Mexico / Travel

10 Things You Might Not Know About The Maya

Mounted funerary jewelry of K’inich Janaab Pakal I.

Whether you’re a student of history, wannabe archaeologist, or a sunburned beachgoer looking for a break, the Maya ruins in Mexico are a unique and fascinating sight to see.

They’re a walk through history that tell you a good deal about the culture. But, even the most attentive visitors may miss a few important particulars about the people and the time.

A Maya lord sits before an individual with a container of frothed chocolate.

1. Are you a chocoholic? Thank the Maya.

The Maya were famous for incredible cultural advances, but you choco-hedonists out there might also be interested to know that they introduced cocoa and all its delicious derivatives to the world. They made a chocolate drink that was flavored with chili peppers, spices, vanilla, and sweetened with honey (Are you listening Starbucks?).

And it was serious business too. They cultivated and roasted cocoa beans for drinks, and even used the beans as currency. Like me, the Maya believed it was a sacred gift from the gods, and the divine Ek Chuah kept an eye on the crop. Spaniards, knowing a good thing when they tasted it, took cocoa back to Europe and the rest, as they say, is history.

2. The Maya lost their heads at ballgames – literally.

Pick your favorite sport, and if it involves a ball and a team, its origins go back to the Maya. According to art historian Caitlin C. Earley of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the evidence of the first ball game was discovered in Guatemala and dates to 1400 B.C. If you’re wondering how important ballgames were in Maya life, look no further than the 1,500 ball courts that have been discovered in Mesoamerica.

The recently completed World Cup seemed serious no doubt, but it was mere child’s play compared to the Maya game (ironically called pitz) where the losers lost their salary, contract, and head – literally. I suspect the coach had no problem motivating a bunch of prima-donna players.

3. Honey, I Squished the Kids’ Heads!

First a disclaimer. I loved this title so much I had to steal it, but all the credit goes to Robert D. Martin, Ph.D. from his article about cranial deformation in Psychology Today.

Modified Maya skull exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico

I have a good deal of respect for the ancient Maya, but for me, the practice of cranial deformation falls in the makes-no-sense category. Experts can guess, but the reality is they don’t know exactly why they did it, other than to give the appearance of a higher social class.

Face to Face with backswept foreheads. Detail of Lintel 26 from Yaxchilan

Who knows? Maybe this is where the phrase “having the big head” comes from. I wonder if the Maya had bigger headaches too?

4. Aww Shucks! Corn again?

Corn constituted 70% of the Maya diet! As a health-conscious adult who tries (ofttimes unsuccessfully) to eat a balanced diet, this statistic seems astounding to me. Let’s think about the realities of this food regimen in real-life terms: three meals a day, for one week totaling 21 meals – of which about 15 will have maize, in some form, as a main course. It’s no wonder chili peppers were on the menu as well.

Although the Maya had circles in their art and rolling children’s toys, they never put the wheel or animals to work.

5. The Maya did it the hard way.

As a culture, there’s no denying that the Maya were advanced. They excelled at agriculture, hieroglyphic writing, calendar-making, mathematics, and architecture. But given all these impressive achievements, it’s surprising that they didn’t have the wheel, metal tools, or large domesticated animals to carry loads. All their towering temples and monuments were constructed, start to finish, with stone and wooden tools using human muscle power alone. In some ways they worked “smarter not harder.” In others … not so much.

Map showing the extent of the Maya civilization (red), compared to all other Mesoamerica cultures (black).

6. The Maya lived in mini-kingdoms that never became an empire.

Unlike the Inca, whose empire spread over much of western South America, the Maya civilization was never unified. At its height, it consisted of 40 city-states each governed by a local king. And like big families throughout history, some of these siblings got along and some knocked heads from time to time.

Interestingly, in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, author Jared Diamond posits that one of the primary reasons that these mini-kingdoms couldn’t spread their tentacles across all of Maya land was their reliance on corn as a primary food source and the lack of draft animals. Human porters have a limit of how much and how far they can carry a heavy load of corn, and if soldiers can’t eat, the army can’t fight.

Maya zero is an eye-like character, also described as a shell.

7. The Maya were the New World’s first math geeks.

We normally give math a wide berth here at Gallivance (except for Pi), but this time, there’s no avoiding it.

According to Science News magazine, number 4 on the Mathematical Innovation Top 10 List is the concept of zero. Most historians agree that the idea of zero originated in Babylon, but it was independently developed on the other side of the globe by the Maya in the fourth century. “For what may have been the first time ever, there was a number to represent nothing.” Maya math geeks … who knew?

8. The great-great-great … grandmother to all the Maya has been located.

On a normal day 13,000 years ago, a teenage girl wandering the grassy savannah on what is now the Yucatán peninsula accidentally stumbled into a cenote (sinkhole), and was killed.

