Interesting facts about the Ancient Maya

2012 Winter Solstice in Belize
Reading Time: 4 mins

Often misunderstood as savages, the ancient Maya were a fascinating civilization that once ruled Mesoamerica (a term used to describe Yucatan Mexico and Central America before the 16th-century Spanish conquest). At the height of their empire, they had the five fundamental aspects of culture: food, art, customs, language, and religion.

A few of their achievements are the creation of incredible architectural wonders, extensive travel and trade routes, and the usage of an advanced system of writing and mathematics.

Here are 20 interesting facts about the ancient Maya

1. The Maya loved getting high.

According to Mayanist Mark Van Stone, ingesting hallucinogenic drugs was an important part of many ancient American indigenous religious ceremonies. Interestingly enough, in preparation for rituals, one of the favourite ways the Maya got into a trance was by licking the back of Cane toads (bufo marinus).

2. They would drastically change their features in search of beauty.

The Maya were known for flattening their forehead, sharpening their teeth, and creating holes in their teeth to fill them with jade.

3. Maize, Beans, and Squash were the most important Maya foods.

Branded as the three sisters, the Maya diet focused on maize, beans and squash. In addition to providing the essential nutrients for a healthy diet, rotating maize, beans, and squash crops allowed for the continuous productive use of land.

4. Chocolate was universally loved by the Maya.

Cacao was highly valued by the ancient Maya. It was used as a form of currency and consumed on a regular basis, especially by Maya royals and priests. Mayan chocolate was usually consumed as a hot drink, a steamy broth often combined with chilli peppers, honey or water.

5. They were expert traders.

Based on supply and demand, Maya traded items that included foods such as corn, fish, chocolate, and manufactured goods such as clothing, carvings, and toys, and raw materials such as jade, gold, and copper.

6. The Maya loved to wear large hats and headdresses.

The Maya culture valued the concept of hierarchy, and one way this was expressed was through their choice of headwear. The more important the person, the taller the hat they wore.

7. Social class played a significant role in shaping Maya society.

The highest class was made up of the Maya nobility. Aside from the king, nobles included priests, scribes, officials, and elite warriors. The middle class was made up of craftsmen, traders, weavers, potters, and other warriors. At the bottom of the social order were farmers, other workers, and slaves.

8. The Maya believed in over 160 Gods, each representing a different part of life.

The Maya believed that Gods had power over different natural elements, such as rain, fertility, and the sun, and that they also controlled human activities, such as agriculture, hunting, and warfare.

9. Human sacrifice was a major aspect of their religion.

Mayan sacrifices were usually done with prisoners of war and predominantly during times of trouble since it was considered to make the Gods happy.

10. Rulers and priests acted as intermediaries to the Gods.

The Maya royalty and nobles coaxed their followers by pretending to predict weather patterns and claiming to speak to the Gods when eclipses occurred.

11. Healers were known as Shamans.

Shamans used a wide assortment of medicinal plants as remedies. Many of the plants used by the Maya are still used presently to heal illnesses.

12. Music and dance was a major part of Maya culture.

An integral part of religious rituals, ceremonies, and daily life, music and dance played a significant role in Maya society. Some examples of musical instruments included drums, flutes, rattles, and trumpets, and a few dances include the deer dance, the monkey dance, and the Cortez dance.

13. The primary goal of Maya warfare was to capture rather than kill enemies.

The ancient Maya preferred capturing enemies due to religious beliefs surrounding sacrificial rituals, to gain social status and for ransom or enslavement. Captives of elite status typically became subjects for human sacrifice, while commoners were sentenced to slavery.

14. The Maya loved playing a game of life and death known as the Mesoamerican ball game.

The game of life and death is also called the Maya ball game or Pitz. The game involved two teams attempting to move a heavy rubber ball through stone hoops using only their hips and shoulders. Surprisingly, it is still played today!

15. The Maya practiced advanced writing and mathematics.

The Maya writing system consisted of sophisticated hieroglyphs which were etched onto stone slabs called Stelae, painted as murals on monumental buildings or drawn on books made of tree bark. Maya mathematics used a base 20 system identified as vigesimal – the symbol of a shell corresponded to zero, a dot represented a one and a bar stood for a five.

16. They were excellent astronomers and created their own calendars.

The Mayan Calendar of Tzolkin consisted of 260 days and was used to track religious and ceremonial events. The Haab was the annual solar calendar consisting of 365 days and is the most similar to our modern-day calendar.

17. Caves were sacred. It’s the entrance to Xibalba, the underworld.

Particularly during epochs of peril, the Maya would journey deep inside caves and perform rituals and sacrifices hoping that the death gods would bring better times. Ceremonies inside caves are still presently done by some modern Maya of the Yucatan.

18. The Ceiba, known as Yaaxché in Mayan, is the sacred tree of life.

In ancient Maya mythology, by means of the Ceiba’s branches and trunk, the heavens and the underworld were connected.

19. They loved saunas.

Maya sweat baths, also known as “temezcal” were an important purification element for priests and rulers.

20. The exact reason for the collapse of the ancient Maya is uncertain.

Although the precise reason for the Mayan collapse is uncertain, the most widely accepted idea is that it was a self-induced ecological disaster. The Maya consumed all their natural environment and when the droughts came and their Gods didn’t bring rain, the people abandoned the big cities.

So what is your take on the Maya?



Reader Interactions


  1. Kaylee Michael says

    Btw, do you happen to know Danny Gonzalez? You have the same last name lol

  2. Kaylee Michael says

    Thank you for dedicating a whole website to the maya civilization! I now know that the Maya got high for rituals, how fun!

  3. Kaylee says

    I find that the Maya civilization is very interesting! Im really surprised that it was a tradition to get high! Im making a poster about the Maya civilization and I really appreciate you dedicating a whole website to them. I hope the investigation to how they failed continues!

  4. Steve Collins says

    Fascinating ruminations on the Mayans! The mystery of where they went is tantalizing. Considering their high technology, astronomy, mathematics, etc., it’s hard to believe that there’s not more to the story of their disappearance. Hmmmm…

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