Maya script. The earliest glyphs identified as Mayan date to the 3rd century BC from San Bartolo, Guatemala. This writing system was continuously used in Mesoamerica until the Spanish conquest of the Maya in the XVI and XVII centuries. The Maya writing used logograms accompanied by some syllabic glyphs, whose function was similar to those of the modern Japanese writing.

The Maya civilization developed by the Maya peoples was notorious between other pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations for its hieroglyphic script (the only known fully developed writing system of the pre-Columbian Americas), its mathematics, art, calendar, and astronomical system. The Maya are well known for the highly complex series of interlocking ritual calendars they developed, and also because in mathematics they included one of the earliest uses of the explicit zero in the world. As part of their religious rituals the Maya practiced human sacrifice.


The so-called “Madrid Stele” (Museum of the Americas, Madrid) was actually the support for the throne of Pakal at the Palenque Palace (actual Chiapas, Mexico). The carving represents a deity, a Bacab, who sits on the “monster of the earth” and served by “holding” the royal throne and, by extension, the royalty. In his left hand this Bacab holds a motif of aquatic symbolism: the tortoise and the water lily. The style of the stele carries the stamp of the art of Palenque: realism, discrete dynamism and balance of the composition. It dates ca. 650 AD (Late Classic period).

The territory occupied by the ancient Maya covered a third of Mesoamerica, from southeastern Mexico to northern Central America, an area that included the entire Yucatán Peninsula and the current territories of Guatemala and Belize, as well as the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.

Partial view of the ruins of Tikal which was likely to have been called Yax Mutal. Tikal was one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the Maya civilization. It is located in the region of the Petén Basin, department of El Petén (Guatemala), and the site is part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park.

Following the Mesoamerican chronology, the history of Maya civilization is divided into three principal periods: the Preclassic period (ca. 2000 BC – 250 AD), the Classic period (ca. 250–900 AD) which included the Classic Maya collapse during the 8th and 9th centuries AD, and the Postclassic period (ca. 950–1539 AD). These were preceded by the Archaic Period (8000-2000 BC), during which the first settled villages and early developments in agriculture emerged. The Preclassic period included the establishment of the first complex societies in the Maya region and the cultivation of the staple crops of the Maya diet (maize, beans, squashes and chili peppers). Around 750 BC the first Maya cities were developed and by 500 BC they possessed monumental architecture. Hieroglyphic writing was used in the Maya region by the 3rd century BC. During the Classic period, the Maya developed a large number of city-states linked by a complex trade network. Meanwhile, in the Maya Lowlands two great rival cities, Tikal and Calakmul became powerful. The Classic period also witnessed the intervention of the central Mexican city of Teotihuacan in Maya dynastic politics. Later on, during the 9th century occurred a widespread political collapse in the central Maya region resulting in internal warfare, the abandonment of cities, and a shift of the Mayan population to northern areas. By the Postclassic period, the northern city of Chichén Itzá achieved its peak, while the aggressive K’iche’ kingdom expanded well into the Guatemalan Highlands. By the 16th century, the Mesoamerican region was colonized by the Spanish Empire, and a lengthy series of conquest campaigns led in 1697 to the fall of the last Maya city of Nojpetén.

Aerial view of the Calakmul ruins. Calakmul, a Maya archaeological site in the Mexican state of Campeche, deep in the jungles of the greater Petén Basin region, was once one of the largest and most powerful ancient cities of the Maya lowlands.


“El Caracol” (“The Snail”) in Chichén-Itzá (Tinum Municipality, Yucatán State, Mexico) was a building destined to astronomical observatory. At the top of the tower there are square openings that fix certain points for astronomical observation: one faces the geographical south and in two others it can be observed the sunset and the setting of the moon during the equinoxes. Its doors and windows are also aligned to astronomical events such as the path of Venus as it traverses the heavens.

The art of the Maya was essentially linked to the royal court and thus was exclusively concerned with the Maya elite and their world. Maya art was used as a “bridge” to link the Maya to their ancestors. Although today we only know a small proportion of surviving Maya art, it represented a wider variety of subjects than any other traditional art in the Americas. Due to the extent of its civilization, Maya art included many regional styles and is unique among the ancient art of the Americas in including narrative text. The finest examples of surviving Maya art date to the Late Classic period (550-830 AD). The Maya exhibited a preference for the color green or blue-green, and consequently, they placed high value on green jade and other green stones because they associated them with their sun-god K’inich Ajau.

For geographic, historical and cultural reasons, it is common to divide the Maya territory into three well-defined areas: southern, central and northern.


Map of the Maya area.

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