In 2007, a team of divers swimming in a one-kilometer passage discovered her fossilized skull and long bones. What this discovery means is that this unfortunate young hunter-gatherer is one of the oldest human inhabitants in the Americas, and the great-great-great … grandmother to the Maya, and in fact, most other Mexicans as well.

9. The Maya wrote it down, and the Spanish burned it up.

As we said earlier, another innovation of the Maya was their writing system. Their complex script had 800 distinct hieroglyphs  and was ideally suited for communication, record-keeping and books. So where is all this writing, and why do we know so little about their culture?

Thanks to the overzealous Spanish monk Diego de Landa, most of it went up in smoke. To eliminate “lies of the devil”, at least 40 Maya codices (folding, bark-paper books) and 20,000 Maya religious images were burned. Luckily, four of the remaining books are in museums around the world, and a few additional ones have been excavated at Maya sites.

10. Even though their cities are deserted, the Maya are alive and well.

Historians haven’t been kind to the Spanish conquistadores that invaded the New World – and for good reason. But one thing the invaders didn’t do is destroy the Maya and their culture. In fact, many of the great Maya cities were in ruins long before the arrival of the Spanish, and exactly why they collapsed is one of archaeology’s great mysteries.

However, the people didn’t disappear, and as many as 7 million Maya are alive and well living in the Yucatán of Mexico, as well as Belize and Guatemala. Like many indigenous people in the the Americas, they have endured repeated cycles of oppression, but many still hold on to their cultural identity, and in fact, still speak one of the Maya dialects as their primary language.

Rigoberta Menchu, a K’iche’ Maya and Nobel Peace Prize winner said it best:

Rigoberta Menchú in the March 2009 march commemorating the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos.
We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.”

The Maya had one of the preeminent ancient cultures in the Americas, and for many travelers, particularly North Americans, the ruins scattered around Mexico and Central America are easy and pleasant places to visit. Pick out a few and make it happen. You won’t be sorry.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Photo Credits: All via Wikimedia Commons
1, 14. Simon Burchell
3. Internet Archive Book Images
4. Arqueología Mexicana
6. ·Maunus·ƛ·
7. ProtoplasmaKid
9. John O’Neil
10. Kmusser
12. Bryan Derksen
13. Mark Whatmough
15. Surizar

44 thoughts on “10 Things You Might Not Know About The Maya

  1. The Maya had a truly advanced and fascinating culture. If travelers only have time to visit one site, I’d recommend Tikal in northern Guatemala, although it’s difficult to choose. As you mentioned in your post as well, the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City (one of the best on the planet!) is an excellent place to gather information about the ancient Maya as well as to learn about the way their descendants live today.

    • Henry, I haven’t been to Tikal, but you’re not the first person to recommend it, so it’s on the list for the future. Central America is an easy trip for us, so eventually, we’ll make it. I speak a bit of Spanish as well, so that helps. As you say, the anthropology museum in MEX is wonderful as you’d expect. We always make it a policy to hit all the big museums in the capital city before visiting the rest of the country. ~James

  2. Such an in-depth, interesting and informative post sprinkled with humour. The Mayas are an intriguing culture – and have made the world a better place … I mean what would one possibly do without chocolate! 😜

    • Thanks for your comment Lars and Michelle, and for dropping by the blog. Books have been written (“The Colombian Exchange” for example) about the incredible contributions and the transfer of plants, foods, and ideas from Mesoamericans to the rest of the world. As for chocolate, the weight-watchers out there probably wish it hadn’t been invented, but for me and the rest of the world … oh yeah. ~James

  3. Alie studied Latin American history in college and has often expressed amazement at how much they had wrong about the Maya back then. It makes one wonder how much more there is to learn.

    • Ray, I think that given the proximity to the mainland US and Canada, that universities love to study these ruins (the warm weather can’t hurt either). As Alie knows, there have been major breakthroughs in understanding in the past few years. And the application of other sciences has helped as well. For example: the statistic about a 70% corn diet came from an isotope analysis of exhumed Maya skeletons. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to the Maya, so I love this stuff. ~James

    • Thanks Beth. The good news for Maya geeks like me is that every year new research fills in more blanks – or at least pencils in answers until something definitive is found. ~James

  4. Love this post… or should I say I love this ‘torture’ because every time you post something about the Maya, the more I wish Mexico were closer to Indonesia. At least now I’m quite happy to travel vicariously through your blog posts.

    • Thanks Bama. Glad to be the source of some pleasant pain. It would be interesting to make a comparison between a Maya ruin, and somewhere like Borobudur. I’ve visited both … umm. I may have to think about that one. ~James

  5. Lots of fun facts here, but I think I enjoyed the graphics, art, and photos even more! The second picture of the two men seemingly at odds over that pot of frothed chocolate keeps calling me back to guess at what I interpret as a problem of some sort. “Back off!” the left guy seems to be gesturing. And why is the right guy so pouty? As I keep saying on your Maya posts, we need to hop, skip, and jump down there again soon now that we are so close.

