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Traditional settlement area
Relief from Palenque (8th century)
Colored relief from Bonampak: A king defeats his opponent. Note the headdress of the victorious king.
Vase painting, Mayan prince enthroned on jaguar skin , 700–800 AD.
Maya stele (detail)
Tikal , temple pyramid with extended stairs and " cockscomb " ( crestería ) on the roof
Temple pyramid in Palenque with "Hahnenkamm"

The Maya are an indigenous people or a group of indigenous peoples in Central America who are particularly known for the empires they founded in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and their highly developed culture.


In their heyday the Maya represented a powerful high culture . One usually speaks of a Maya culture; In fact, there are also many similarities between the various sites from the past - but behind this culture are different peoples with more or less closely related Maya languages . A distinction is traditionally made between highland Maya (in Chiapas and Guatemala ) and lowland Maya (on the Yucatán peninsula , in Peten and Belize ), and not only because of the spatial conditions . In the course of history one can observe a shift of the cultural centers from the highlands to the lowlands and then to the north of the Yucatán peninsula (e.g. Chichen Itza ).

At the time of the arrival of the Spaniards at the end of the 15th century, most of the centers of post-classical Maya culture were in the north of Yucatán, while the central lowlands were only sparsely populated. In the southwestern highlands there were quite independent Maya cultures at that time, e.g. the culture of the Quiché ( Q'umarkaj ), the Cakchiquel ( Iximché ), the Mam ( Zaculeu ) or the Pocomam ( Mixco Viejo ). In contrast to many other indigenous peoples, the Maya still exist today and live in the Mexican part of Yucatán, in Chiapas and Tabasco , as well as in Belize and Guatemala, and also in El Salvador and Honduras .

The Maya are famous for the cultivation of corn , their mathematics and for their sophisticated calendar , written in Maya script . The now largely deciphered script was the only known fully developed writing medium in America until the arrival of the Spaniards. Handicrafts (processing stone, ceramics, wood, textiles) and painting were highly developed, metal processing (gold, silver, copper) only played a role late and almost only for ritual purposes, not for tool production. In the cities there were step pyramids up to 75 m high , Mayan acropolis , palaces , observatories and ball courts .


The vast historical settlement area of ​​the Maya covered approximately 350,000 km². In the north of what was then Maya land, the Yucatán peninsula juts far out into the Caribbean . The amount of precipitation in this area was always extremely low and unevenly distributed, the region was therefore largely stepped and overgrown with thorn bushes. In the southern lowlands there was a savannah landscape with a floor height of barely more than 200 meters. Since the area has always been tectonically very active, its soil is enriched with many minerals, which made it very attractive for agriculture.

In the Mexican state of Chiapas, in Guatemala and in Belize the climate is tropical in the lowlands, extensive jungle forests characterize the landscape. The highlands with a consistently mild climate stretches along the Pacific coast of Guatemala and Chiapas , the forests are dominated by conifers. There are numerous volcanoes in the highlands, most of which are considered geologically active.


Early pre-classical period (approx. 3000–900 BC)

In the early pre-classical period , the first permanent settlements and the development of agriculture took place at the end of the Archaic period . The first Maya archaeological finds from Cuello (Belize) date back to around 2000 BC. Dated. From this place a split and migration to the north ( Gulf of Mexico ) should have taken place. Before or around 1500 BC Chr. Was Lamanai founded (Belize) that about 3,000 years has been permanently inhabited, thus one of the populated longest cities of the Maya. Around 1100 BC BC hunters settled in Copán (Honduras). Approx. 1200 BC Cahal Pech (Belize) arose and remained inhabited until around 900 AD.

In 2017, as the oldest known monumental buildings of the Maya, rectangular plateaus piled up from earth were found in Aguada Fénix , which have similarities with buildings of the older culture of the Olmecs . The largest platform has a length of 1400 m and a width of 400 m and its construction is scheduled for the period from 1000 to 800 BC (at the latest). Dated. Even before that, similar Maya systems were found in Seibal, dating from around 950 BC. BC originated.

Middle Preclassic (approx. 900–400 BC)

In the middle pre-classical period, there was continuous settlement in the entire Maya area and the development of trade between the cities. Around the 7th century BC The first traces of settlement can be found in the area of Tikal in Guatemala . About 500 BC can be found on the Gulf of Mexico. First evidence of settlement buildings and stone temples. The first major Mayan cities include El Mirador with the highest known Mayan pyramid (72 m) and Nakbé in today's Guatemala, the latter of which had its heyday between 800 and 400 BC. Had.

