Mayan Civilization | Economy, Political Structure & Religion

Julieanne Klein, Christopher Sailus
  • Author
    Julieanne Klein

    Julieanne Klein has taught voice, piano, music theory and history to children and adults for almost thirty years. She holds a Doctorate of Music from McGill University and a Masters of Music from University of Southern California. She is currently pursuing a second Masters in Arts Management from University of Denver.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Sailus

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

Learn more about the Mayan economy, political structure, and religious practices. Discover how the characteristics of Mayan spirituality affected their politics. Updated: 05/20/2022

Table of Contents


Mayan Economy

The Mayan civilization is a culture of Mesoamerican Indians that originated in the regions of modern-day Mexico and Central America, specifically northern Belize, Guatemala and southern Mexico. The history of the Mayan civilization can be traced back between 2600 and 1800 BC, flourished from 250 - 900 AD (which was known as the Classic Period), and reached the apex of economic and political power in the sixth century AD. Though historians do not know the exact population of the Mayan civilization, at its zenith it is estimated that between two and ten million Mayan people lived, and it was one of the most advanced civilizations in the world during this time. Classic Mayan characteristics of their civilization included the development of large urban centers, which numbered around 40 cities during the height of power. Each city maintained a population of 5,000 to 50,000 people. Their sophistication of design, proximity within the larger Mayan civilization, and economic structure can be compared with contemporary European cities.

The earliest Mayan economy was based on agriculture, and the Maya cultivated crops such as cassava (manioc), squash, beans, and corn (maize), which was their staple crop. The land of the Mayan culture consisted of mountainous hillsides, swamps and rainforest, which took great skill to learn to cultivate. The Maya excelled at developing advanced agricultural techniques and farming methods, including irrigation, terracing and raised bed farming.

  • Irrigation is a system of developing adequate water supply to help crops grow, usually through the building of channels or canals to deliver water to the crops.
  • Terracing is the process of turning steep hillsides into arable farmland by excavating the soil and creating platforms for crop growing.
  • Raised bed farming is the process of placing mud on reed mats above the water level of a swamp to allow for fertile crop cultivation.

The advanced method of terrace farming fostered healthy soil conservation by preventing water runoff and erosion, and was elemental in creating plentiful crops that could sustain the large Mayan civilization.

Situated in the rainforest, the Maya also had bountiful natural resources including the volcanic rock obsidian, which was used to create weapons and tools, limestone ,which was used for constructing buildings, and salt. The Mayan used the bark of fig trees to create paper, used to notate their hieroglyphs, which was a system of notation using stylized pictures to represent objects and stories. The Maya were highly skilled at mathematics, astronomy, architecture, pottery, hieroglyph writing and the development of a remarkably accurate calendar. They built massive stone monuments, pyramids, palaces and cities, and many of the ruins still stand today.

Mayan Trade

Archeological and historical research has uncovered an extensive system of trade networks and routes based on subsistence items such as food, tools and clothing, as well as prestige items that demonstrated upper-class status such as gold, copper, jade, ritual items, decorated pottery, and a cacao-based drink for nobles. Mayan nobility adorned themselves in traded jade and quetzal feathers, which were used to create sophisticated costumes, and marine shells which were utilized to create trumpet sounds for rituals, ceremonies and warfare. While the Maya did not have a common currency, obsidian was a prized commodity, and remnants of obsidian have been found in numerous archeological digs throughout the region, which can help archeologists reconstruct the Mayan trading systems and routes. Evidence of marketplaces has been discovered, though it is unclear if the Maya utilized a free market system for their commerce. Though the Mayan culture created brilliant artwork, it is unknown if the skilled artisans worked for the wealthy elite or were able to establish their own trade-based middle class economy.

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Mayan Political Structure

Mayan politics was developed on a system of hierarchy, with numerous political states being aligned with each other through alliances, trade, and allegiance to the aristocratic leadership class. The individual city-states of the Mayan civilization were ruled by kings, chiefdoms, centralized leaders, priests and a supreme military commander, which reported to the king and the larger political ruling class. Obedience to the ruling class was firmly enforced; individuals who disrespected or disobeyed the political order were strictly punished. The ruling aristocracy governed in succession through familial bloodline. The Mayan civilization was populated with slaves and serfs, people that worked land belonging to a local leader or ruler. Slavery was common, and ordinary people as well as the ruling elites were permitted to own slaves.

The Mayan legal system was governed through judicial proceedings that are believed to have included legal representatives and witness testimony, similar to the legal system that is utilized in the modern era. Criminals found guilty were often subject to capital punishment; the Mayans did not maintain prisons and there was no appeal process for the defendants.

Mayan Civilization Religion

Religious practice was an intricate part of Mayan civilization; the Maya believed that the gods walked among them and sought to worship these gods intently. Modern archeologists have pieced together the Mayan history and spiritual beliefs through artwork, sculptures and hieroglyphs that have been found and analyzed. There are a remarkable number of artifacts and ancient paintings that have allowed modern historians to comprehensively understand Mayan culture and belief systems.

Mural from Mayan city of Bonampak

Colorful Mayan mural, the scene of a feast from the city of Bonampak

Mayan spirituality was highly developed, polytheistic, and centered around reverence to the gods. The Mayans believed in several creation myths, including that humans were built and rebuilt three times. They believed that humans were built first as mud, then wood, and finally maize (corn). The third incarnation of humans are the species we have today, though according to Mayan philosophy, the gods were initially not happy with the maize humans. They were deemed too intelligent, and the gods feared they would challenge ruling authority. The gods sought to destroy this incarnation as well, until Huracán, the Heart of Heaven, intervened to cloud the human's intellect and made them more obedient to the deities. The Mayans believed in an afterlife, though it was thought to be a dark underworld that most humans traveled to. They divided the natural and supernatural realms into an upper world, middle world, and underworld.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was the Mayan government and economy like?

The Mayan government was a hierarchical structure of priests, kings and other members of the aristocracy that ruled over individual city-states. The economy was based on trade of staple crops as well as prestigious items such as gold, copper, jade and decorated pottery.

How did the Maya political structure differ from an empire?

The Mayan political structure had numerous strong city-state rulers and priests that worshipped the gods and answered to a hierarchical political structure that required obedience to the ruling class. An empire is often ruled primarily by one established ruler who controls the political and social workings.

What was the political and social structure of the Maya?

The Mayans had a number of city-states that were aligned with each other through allegiance to the aristocratic leaders, trade and other alliances. Individual city-states were ruled by kings, chiefdoms, priests, and a supreme military commander. The Mayans also utilized slaves.

Who did the Maya worship?

The Mayans worshiped a pantheon of hundreds of gods. They believed that the spiritual world and the natural world were intimately interconnected, and that the gods walked on Earth among the humans.

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