    • Lexie, between all the ruins, museums, websites and books that I’ve seen about the Maya, who knows how many of these bas-relief murals I’ve seen. I then read the caption that describes what it is, and 95% of the time I say … huh? The Maya were huge believers in stylistic carving, and I’m sure the locals could tell exactly what it was, but usually, I don’t have a clue. Having said that, it’s cool nonetheless. BTW, if you get down there soon, you’ll get there in time for some warm weather … and maybe a hurricane as well. 🙂 ~James

  6. Wonderful post! I recently returned from five weeks in Tulum and found the whole region fascinating, with so much to explore and learn about. All of the ruins are so approachable! Large and small, everywhere. I have posts coming up about Chichenitza, Ek Balam and Coba, but there are so many others to see. Thank you both for teaching us more about this amazing culture!

    • Many thanks Kelly! I just read your excellent post on Tulum and know that we need to put it on our “Must Visit” list – along with Ek Balam and Coba. And I’m so excited about your new adventure – wandering the world. So where to next? ~Terri

  7. I am thoroughly enjoying your series of posts on the Maya. I especially appreciate your ability to boil down your extensive research and comprehensive knowledge into an easy-to-understand article. Jared Diamond’s quote makes a lot of sense. I never considered that food domestication could limit the expansion of civilization in that way. Happy Trails! ~ Joe

    • Thanks for your kind words Joe. Both Terri and I feel very strongly about keeping our posts concise and we work hard to make sure that happens every time. Basically, we write what we enjoy reading. Information overload is rampant, and we never want readers to pass up a post because it takes too much time to read. Thanks for noticing. BTW, Diamond’s book covers lots of cultures, and you might enjoy it. ~James

  8. Fantastic post, funny and fascinating. I visited some Mayan ruins in July…awesome, but it was so hot and humid. Next time I visit Mexico it will be during the cooler months 😄

    • Gilda, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in this part of the world, and I know it can be very, very hot and uncomfortable. And buggy too – I contracted my first case of dengue fever in the jungles of Northern Belize. This area, and Mexico in general, is a winter destination for us, and the weather is nice then. For future reference, because of the altitude, the highlands of Mexico are much cooler, and there are some fabulous towns with wonderful colonial architecture. ~James

    • Thanks Darlene. I’m a Maya geek, and I guess it shows. Lots of these details didn’t make it into the posts, but were too good (at least in my estimation) to not publish. You know how it is when your research. ~James

  9. I mailed through the whole post. I’ve always loved your ability to tickle readers with plays on words and dashes of fun. Great to known chocolate obsession is all the Maya’s fault! I don’t think I will ever be able to keep a straight face when I hear the term ‘lose your head’ ever again. Wouldn’t be surprised if this one shows up in Discover too and it would be well deserved.

    • Thanks Sue. I always note from your blogging that you like a bit of funny as well, and I know your readers like it. I look at other “Top 10 things” posts and, if the writers aren’t careful, they can be dry and boring. I don’t ever want that to happen to our posts. As I discussed with someone else, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about blogging it’s that content is key. You can write about anything you want, but mediocre posts don’t cut it in the long term. Have a great Canadian weekend. ~James

  10. I never gave any thought to who “invented” zero. Such an amazing people. It does kind of boggle my mind they never harnessed the power of animals or used wheels. I thank them for chocolate! Great post!

    • Thanks Laura. Given the inventiveness of the Maya, I’m surprised about them not using the wheel as well. And it wasn’t that they didn’t know the concept because they had it in carved toys for kids. As for the draft animals, it wasn’t that they didn’t harness them, they just weren’t around to harness. There were no large land mammals in Mexico at the time. Unlike, say, the Inca who had llamas to use for pack animals. I find this stuff fascinating. BTW, it’s Friday, celebrate with a big chunk of chocolate. ~James

      • Then I wasn’t too far off the mark. Sometimes — no, often — ancient civilizations on different continents developed mathematical and scientific concepts independently. Man’s thirst for knowledge leads to search for knowledge, eh?

  11. New to wordpress, glad I found your post. Really good stuff. Just watched a NATGEO show about LIDAR and using it to locate Mayan ruins…they said the population was closer to 2 million instead of 20k which is what they thought before using LIDAR…really good article, thanks for posting!

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. This LIDAR technology is amazingly effective, and relative to bushwacking through the jungle, it must be faster, simpler, and relatively inexpensive. I’m a bit surprised that more academics aren’t using it. I visited Altun Ha in Belize years before it was so well excavated, and I can tell you some of these buildings look like nothing more than small hills in the jungle. They would so easy to miss. And things like farm terracing and small homesites would be impossible. It will be interesting to follow the progress. ~James

    • Thanks much Carol. Comments like this are good feedback for us because we feel quite strongly about being concise when we write, and this let’s us know that it’s working. We know your time is valuable and we appreciate your taking the time to read our post. ~James

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