The Great Mayan Empire

By Ellis, Matt, and Carmen

Background Information

The Mayan Empire spread throughout southern Mexico and Central America from 2,500 B.C. into the 1500s A.D. The empire included the Yucatan Peninsula as well as the modern day countries of Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala. It stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. The average Mayan man was just over five feet, and the women were about 4'8". Typically, they had strait black hair and painted their bodies black, red, or blue. The Mayans valued crossed eyes and tied objects to infants foreheads to promote eye crossing.

The Well of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza

The Well of Sacrifice for the god of rain and lightning was located in Chichen Itza. It is a natural formation made in limestone. The sides are about 60 ft of vertical stone, until you hit water. The water runs 40 ft and is followed by 10 ft of mud. The well, hence the name, was used for sacrifices. Men, women, and children were thrown into the well during times of drought. Priests would throw a victim into a sacred well, the Well of Sacrifice being the most famous of the wells. If victims survived the fall and didn't drown, the priests would pull them back out of the well. The Mayans believed that the gods had chosen to spare the survivors. Then, the priests would ask the survivors what messages the gods had told them, and they would received special treatment from then on because the Mayas believed they had spoken to the gods.
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Yum Kaax (Corn God)

Yum Kaax (“Lord of the field” in English) is the Mayan corn god. He is also the god of all agriculture, he was always pictured as a young man with a plant with him or on his head. He protects the forests and is the guardian of the plants. His patron day is the day Kan (“the day of ripe corn”). He is associated with different parts of the life cycle of corn, as the Foliated Maize God he is connected with the small shoots of corn. As the Tonsured Maize God he is associated with both fertile and mature corn. The Mayans worshiped Yum Kaax for a good harvest and planting days.


The Mayan Empire was widely known for its success in architecture and construction. The golden age of the Mayan Empire included 40 cities, including Tikal, Copán, and Uaxactún. They built many of their temples and palaces in a stepped pyramid shape and decorated them with elaborate artwork and inscriptions. These structures earned the Maya the reputation as the greatest artists of Mesoamerica. In a typical city, the ceremonial center formed the heart of the city. Tall pyramids topped with temples stood in large open plazas, and public buildings, palaces, and ball courts surrounded the plaza. All of these buildings were ritually and politically significant to Mayan culture. The rulers and priests lived in the city’s center, the upper- and middle-class citizens built their homes just on the outside of the center, and the peasants lived in huts on the edge. The Mayans used carved stone for the main buildings in on the city, and they carved the stone with simple stone tools. The Mayans moved stones around with manpower. They didn’t use animals or wheeled vehicles. Additionally, they used a cement made of limestone that provided mortar to hold the stones in place. They spread limestone cement over stones to give the buildings smooth surfaces and then painted the buildings with bright colors. Mayan architecture included advanced cultural traits such as pyramid building, city construction, and the inscribing of stone monuments. Over swampy and wet areas where traveling was difficult, the Mayans built causeways, or raised roads. The causeways were usually 2-4 feet off the ground to provide efficient traveling routes throughout cities.

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In Mayan civilization, priests studied astronomy. They studied the movement of the sun, planets, moons and stars, and predicted eclipses and the movement of Venus. It was believed that the heavenly bodies were gods and that studying them and learning more about them would help them to understand what the gods wanted. Large observatories were built in cities to study space. The Mayans had two calendars, the sacred calendar and the regular calendar. The sacred calendar was used for planning religious events, and it had 260 days, 20 day names, and each day had a god or goddess associated with it. The regular calendar, however, was more associated with astronomy, as it was based on the movement of the Earth around the Sun. It consisted of 18 months, with 20 days in each month. There were 5 extra days at the end of the year, and they were considered unlucky days. The priests created these calendars through their study of space. It is also believed by modern archaeologists that astronomy was also related to the alignment of Mayan buildings. For example, Building J at Monte Alban was constructed in an arrow shape. It was found that the five brightest stars in the sky would set at approximately the arrow point. Star clusters and constellations also held special meanings. The Pleiades star clusters would appear in the sky around planting time, and seeing this meant that the Maya could plan ahead for the planting season.
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The Mayans created a much more advanced counting system than all other civilizations at the time. The Mayan and other Mesoamerican cultures used a vigesimal number system probably originally developed from counting on fingers and toes. The numbers were represented by three different symbols an open shell for zero, a dot for one, and a bar for five. Addition and subtraction were then made easy. After the number 19, larger numbers were written in a format using powers of 20: 1, 20, 400, 8000, 160000, etc. They were the first people to use the idea of a zero- an important invention. The number zero was represented with a shell, a dot represented the number one, and a bar equaled five. The Mayans used a base of 20 the same way we use a base of 10 today- wrote their numbers from top to bottom instead of left to right.

