The Basics of Ancient Maya Civilization

This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

  1. What modern countries encompass the historic homeland of the ancient Maya?
  2. How do historians divide Maya history?  What characteristics and events distinguish these periods?
  3. How did the Spanish conquest impact the Maya people?
  4. What right do indigenous peoples like the Maya have to self-determination?  What right do more powerful nations like Spain – or even the central government of Mexico – to control the territory and lives of such peoples?  History cannot be changed, of course, but would your answers change if you were discussing the United States and the Dakota Sioux?

The Maya people of Mesoamerica have a rich history that can be traced back nearly four thousand years.  Since around 2000 BC, the Maya have refined an extraordinary and vibrant culture all their own, distinguishing themselves with their glyphic script—the only known fully developed writing system of the pre-Columbian Americas—as well as for their artarchitecturemathematicscalendar, and astronomical system.

The Maya world in Mesoamerica.  This region was never controlled by any one Maya kingdom, but was instead made up of city-states in various states of alliance or rivalry.

In various small city states, alliances, and diverse subcultures, the Maya have historically inhabited an area that encompasses modern day southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. This region consists of the northern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, and the highlands of the Sierra Madre, running from the Mexican state of Chiapas, across southern Guatemala and onward into El Salvador, and the southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain.

At 35 meters tall, the Pyramid of the Magician at the Maya city of Uxmal dates to the late Classic period. (Uxmal, Mexico, 2017.)

Historians generally divide the ancient Maya civilization into three periods:

  • The Preclassic period (c. 2000 BC to 250 AD) saw the establishment of the first complex societies in the Maya region, and the cultivation of the staple crops of the Maya diet, including maizebeanssquashes, and chili peppers. The first Maya cities developed around 750 BC, and by 500 BC these cities possessed monumental architecture, including large temples with elaborate stucco façades. Hieroglyphic writing was being used in the Maya region by the 3rd century BC.
  • The Classic period, beginning around 250 AD, is largely defined as when the Maya were raising sculpted monuments with Long Count dates. This period saw the Maya civilization develop a large number of city-states linked by a complex trade network. In the Maya Lowlands two great rivals, Tikal and Calakmul, became powerful. The Classic period also saw the intrusive intervention of the central Mexican city of Teotihuacan in Maya dynastic politics. In the 9th century, there was a widespread political collapse in the central Maya region, resulting in devastating warfare between different cities within the Maya world, the abandonment of cities, and a northward shift of population.
  • The Postclassic period saw the rise of Chichen Itza in the north, which was peopled by native Maya, but seemingly ruled by Toltec conquerors from central Mexico. In the 16th century, the Spanish Empire colonized the Mesoamerican region.  The Maya were among the most resistant to conquest, but in the end, much of their culture was violently suppressed by the Spanish – an untold number of Maya books were purposely burnt, and the ability to read written Mayan was lost for centuries.  A lengthy series of campaigns saw the fall of Nojpetén, the last independent Maya city, in 1697.

The Spanish conquest stripped away many of the defining features of Maya civilization. However, many Maya villages remained remote from Spanish colonial authority, and for the most part continued to manage their own affairs. Maya communities and the nuclear family maintained their traditional day-to-day life. The basic Mesoamerican diet of maize and beans continued, although agricultural output was improved by the introduction of steel tools. Traditional crafts such as weaving, ceramics, and basketry continued to be practiced. Community markets and trade in local products continued long after the conquest. At times, the colonial administration encouraged the traditional economy in order to extract tribute in the form of ceramics or cotton textiles, although these were usually made to European specifications. Maya beliefs and language proved resistant to change, despite vigorous efforts by Catholic missionaries. The 260-day tzolk’in ritual calendar continues in use in modern Maya communities in the highlands of Guatemala and Chiapas, and millions of Mayan-language speakers inhabit the territory in which their ancestors developed their civilization.

Read more on this subject -> The Basics of Ancient Maya Civilization  ◦ The Ancient Maya in Time and Space  ◦  Ancient Maya Society  ◦  The Maya City  ◦  The Written Language of the Maya


  1. Use this dictionary to write a short poem in the Maya script, using at least a dozen glyphs.  Does composing in Mayan effect the experience of writing and reading?
  2. The Popol Vuh is one of the few remaining Maya stories dating to before the Spanish conquest.  It was originally preserved through oral tradition throughout the Maya world until approximately 1550 when it was written down.  The Popol Vuh includes the Mayan creation myth, beginning with the exploits of the Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué.  Read some of an English translation of the Popol Vuh, then choose a scene to reenact in a 3-5 minute skit or video in front of your class.
  3. Write an essay that compares and contrasts the 16th century Spanish conquistadors and the 21st century Taliban.
  4. Research the Caste War of Yucatán, which occurred in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the nineteenth century.  Take inspiration from the form and style of the Dresden Codex to tell the story of this late period Maya resistance.
  5. Choose any section from this unit and develop a lesson – in the form of a presentation, a storybook, or a worksheet – that teaches younger students about the Maya.  Make sure the material is age appropriate in content and approach, and create some simple questions to check your audience’s understanding.

Further Reading

The Maya (People and Places) by Michael Coe.

Ancient Maya by Barbara Somervill.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.


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An iguana keeps watch. (Uxmal, Mexico, 2017.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

A Guided Tour of Maya Mexico, 2017 – Explore the ruins of Ek’ Balam, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza, scramble through streets of colonial Merida, and sample the cuisine and culture of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  Supplementary photos and information on the Yucatan, past and present.