Cultures & Traditions

Maya

Maya* civilization encompassed 200,000 square miles of foothills, rain forests, and plains in the national territories of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. It endured for nearly 2,000 years, from about 400 BCE, when the first kings raised temple-mountains in royal cities such as El Mirador and Cerros, until 1697, when the Spaniards defeated King Kan-Ek of the Itzá at Tayasal in the Petén region of Guatemala. Maya civilization attained its highest development between 250 and 900 CE (the Classic period) and is known for the architecture of such cities as Palenque, Tikal, and Copán; its fully developed hieroglyphic writing system; achievements in astronomy and mathematics; and an incomparably refined art style.

Within this vast territory, the Maya created several distinctive regional expressions of their civilization. The Southern Lowlands witnessed the rise of great dynastic kingdoms. The Northern Lowland Maya chose another path during the Classic period and established governments in which councils shared power with kings. The Maya of the highlands of Guatemala created yet another variety of civilized life in which hieroglyphic writing played only a minor role. Transcending the diversity were common understandings of religion and philosophy which distinguished the Maya ethnically from other highly developed civilizations in Mesoamerica.

The Maya refined and extended the concept of the god-king. Maya kings were masters of soul-force, or holiness (ch'ul), and were responsible for maintaining the balance of birth, death, and rebirth demonstrated in cycles of mythological and historical time. When these resplendently costumed kings appeared before their people in ritual performances, they embodied the ancestral gods of Maya creation, from whom they channeled power into the world of man so that rain would fall, crops would grow, enemies would falter, and children would prosper.

Maya civilization was fundamentally urban, and its major centers harnessed the abilities of artists, scribes, astronomers, architects, and engineers. Maya cities were capitals of kingdoms, each ruled by a hero king whose authority derived from direct communication with gods and ancestors. Maya kingdoms maintained grand alliances for purposes of war and trade. The central plazas of Maya cities frequently rang with noisy celebrations marking the birth, accession, and death of a king. Among the most powerful of Maya cities was Tikal in the department of El Petén in Guatemala. There, in 695 CE, King Hasaw-ka'an-k'awil celebrated his military victory over the king of Kalakmul by reshaping the city's ancestral temple-mountains into three great pyramids that represented the first Three-Stone-Place where First Father was reborn as Maize on creation eve. The king's ambitious architectural plan echoed that of the earlier Olmec center of La Venta.

  • Maya / Mayan - In current scholarship, the word Maya (without an "n") is the preferred term when referring to Maya people, Maya culture, and Maya art. The word Maya can be used as a noun or as an adjective. The word Mayan (with an "n") is used only in reference to Mayan languages.

Adapted from

  • Gallery text [Maya], A. H. Meadows Galleries.

  • Carol Robbins, "Lidded tetrapod bowl with paddler and peccaries (1988.82.a-b)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 188.

  • Carol Robbins, Label text [1988.15.McD], A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.

Related Multimedia

Boshell Ancient Art of the Americas lecture series; Coe is Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, Yale University
Late night lecture; in conjunction with Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship, February 12- May 7, 2006; DMA Collection 2005.26 Cylindrical vessel with sacrificial scene
Learn about the Maya culture.
Demonstration of ballgame with drums
Boshell Family Lecture Series on Archaeology; in conjunction with Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship, February 12- May 7, 2006; speaker is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California Riverside and member of San Bartolo research team
Lecture by Dr. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Professor of Art History at California State Universityâ013Los Angeles, discusses the history and folklore of the Mesoamerican ballgame ulama, a significant and complex aspect of the ancient Mesoamerican societies
Boshell Family Lecture Series on Archaeology; Dr. David Stuart, the foremost expert on Mayan hieroglyphs, explores the Mayaâ019s prediction of "the end of the world in 2012" and discusses his most recent book on that subject, The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012
lecture in conjunction with Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship, February 12- May 7, 2006; speaker is Vincent Scully Professor the History of Art, Yale
Boshell Family Lecture Series on Archaeology; in conjunction with Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship, February 12- May 7, 2006; speaker is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California Riverside and member of San Bartolo research team
1993 Ancient Art of the New World lecture series; speaker is from the Department of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University
lecture in conjunction with Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship, February 12- May 7, 2006; speaker is Vincent Scully Professor the History of Art, Yale
1993 Ancient Art of the New World lecture series; speaker is from the Department of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University
Boshell Family Lecture Series on Archaeology; speaker is renowned Maya scholar and Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, Yale University; discussing the origins of chocolate
Boshell Family Lecture Series on Archaeology; speaker is renowned Maya scholar and Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, Yale University; discussing the origins of chocolate

Web Resources

  • National Geographic
    Read about the Maya in a special issue from National Geographic.

  • Khan Academy
    Read more about the Maya culture.

  • Khan Academy
    Read about the famous lintels at the site of Yaxchilan.

  • Khan Academy
    Read about the Maya Fenton Vase.

  • UNESCO
    Read about the Archaeological Park and Ruins of Quirigua.

  • UNESCO
    Read about the site of Copan.

  • UNESCO
    Read about the National Park of Palenque.

  • UNESCO
    Read about the site of Chichen-Itza.

  • UNESCO
    Read about the site of El Tajin.

  • UNESCO
    Read about the site of Uxmal.

  • UNESCO
    Read about the archaeological monuments at the site of Xochicalco.

  • UNESCO
    Read about the protected forests and site of Calakmul, Campeche.

  • UNESCO
    Read about the painted murals of San Bartolo.

  • UNESCO
    Read about Tak'alik Ab'aj National Park.

  • UNESCO
    Read about Tikal National Park.

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Read more about the site of Tikal.

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Read more about Tikal's sacred architecture.

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Read more about Tikal's stone sculpture.

  • National Geographic
    Watch a lecture with George Stuart, former National Geographic staff archaeologist, and his son, David Stuart, Maya archaeologist and epigrapher, discussing the art of Palenque and the ancient Maya world.

  • Maya Decipherment
    Read more from a web blog devoted to ideas and developments in ancient Maya epigraphy and related fields.

  • PBS
    Watch a NOVA documentary on the decipherment of ancient Maya texts, "Cracking the Maya Code" (2008).