Government and Religious Practices

Religion was very important part of life and worshiped many gods and goddesses of nature gods including gods of the following: rain, corn, sun, and the moon. They supported polytheism, or the worship of multiple gods. The Mayans would worship these gods in the form of human sacrifice, dance, song, and their everyday life/routine. Many of the Mayan religious ceremonies included gifts and sacrifices to the various gods. They had a variety of religious festivals and celebrations including human sacrifice. The Mayan Empire was divided into many independent city-states, and each city-state had its own ruler named the halach uinic, or “the true or real man.” These city-states consisted of rural communities with urban ceremonial centers. The Mayans believed the halach was a living god and ruled until he died. His oldest son became the next halach; if he didn’t have a son, his brother would rule. If he had no brothers, the ruler’s elected council would choose a member of his family to serve. Historians believe that the halach served as the high priest during religious ceremonies. The halach dressed in colorful clothes and a large headdress. Wall paintings in temples portray him will many tattoos, large ear decorations, and crossed eyes. Many other priests served as the halach, and these priests, named ahkin, served many duties including having knowledge in mathematics and astronomy. Some priests were prophets, performers of religious sacrifices and medical rituals. The Mayans honored the priests because they had a significant amount of power and believed they could explain the mysteries of life and death. The Mayan government consisted of a hierarchical (organized ranking according to status and authority) government ruled by priests and kings. The priests helped rule city-states and held ceremonies. At the top of the Mayan society were the kings, or “kuhal ajaw” (holy lords), who claimed to be related to gods and followed a hereditary succession, and the Mayans thought they served as mediators between the gods and people on Earth. They performed the elaborate religious ceremonies and rituals that were very important to the Mayan culture. Finally, warfare played an important role in religion, power and prestige.
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Modern Day

The Mayan territory included the modern day Yucatan Peninsula, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala, surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Ocean, Bay of Campeche, and the Caribbean Sea. Their homelands altogether cover about 125,000 square miles. The fertile soil in highland valleys supported the largest part of Mayan civilization. Modern Maya live mainly in southeastern Mexico and northern Central America.
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Early Mayas were hunter-gatherers. They hunted animals and fish and picked fruits, nuts, and vegetables. When they began to farm, they used the slash and burn method of farming. Trees were cut down with stone axes and then let dry in the sun. They would then burn the trees to clear land, and the leftover ashes would fertilize the soil. However, this method wore the soil out quickly, and the fields had to fallow for 2 to 3 years before they could be planted on again. To plant seeds, they used the planting stick method. Farmers would use a stick to poke a hole in the ground to place 3 to 4 seeds in. The Mayans grew a variety of crops such as maize, beans, peppers, squashes, tomatoes, avocados, and pumpkins, and in some areas cacao. Cacao was very important to their civilization. It was basically their monetary system, or currency. They also grew hemp for rope and cotton to make cloth. Mayas built reservoirs, terraces, and created irrigation systems. In swampy areas, they dug soil into mounds and planted on the mounds. They then dug out canals for irrigation. They had many special religious celebrations were related to farming. The god of rain, Chac, was the focus of many of these ceremonies. Did you know that 90% of the population were involved in farming? Additionally, the Mayans hunted deer, turkeys, peccary, ducks, quails, curassow, guan, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, the tapir, armadillo, and dogs; and used certain trees for wood, such as the sapodilla and breadnut.


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