Maya Civilization Flourishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The ancient Maya made profound achievements in art, mathematics, astronomy, and architecture.

Summary of Event

Maya history is divided into three periods: Preclassic (2000 b.c.e.-200 c.e.), Classic (200-900 c.e.), and Postclassic (900 c.e. to the Spanish conquest). The Maya lived in an area that included the present-day Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo, in addition to the countries of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Scholars who study the Maya have divided the entire region into three subregions: the southern subregion of Guatemala highlands and the Pacific coast; the central subregion of northern Guatemala, its adjacent lowlands, and the Petén region; and the northern subregion of the Yucatán Peninsula. The highland areas of southern Guatemala and Chiapas flourished during the late Preclassic period; lowland areas in the Petén region reached their height during the Classic period; and the area in the Yucatán Peninsula prospered in the late Classic and Postclassic periods.

The end of the Preclassic period and the beginning of the Classic period, when the Maya flourished, had formerly been defined by the appearance of vaulted stone architecture, monumental inscriptions, and polychrome pottery. However, subsequent finds have revealed that each of these traits appeared at different times during the Terminal Preclassic. Consequently the “official” end of the Preclassic period and beginning of the Classic period has been changed from 300 c.e. to 250 or 200. During the late Preclassic period, writing, mathematics, architecture, astronomy, and calendars were used, but these were all more fully developed in the Classic period.

Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá.


A few city-states, such as El Mirador and Kaminaljuyu, developed in the Preclassic period, but it was the Classic period that witnessed the rise of the larger, more advanced city-states for which the Maya are known. One of the earliest and largest of the Classic-period centers was Tikal, located in the Petén region of Guatemala. It covered a 6-square-mile (16-square-kilometer) area, contained more than three thousand constructions, and had an estimated forty thousand inhabitants. One pyramid, 224 feet high (68 meters), is the tallest pre-Columbian edifice in America. Copán, which was in Honduras, 250 miles (402 kilometers) southeast of Tikal, may have been a scientific center specializing in astronomy. Although the Maya did not have telescopes, jade tubes were used, which helped to concentrate their vision on selected celestial bodies. Their knowledge of astronomy was such that they not only had an accurate calendar of 365 days but also were able to predict solar and lunar eclipses, as well as the movement of Venus.

Palenque, in Chiapas, Mexico, had an aqueduct to direct water from a nearby stream to the center of the city and contained a building called the Palace, which was 228 feet (69 meters) long and 180 feet (55 meters) deep, with a four-story tower with an internal stairway. Perhaps its most famous feature is the tomb of the ruler Pacal, who died in 683 c.e. after ruling for sixty-eight years. The lid of the sarcophagus was a five-ton, twelve-foot slab of limestone carved with a bas-relief image of the ruler as he entered the jaws of death in the underworld. Palenque also is special because two women ruled before Pacal assumed the throne.

Bonampak, also located in Chiapas, is best known for its Temple of Frescoes. The frescoes depict many activities and scenes of daily life not represented elsewhere. Some of these representations have helped scholars to realize that the Maya were not the peaceful people they once were believed to be.

Other important centers in the Yucatán Peninsula, such as Chichén Itzá, began in the Classic period but continued to flourish in the Postclassic period under the influence of the Toltecs, who invaded Maya territory in the tenth century c.e. Some of the aforementioned centers had previously experienced a foreign influence early in the Classic period. In the fifth century, Teotihuacán, which was located in the central basin of Mexico, began to spread its influence throughout southern Mesoamerica, including the Maya cities of Kaminaljuyu, Copán, and Tikal. This influence ended in the eighth century, and there has been speculation that this was a factor in the demise of the Classic period at the end of the ninth century.