Late pre-classical period (approx. 400 BC - 250 AD)

In the late pre-classical period, large Mayan centers emerged as a result of strong population growth and the formation of ruling elites. The use of lime stucco for roads on dams and for "monumental architectural decorative elements" e.g. E.g. on stairs etc. (see e.g. the chapter Stucco - the artistic medium of the late pre-classical period ) forms an essential element of the architectural development of the late pre-classical period.

Early Classical (approx. 250–600 AD)

The first Maya stele dated from AD 292 can be found in Tikal . In 562 there is a great war between Calakmul and Tikal. Chichén Itzá was founded around the year 650.

Late Classical (approx. 600–900 AD)

The classical Maya civilization comprised a number of city-states, each with their own ruler and subordinate administrators. With the expansion over the entire Yucatán peninsula, the high culture of the Maya reached its heyday. At that time Uxmal and Cobá were also founded. Other important cities were Tikal , Calakmul, Bonampak and Quiriguá . Many cities were connected by causeways ( Sakbe ). Some of the cities had more than 10,000 inhabitants and were therefore larger than the largest cities in Central Europe at that time. The population of the Maya civilization at its heyday is estimated at up to 10,000,000.

The Mayan centers of the classical period include Bonampak , Calakmul , Caracol , Xunantunich , Lubaantun , Copán , Dos Pilas , Nakum , Naranjo , Palenque , Piedras Negras , Rio Azul , Tikal , Yaxchilán or Yaxha . Finds from the late classical period as well as from the period since the late pre-classical period were made in the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in Belize , where ceramics and stoneware were found in addition to skeletal remains.

The collapse of the Maya centers in the central lowlands

As early as the 9th century, individual Maya centers in the southern lowlands were abandoned and, in the subsequent period, there was a rapid loss of population in the entire central region of the Yucatán. Many cities are being abandoned and the irrigation systems are falling into disrepair. After the middle of the 10th century, monumental stone steles were no longer erected in the entire lowlands . The collapse of Maya society is the subject of a wide and long-lasting research discussion. Two main approaches can be distinguished: ecological and non-ecological explanatory models.

  • The non-ecological explanatory models include explanatory approaches of various kinds, such as invasions , disasters and epidemics . Archaeological evidence of the Toltec invasion of northern Yucatán ( Seibal ) seems to support the invasion hypothesis. However, the majority of Maya researchers doubt that conquest is the main reason for the widespread social collapse in the lowlands. Another reason for the collapse of classical Maya society in the central lowlands is the end of the metropolis Teotihuacán in central Mexico, which supposedly left an extraordinary power vacuum that stretched as far as Yucatán and could not be filled by the rival Maya city-states . Against this, however, speaks that the fall of Teotihuacán now more in the 6th / 7th. Century is dated, so it took place before the cultural and political heyday of the classical Maya in the 8th century. Probably the decline of the central Mexican metropolis can explain the weak phase in the history of Tikal , but not the collapse of the Maya in the 9th century.
  • The ecological explanatory models concentrate on the relationship between humans and the environment. During the late classical period this ratio seems to have deteriorated markedly. A rapidly growing population contrasted with a limited arable land, some of which was of poor quality, which - despite irrigation - was apparently mainly cultivated in the traditional and area-intensive Milpa system. Based on these observations, orator Fuller Cook formulated his hypothesis of soil impoverishment in 1921. The assumption that climatic fluctuations and especially droughts were responsible for the demise of high culture was given a boost by the evidence of reduced precipitation in Venezuela in the 9th and 10th centuries under the direction of geologist Gerald Haug in 2003. Computer simulations by NASA researcher Benjamin Cook have shown that the droughts were aggravated by the heavy clearing, so one can probably speak of a local climate fluctuation influenced by humans . The scientists Martín Medina-Elizalde from the Yucatán Center for Scientific Research in Mexico and Eelco Rohling from the University of Southampton in England confirmed this thesis in February 2012. As they wrote in the science magazine Science , when they compared the amounts of precipitation between the year 800 and the year 950, they found that it fell by up to 40 percent, which they believe caused devastating droughts.

