterrestrial civilizations.

Misunderstandings of the intricacies of the Mayan calendar and conspiracy theories aside, how much do you actually know about the real Mayan civilization? In this lesson, we'll explore the facts about that civilization, their lives and times, and their culture.


Most of what we know about the Maya today comes from the work of paleontologists, anthropologists, and historians. From their best estimates, the Maya began to occupy their traditional land in Southern Mexico and Central America somewhere between 2600 and 1800 B.C. Mayan civilization grew incrementally more complex, expanded its borders, and built larger and larger urban and commercial centers over the next two millennia.

The true heyday for Mayan civilization occurred around 250-900 A.D. At this time, Mayan civilization flourished, and its rule was relatively unopposed throughout the region. Soon after this period, however, Mayan civilization collapsed. Throughout the 10th century A.D., most Mayan cities and settlements were abandoned. The Mayan collapse remains one of the greatest mysteries in history and anthropology. Theories about the cause of the collapse - from drought, to foreign invasion, to the collapse of Mayan social hierarchy - abound.

Economy and Politics

Mayan political life revolved around city-states. At some point, Mayan society became highly hierarchical, and the city-states of Mayan civilization were ruled by an aristocratic ruling class with a king at its head. Each city had its own king and ruling class, and the king was often considered either a god or the chief representative of the gods on Earth. Throughout the Mayan period, these city-states warred with one another, making allies with other city-states in opposition to one another.

Normally, one city-state in a region was more powerful than the others, and the rest would be forced to pay tribute to the first city-state's king in order to ensure peace between the two states. As one city-state's power waned, another usually took its place. As Mayan city-states grew more and more prosperous, trade relationships developed between city-states, which encouraged a thriving economy in the region. City-states traded with one another in precious metals and goods, especially cacao, which the Mayan aristocracy brewed into a bitter drink.

The Maya also developed sophisticated agricultural techniques to adapt to their rainforest climate, and the Maya built intricate irrigation works. Mayan cities were not only the political center of Mayan society, but the economic center as well. Most trade took place in these urban centers, and as the urban centers grew, they, too, developed their own specialized economies.

Mayan cities grew especially large at the apex of Mayan culture and estimates of its largest city place the population at about 60,000 - far larger than any city in Europe at the same time. Mayans built large temple step-pyramids and palaces in their cities, which were surrounded by smaller stone or thatched edifices where the average Maya lived. The most sophisticated Mayan cities included rudimentary sewer systems and running water in the houses of the wealthiest Maya.

Culture and Religion

Mayan cultural and religious custom is what tends to draw the most attention from people of the modern era. The Mayans were incredibly adept mathematicians and stargazers. The Mayans, for example, were likely the first civilization in human history to understand the concept of zero. The Mayans also studied the stars closely. Rather than simply gazing upward, the Mayans took fastidious notation and made calculations based on what they saw. As a result, the Mayans developed a calendar, which - believe it or not - is even more accurate than the standard calendar we use today!

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