What are the characteristics of the Maya civilization


The land of the Maya

Maya culture is concentrated around the Yucatán peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. The entire Maya territory is now divided into five countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. The area of ​​the former Maya empire, which consisted of around 50 small states, is roughly comparable to the size of Germany.

To date, there are more theories than real knowledge about Maya life. Why they settled in the tropical climate of Yucatán is just as puzzling as their later disappearance.

Around 600 AD they built gigantic cities on the Yucatán, which they then gradually gave up a few hundred years later. And which were then overgrown by the jungle until they were rediscovered by researchers centuries later. Archaeologists are still discovering new cities. These are exposed with financial support from abroad and saved from further decay.

A world is discovered

The exploration of Mayan culture began quite late. In the 18th and 19th centuries, researchers first investigated the legend of overgrown temples in the Mexican jungle.

At first they were only interested in the large buildings and cities that were gradually uncovered. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that the focus of interest also shifted to the people who created those structures.

Although there are many different opinions and interpretations of Mayan culture, there is now broad agreement on the division of Mayan history into three main phases: the pre-classical, the classical and the post-classical period.

Pre-Classical Period

The first finds that are attributed to the Maya are dated to around 2000 BC. By this time, people in what is now Belize had been farming for several centuries. It is still unclear where this culture came from. Most researchers suspect that all indigenous peoples of America are of Asian origin and once immigrated via the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia.

The first Maya temples are said to have been built around 500 BC. This early period of the Maya culture is usually referred to as the "pre-classical period". Not much is known about that time, as only a few finds exist and no writings have been discovered.

Classic time

The great Maya period, also known as the "classical period", was between 400 and 900 AD. Large Maya places and settlements such as Chichén Itzá, Yaxchilán and Palenque date from this period.

These cities were enormous for the time. Tens of thousands of people are said to have lived in such a city. For comparison: places like Paris and London were still small villages at the same time.

The classical period is the outstanding phase in Mayan culture, because it was in it that all those buildings were created that still fascinate researchers and tourists alike on the Mexican peninsula of Yucatán.

Post-classical period

The "post-classical period" is the period from around 900 to 1500 AD. Nobody knows to this day what exactly ended the "classical era". At some point around 900, much of the population disappeared and the big cities were abandoned.

The remaining Maya changed their architecture, large temples or comparable facilities were no longer built. That is why researchers speak of the disappearance of a high culture.

But there are also voices who see this as a major development step in society and even want to recognize democratization. Instead of using their labor in the service of rulers and building monumental temples, the Maya now devoted themselves to their own prosperity. But that's just one of many theories.

Culture and wars

What sets the Maya apart are their cultural achievements. Their settlement areas were very densely populated. In order to be able to supply the large population with sufficient food, the Maya had to develop a tightly organized cultivation of grain and vegetables. Elaborate irrigation systems were built for this, including small reservoirs in which water was collected for dry periods.

The Maya were also true masters of mathematics. The Mayan calendar "Haab", with which a year was divided into 365 days, spread over 18 months of 20 days plus five remaining days, is particularly famous. The Maya observed the stars, they probably even built observatories.

The partly multicolored art, preserved on many ceramic finds and on the buildings, is also impressive. Another specialty is their font. Around 800 characters have been found so far, not all of which have been deciphered to this day.

Due to the many artistic finds, the Maya culture was romanticized for a long time. A peaceful civilization that lives for art and watches the stars - that was it. This image was only corrected when the Maya script was deciphered.

The Maya now turned out to be not very peace-loving. They constantly waged wars with one another, and human sacrifice was the order of the day. The heads of defeated enemies were cut off and collected as trophies. Sometimes the wars were only fought for one reason: to take prisoners who could then be tortured and sacrificed.

The downfall

Suddenly the high civilization of the Maya disappeared. This riddle has not been solved to this day - despite the deciphering of many characters. Most researchers tend towards a combination of three main factors: war, overexploitation and drought.


By deciphering the script, it was found that the Maya were not a peaceful culture. There were around 50 city-states belonging to two major power blocs. Tikal and Calakmul are considered the centers of the two power blocs. Armed conflicts between individual states are said to have occurred again and again.

Some researchers suspect that there was a relative equilibrium between the two blocks for a long time, but that this equilibrium was out of joint towards the end of the classical phase. A scenario is also conceivable in which the population of the Maya states rebelled against their own rulers and freed themselves from them. This could also explain why no more large structures were erected as a result.


Another theory is that the people perished because of their size. Ruthless overexploitation of nature could ultimately have destroyed their livelihoods. This is what it suspects, among others, NASA, which analyzed the former Maya area with satellite images. According to this, a dramatic deforestation could have taken place, which as a consequence led to the desiccation of large areas.


Studies aiming to show that an extraordinary period of drought was responsible for the disappearance of the Maya go in a similar direction. On the basis of soil deposits it is said to have been established that there must have been a great drought in the Maya area around 900 AD.

Deviations can also be seen in the ice layers of the Antarctic during this period. All of this could indicate a global weather phenomenon, which in this case was devastating for the Maya.

The Maya today

It is a common misconception that the Maya were extinct. First and foremost, the culture of the so-called "classical phase" has disappeared. The descendants of this high culture lived in self-determination until the 16th century. Then came conquerors from Spain who made the country their own in bloody wars and subjugated the population.

The Spaniards did not shy away from destroying unique relics from the Mayan period. In 1697, Tayasal, the last great free Mayan city, was conquered and the history of this independent and unique culture ended.

Today around six million descendants of the Maya, known as indigenous people, still live in Central America. A large part of it can be found in Guatemala. Most indigenous people live in poverty, but their lives are still determined by ancient traditions and rituals.