Maya Class System and Structure

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Maya civilizations of Mesoamerica were pretty complex, and this extended to their social organization. In this lesson, we'll talk about Maya class systems and see how their society was structured.

Maya Society

Before the arrival of Europeans, there were some major civilizations already thriving in Central America. One of these was the Maya. The Maya were not really a single people, they certainly wouldn't have seen themselves that way, but lived in a series of independent city-states and shared a similar language and culture. Each city was essentially its own kingdom, ruled by a powerful king.

Maya society, like many others in the world, was based around a class system. A person's social class determined their rights and opportunities in life, but unlike in many places at this time, there did seem to be a degree of social mobility in Maya cities. In other words, there were chances for people to increase their class through political, economic, and military opportunities. It's also important to remember that since there was no single Maya culture, these ruled varied by city-state.

The Ruling Class

Like the ancient Egyptians, the Maya were prolific builders of pyramids, and this architectural feature pretty well describes Maya class systems. If all of society is a pyramid, then at the very top is the ruling class. The rulers of Maya society inherited their titles and were all highly literate. This is a very important distinction, since the Maya were the only culture in all of the Americas to have developed a true written language. So they obviously language very seriously. Arts like poetry seem to have been important privileges of the ruling class, likely at least in part due to the importance of writing.

Literacy was very important to the Maya rulers. In this scene, a Maya deity teaches his scribes to write
Maya vase

At the top of the top, the leader of all Maya societies, was a king. The king was the head of the Maya government and a major figure in the Maya religion, acting as a priest and also a semi-divine figure in his own right. Below the king was a class of elite priests. Religion was extremely important to the Maya, and their belief system rested upon countless cycles of existence. So, the priests were pretty busy, conducting rituals, making offerings, and interpreting the wills of the gods for the king and the people. When was it time to go to war? When was it time to harvest? When was it time to build a new pyramid? The gods held the answers, and often kept them in the stars. Asides from the other disciplines mastered by the highly-educated priests, astronomy was a major focus.

Below the priests was a wide array of nobles. The nobles in Maya society all served the king, each in their own highly specialized way. Some were military leaders, some were tax collectors, some implemented the laws or acted in the courts or even managed government-controlled agricultural production of things like cacao (chocolate!). The nobles were in charge of the daily administration of this complex society, and each noble had a very specific role within this system.

Maya noblewoman
Maya statue

Non-Noble Elites

Below the ruling class was another group within Maya society that held a somewhat unique position. They weren't nobles, but they had wealth, privilege and power. They were sort of like a very well-to-do middle class. This was not the largest segment of society, but did include the artisans, merchants, and mid-level bureaucrats that made day-to-day life possible. Many people in this class were once commoners who had managed to increase their social status through military service or success as a merchant or craftsman.

Military service was one way Maya commoners could increase their social class
Maya warrior

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