The Classic period was characterized by the construction of impressive structures, often one on top of the other. Either existing structures were demolished and the material was used in the new construction, or a new and larger structure enveloped the older one. Buildings were typically covered with stucco. If it was an important structure, the date would be recorded, and the event would be celebrated with a religious ceremony that included bloodletting. Some of the main features of Maya architecture were large, flat-topped stone pyramids with steps that led to a temple decorated with tiled pediments known as “roof combs”; buildings covered with bas-reliefs; jutting corbeled arches or vaults; ball courts; large public squares or plazas; and stelae, altars, and monoliths inscribed with names, dates, and important events. A major feature of the large ceremonial centers was the formal plaza lined by public buildings. Much of this was made possible by the Maya practice of cementing the cut stones together. They had perfected the use of mortar, plaster, and stucco.

Society was highly stratified. At the top was an elite who ruled and enjoyed special privileges. It was the function of the common people to provide not only necessities but also luxuries for the elite. There were probably a number of strata between the royal family and the common farmers, based on birth or occupation, which may have been hereditary. Each city-state had its own ruling dynasty, which is believed to have been by patrilineal primogeniture accessible to others only through marriage. The inequality of treatment did not end with death; while the nobility were buried in tombs, the peasants were buried under the floor in their homes.

Religion was of central importance to Maya culture. Myriad gods controlled everything and therefore had to be consulted and appeased constantly. Maya religious concerns encouraged the development of astronomy and mathematics. Each day and number had its patron deity. When a child was born, a priest would predict its future with the aid of astrological charts and books. Depending on the exact day and time of its birth, a child would owe a special devotion to the ascendant deity throughout his or her lifetime. Religious ceremonies were of the utmost importance. An important aspect of some religious ceremonies was the practice of shedding human blood. Bloodletting took the form of human sacrifices—either of enemies or possibly of devout martyrs—and nonfatal self-immolation. The latter seems to have been a common practice, which entailed the piercing of the tongue, lips, earlobes, or penis. The blood was sometimes dripped onto paper strips that then were burned. In addition to giving nurture and praise to the gods, the Maya believed contact could be made with gods or deceased ancestors by the letting of blood.

The Classic period was marked by competition and conflict. There was an extensive system of short- and long-distance trade, not only among the Maya but with other indigenous peoples as well. Economic success brought growth and prosperity to the many city-states, but it also brought increased competition for territory and power. Warfare was a frequent outcome. Some of the conquered rivals provided sacrificial victims to satisfy the gods; others were beheaded, with the heads possibly used as trophies. During this period, Tikal was defeated by Caracol, which later was defeated by Dos Pilas. Thus fortunes changed for communities and individuals alike.


The end of the classic Maya civilization was both swift and mysterious. Numerous theories attempt to explain the rather sudden and widespread demise of the prosperous lowland Maya communities. Undoubtedly, there were both internal and external causes. The former may have included environmental degradation, overpopulation relative to the food supply, disease and malnutrition, a revolution of peasants against the elite, and decay of the artistic, political, and intellectual superstructure of society. Invasion and economic collapse due to changes in other parts of Mesoamerica are possible external causes. While the southern past of the Maya civilization was undergoing collapse and depopulation, the centers in northern Yucatán continued to prosper and some southward migration occurred to fill the vacuum. The succeeding Postclassic period, which witnessed the dominance of the Yucatán area, continued until the Spanish conquest in the mid-sixteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arden, Traci, ed. Ancient Maya Women. Gender and Archaeology series 2. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2002. A collection of essays examining Mayan women in many aspects, including their portrayal in hieroglyphic texts and their roles as royals and women of power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coe, Michael D. The Maya. 6th ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999. The Maya civilization, from beginning to end, revised to incorporate modern discoveries regarding the Maya kings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrison, Peter D. The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999. Harrison focuses on the Maya kings at Tikal, using information from modern archaeological discoveries and interpretations of glyphs. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Nigel. Maya Monuments. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2000. Hughes looks at the monuments created by the Maya. Illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Inomata, Takeshi, and Stephen D. Houston, eds. 2 vols. Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001. Essays on the Maya royalty, providing a comparison and synthesis of the various theories. Volume 2 is data and case studies. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Mary Ellen. Maya Art and Architecture. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999. An examination of the architecture and art of the Maya. Illustrations, bibliography and index.

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