The Maya: History & Overview

Instructor: Stacy Chambers
The Mayan civilization was one of North and Central America's most vibrant, long-lasting cultures. In this lesson, learn how the Maya lived and what their culture was like.

The Maya Introduced

The Maya developed one of the most sophisticated and vibrant civilizations in North and Central America. They developed a writing system and 365-day calendar, accurately tracked the stars and planets, and created a system of math. At their peak between 600 and 900 AD, their cities boasted about 2,000 people per square mile - almost equivalent to Los Angeles, California.

Mayan territory
Mayan Territory


The Maya resided in city-states in Mesoamerica (which consisted of Mexico and Central America), residing mostly in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. Each city-state was a city surrounded by farmland and ruled by a king. Each city, with its pyramids, palaces, and temples, served as the economic, religious, and political center to its region. Archaeologists are still uncovering ancient cities of the Maya, which have been well-preserved by the jungle. Tikal and Copan were two of the largest Mayan city-states; at Tikal's peak, its population was somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000.

The Mundo Perdido pyramid in Tikal
Mayan Pyramid


The king was at the center of political, economic, and religious life in a city-state. The king's role mirrored that of the gods, and his dress reflected this. During ceremonies, a king might take on the persona of a god by donning a mask and ceremonial dress. In the eyes of the Maya, he became like a god.

Mayan society was class-based. After the ruling class, nobility was the most powerful, followed by priests. It is believed that the Maya's hieroglyphs - pictures used as the basis of the Maya's writing system - were created only for the most powerful classes, and only the nobility and religious leaders could read them. Commoners, such as farmers and their children, remained illiterate. Slaves, who were at the bottom of Mayan society, could not read either.


Art played a central role in Mayan religion. Much of Mayan art survived, and through it we know that the Maya worshiped dozens of gods. One of their most important gods was the corn god (or the maize god). For the Maya, this god represented corn's life cycle of planting, growing, and harvesting, which in turn represented life itself. Some art was used for burial in order to accompany the dead into the next life.

Mayan statue
Mayan Figurine


The Maya fed themselves chiefly by growing food. Most of their soil was jungle, which was not very rich with nutrients. The Maya had a large population and practiced farming on a large scale. They accomplished this by the 'slash-and-burn' method, in which they hacked away areas of foliage (trees and plants) and then burned the rest (along with what they had cut) to make room for their crops. This is a method Mayan descendants still use today. They mixed the ash of the burned foliage to fertilize the soil. They also rotated crops - that is, moved them around to let the wild plants grow back - to slow nutrient depletion in the soil. The Maya also practiced terracing, in which they built stone walls to level out fields in mountainous areas.

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