7 Characteristics of the Mayan People

Imagine that you can travel in time, specifically to the year 800 of the current calendar, in a tropical jungle in the American region. You will probably encounter one of the most complex civilizations in history: the Mayan people.


The term “Maya” is often used to characterize the descendants of the Spanish. However, there was not a single Mayan town, on the contrary, there were several groups, each of which shared a language.

Despite their plurality, some common traits can be identified between these peoples:

  • Complex glyphic writing system, in which 862 characters have recently been identified
  • Advanced astronomical and mathematical knowledge
  • Polytheistic peoples with religious practices based on sacrifices
  • Strong presence of maritime trade carried out by means of large canoes
  • Hierarchical society, divided into established social groups
  • A remarkable architecture whose heritage can be seen in Teothihucán, Monte Albán, Palenque, Copán, Yaxchillán, Uxmal, Chichén Itza, Yucatán and Tikal (the city of the gods), where the largest pyramid in America is located.

All of these features were the basis of one of the most complex and structured civilizations of the pre-Hispanic period, demonstrating to modern-day scholars that ancient societies also had significant experiences.

How the Mayans lived

Even though it is a civilization temporarily removed from the present, thanks to the information preserved by the Mayans, it is possible to know the social life of this people.

The first large cities, such as Nakbe and Petén, appeared 3,000 years ago and all of them created, spread and preserved very sophisticated ways of life.

1.     Society and politics

The Mayan peoples developed a strongly hierarchical society, with well-defined groups and functions established according to the social place occupied by each individual.

In general, there were four groups: the peasants, the elite made up of the nobility and priests, the king and, at the base of the pyramid, the slaves, prisoners of war.

The peasants were responsible for the supply system and agricultural activities, the main source of marketing.

The elite was responsible for the political-administrative system of the city-states and for religious practices, in the case of the priests.

The kings, for their part, were the highest authority figures in each region, since royal power was legitimized by divine authority.

Archaeologists and historians agree that the Mayans had frequent wars among themselves. The conflicts occurred due to the intentions of territorial domination that fueled some city-states.

Competition for towns and resources were also factors driving many of the conflicts.

In short, it can be concluded that the Mayan civilization was not founded on a peaceful and calm society.

2.     Economy

Initially, the main economic activities of the Mayans were hunting and gathering. However, over time, agriculture became the main means of subsistence and trade.

Thus, the peasants came to believe that to obtain good harvests they had to pay taxes to the kings, representatives of the deity.

Taxes could be paid with products or with free labor for the king.

Most of the peasants lived in the countryside and grew beans, cotton, cocoa, pumpkins, avocados and, above all, corn, which was considered sacred because, as it is written in the Popol Vuh (people’s book): “the gods made to the first corn men.

Since the notion of private property did not exist, the sense of collectivity in economic activities was greater. The peasant could take advantage of the land with the intention of obtaining food and supplying the community.

In addition, the Mayans complemented cultivation with hunting, fishing and crafts, focusing on trade with external places.

3.     Culture and religion

The Mayan religions were polytheistic, that is, they believed in the existence of several gods who governed and ordered all things, including the gods of the sun, the moon, rain, wind, death and life.

Nature was also considered sacred. In addition, human sacrifices were made to maintain order in the world.

For these people, time was cyclical, which significantly determined their experiences. They had a complex calendar system divided into two: the first consisted of 365 days (HHaab), and the second of 260 days (Tzolkon).

The longest existing calendar lasted 5,200 years, ending on December 21, 2012, in the Gregorian calendar, this information, misinterpreted, led many people to believe in the end of the world, when in reality it only represented the end of a cycle, according to the Mayans.

In the field of culture, economy, politics and religion, the Mayan civilization was very well structured, however, it still went into decline. Below you will understand how this has happened.

The decline of the Mayan people

Beginning in 900 AD, the decline of Mayan society began, which lasted until the beginning of the 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish.

It is known that many factors contributed to this process, including: local wars, epidemics aggravated by population density, periods of drought, lack of food, as well as a political structure based on family dynasties, which led to great part of the civilization to emigrate to the north of the peninsula, where governments were exercised by more plural councils and not based on lineage.

With the abandonment of these regions, the Spanish arrived and found a territory partially empty of life.

However, the glory of the Mayan civilization, far from being overshadowed, remained in its material remains that, today, increasingly impress scholars and the curious.