Post-Classical (approx. 900–1697)

Political division of the Yucatán around 1500

Common to the post-classic era is an influence from northern Mesoamerica that pervades all areas of life . However, essential cultural elements of the classical period were preserved. Although the divine kingdom that determined the Classical period ended, it was still the nobility at the top of society that determined the fate of the Maya. The script was in constant use, as was the calendar , even if the long count was no longer used. Most of the venerated gods were also known from the classical period. Two independent centers of Mayan culture developed on the Yucatán and in the highlands, between which there were only few cultural interactions, but which nevertheless developed very similarly. Correspondingly, the end of the post-classic period must also be determined in a differentiated manner. While the highlands were already subjugated in the 1520s, the Spaniards were not able to actually establish their rule in the Yucatán until the 1540s. In Peten , the Mayan culture of the post-classical period did not come to an abrupt end until 1697.

After the collapse of the classic Mayan culture in the lowlands, the centers in the north of the Yucatán continued to exist for some time. So had Uxmal its cultural bloom only in the 9th and 10th centuries, than about Copan and Palenque had already left. Uxmal also seems to have been abandoned in the 12th century. By the 13th century at the latest, Toltec influences can be found in the architecture , ceramics , culture and religion of the Yucatán . According to the Chilam Balam , Chichén Itzá , which was previously the dominant power of the Yucatán , would have been abandoned again in 1221 and a dominance of the Cocom begins , who founded their residence Ich Paa and dominated large parts of the Yucatán. (See also the so-called League of Mayapán .) It was only broken in 1441 by an uprising led by the Xiu, who are associated with Uxmal, which actually lay on their subsequent territory. The conflict between the Xiu and Cocom as the leading families in the Yucatán remained, the Spaniards took advantage of this. In the same period of time, classic centers such as Cobá , Ek Balam or Izamal were repopulated. In Xuch, Puuc region, about 15 km southwest of Uxmal, monumental architecture was continuously built from the Classical period until the 16th century. Also Dzibilchaltún and Lamanai have been inhabited continuously from the classical to the early colonial period. In any case, after the fall of Chichén Itzás or, at the latest, the Mayapans, around 16 independent principalities emerged on the Yucatán, which existed until the time of the Conquest . Urban and cultural centers of the post-classical period, with several thousand inhabitants, were primarily the residences or capitals of the individual principalities. In the Yucatán, Kaan Peec , Champoton ( Chanputun ), Maní , Motul , Sotuta, Tihosuco, Tecoh and Ch'aak Temal should be mentioned in particular . In the Principality of Ecab on the west coast alone , there were numerous places such as El Rey , El Meco , Polé , Xel Há , Zama or Muyil , all of which had stone architecture, some of them monumental. San Gervasio on Cozumel and Tiho were also supraregional religious centers of the gods Ix Chel and Itzamná . Uxmal, and even more so Chichén Itzá, were still visited for ritual acts. The Ko'woj Maya and the Itzá left the Yucatán in the course of the above-mentioned upheavals in the post-classical period and moved to Peten to establish new centers with Topoxté and Tayasal , the latter of which was also to last the longest for the entire Mayan culture.

In Chiapas, in the highlands of what was later to become Guatemala and in El Salvador, the development of post-classical Mayan culture was comparable. For example, Casa Blanca , Tazumal and San Andrés were only given up around 1200, but the former continued to be visited as a place of worship. A cultural influence from northern Mesoamerica was also noticeable here. For example, double temples were built based on the Templo Mayor model . The Mam chose Zaculeu as their capital around 1250 . In the highlands the rise of the K'iche began with its capital Q'umarkaj , which steadily increased their area of ​​influence, mainly through military expansion, until they were stopped by their neighbors and former allies the Cakchiquel at the end of the 15th century . The latter kidnapped the Tohil idol in their capital Iximché , as a result of which the K'iche stopped their campaigns at least against the Cakchiquel, but still tried to dominate the highlands. After the Mexica had conquered Xoconochco in 1486 , the K'iche were also asked to pay tribute in 1510. Only then did a certain calm return to the region. However, here too the bitter hostility between the K'iche and the Cakchiquel persisted until the time of the Spanish conquest (conquest) of Yucatán and finally catalyzed the fall of the Maya culture there as early as the 1520s.

Spanish Conquista and Colonial Era (1520-1821)

Malinche and Hernán Cortés.
Old Mexican illuminated manuscript of the Tlaxcalteks from the 16th century (Lienzo de Tlaxcala).

In 1511 13 Spanish shipwrecked people landed on the Yucatán, where 16 independent principalities existed at that time . When the conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in Yucatán in 1519, only two of them were still alive. One of the survivors, Gerónimo de Aguilar , moved on to Mexico with Cortés and helped him as a translator. The other survivor, Gonzalo Guerrero , wanted to continue living with the Maya and later fought with them against the Spanish.

In 1527 a veteran of Cortés' troops, Francisco de Montejo , moved with 400 men to the Yucatán to subdue it. At first he even got support from the indigenous people, but when they realized his intentions, they fought him. Illnesses and malnutrition also bothered the invaders, and in some cases they plundered fields of the Maya as a result. Finally, Francisco de Montejo ceded command to one of his subordinates, Alonso Dávila, who was also a veteran of Cortés' troops. However, he could not defend himself against the Maya and escaped to Honduras with the last survivors. In the meantime his son, who was also called Francisco de Montejo, tried to conquer the Yucatán from the west. In 1532 he devised the plan to build a city deep in centralalyucatán, which he also implemented with the city of Ciudad Real. However, the neighboring Maya drew a siege ring around the city and the 200 Spaniards had to flee due to lack of food. The expedition received news of Francisco Pizarro's conquest of Tawantinsuyu and the great gold finds there, and despite the threat of severe punishment, many men deserted to Peru.

Now the Spaniards proceeded more diplomatically, the province of Maní was peacefully brought under Spanish rule, the ruling Xiu even made auxiliary troops available, presumably to take revenge on the Kokom , who had been at war with them for a long time. The plan of the Spaniards was now to build three cities in the Yucatán, which they also succeeded in 1544 with the establishment of Mérida, Valladolid and Salamanca de Bacalar. It was decided that the country should be administered from Mexico.

Finally attempts were made to Christianize the Maya, among others by the monk Diego de Landa . Diego de Landa achieved fame when he cracked down on the Maya who refused to convert to the Christian faith and instead wanted to stick to their religious rituals. This culminated in a judgment held on July 12, 1562, in which de Landa, due to his religious zeal, had everything written in Maya and the religious figures and symbols of the Maya burned in front of the Franciscan monastery in Maní , which resulted in us Today only parts of four Maya Codices have survived and still give a little insight into the Maya past. In his work Relación de las cosas de Yucatán , de Landa describes the events of Mani. He was later charged with this in Spain, but acquitted on all counts in 1569 and even appointed Bishop of Yucatán in 1571.

At the end of the conquest, the Spaniards were only nominally rulers of the Maya area, but in reality entire areas were depopulated due to wars and, above all, epidemics. The former ruling princely families and leading families of the Maya remained in leading positions of administration, not infrequently at least until the 18th century. The Cupul-Maya , who started an uprising against the Spaniards in 1546, even called themselves the "invincible Cupul" because they were never defeated militarily.

19th and 20th centuries

Approximate sphere of influence of the temporarily independent Maya around 1870

From 1847 the descendants of the Maya rebelled against the authority of the Mexican state in the so-called caste war and built their capital, Chan Santa Cruz , around the Temple of the Speaking Cross , built in 1850 , which was not conquered by the Mexican army until 1901.


Today around 6.1 million Maya live in Mexico (in Yucatán , Chiapas and Tabasco ) as well as in Belize , Guatemala , Honduras and El Salvador , with the Pocomam and Chortí , who originally lived in El Savador, in theirs in the 20th century independent culture and language were exterminated as a result of violent state repression. However, due to the Guatemalan civil war , around 12,000 Kekchí have settled in El Salvador. An even smaller group of Kekchí lives in Honduras, like around 4,000 Chortí, mainly in the Copán area . In Guatemala, around 40 percent (around 5 million people) of the total population belong to the Maya, in Belize it is around ten percent, which makes up around 35,000 people, including Lacandons , Kekchí and Mopan . In Mexico, the Mayathan (about 800,000 members), Tzeltal (about 470,000 members) and Tzotzil (about 430,000 members) are among the larger Mayan peoples.

Even today, most of the Maya still make a living from growing corn. Today's Mayan religion is a mixture of Christianity and ancient Mayan customs. Each Mayan community has its own religious and secular leaders. Offerings of chickens, spices or candles are common. The individual Mayan groups identify themselves through special elements of their traditional clothing, in which they differ from other Mayan groups and whose ornamentation has partly magical symbolic function (see article: Chamula ).

The Lacandon Maya are known in Chiapas as a very traditional group . The German writer B. Traven writes in a travelogue from 1928 that most of the Lacandons were undressed. Today only a few of them wear the white cotton clothes that can also be seen on old pictures. And even until recently Christianity had only found its way into them very superficially. However, through tourism and the mission of evangelical groups, Lacandon society is also in the process of changing a lot; despite the adherence to various traditions, technical and economic progress is increasingly finding its way into these Maya. More and more of them are now wearing modern clothes, have electricity, radios or television; and in the Maya villages there are already one or two cars. Lacandons have developed a particular preference for wristwatches. They wear as many of these as possible on their forearms and are always sought-after items for exchange. Some Maya now also live from tourism, as more and more visitors want to get to know the world of the Maya and the ancient buildings.

The Maya villages in the Mexican state of Chiapas , which are controlled by the Zapatistas and have gained extensive autonomy in recent years, are in a special situation . Mainly Maya from the Tzotzil tribe live there . The capital of this tribe is Chamula .


God-king cities in the rainforest

What is striking about the ruins of the Maya culture is the predominance of religious buildings. Their ethnic religion and their functionaries (priests and others) seem to have played a prominent role in the life of the classical Maya. In classical times, the city-states were mostly ruled by kings who held the highest or at least a very important religious function. However, representations show that the rulers and rulers of Mayan society also submitted to the religious rituals .

Time and cosmos

Like other Mesoamerican peoples, the Maya believed in a cyclical character of time. The rituals and ceremonies were closely related to the astronomical and terrestrial cycles of nature. Recurring processes were systematically observed and recorded in various Mayan calendars . The task of the Maya priests was to interpret the cycles, which was done in particular by the fact that different cycles (calendar measurements) were numerically related to each other.

Research into Mayan mythology can rely on the interpretation of very few sources and is the subject of ongoing scientific debate. It seems certain, however, that the Maya imagined the cosmos to be divided into (at least) three levels, namely the underworld, earth and heaven.

Gods and sacrifices

Cenote in Chichén Itzá , in addition to numerous offerings, over fifty skeletons were recovered from the bottom of this

The Mayan religion was polytheistic , with the Mayan gods being presented analogously to humans as mortal, human or animal-like beings. As with the Aztecs and other Central American religions, sacrifices were not only used to weigh the gods, but also to keep the gods alive in a certain way . This makes it possible to understand the very common way of representation in Maya art, which shows us kings who carry a god as an infant in their arms. At the same time, the gods were presented as beings who could be ancient.

Despite the multitude of gods, the Mayan religion has a dualistic orientation: Above all, the "world parents" (as with most farmers) have an important meaning, which is formed from the old sun god and the young moon goddess. Life is seen as a (arduous) way from the east (dual symbols: moonrise, life, color red) to the west (sunset, death, color black).

As with other cultures in Central America , the (red, life-sustaining) human blood also plays a special role in the Maya. High-ranking personalities won the blood by pulling thorny threads through their lips or tongues or by pricking the penis with sea urchin spines. Images from classical times also often combine the depicted blood sacrifice with the depiction of a so-called vision snake . Whether this is an indication that the blood loss led to religious inspiration is still unclear. From the Maya's point of view, blood was the seat of the soul and life force, but the soul itself was imagined as air or smoke ( breathing soul ). Therefore, the blood obtained was caught by paper strips, which were then burned.

In the Mayan religion, human sacrifice was quite common. The types of ritual executions ranged from heads, drowning (e.g. in cenotes ), hanging, stoning, poisoning, maiming to burying alive or slashing the stomach and tearing out the still beating heart. The latter can be verified indirectly (via cult objects, see Chak Mo'ol ) , especially for the post-classical period . Both prisoners of war and members of their own group, including those from the upper class, were sacrificed. The conditions of who was sacrificed when, how and where are still being researched. What is certain - and well documented by representations - is the killing of prisoners of war on a larger scale, perhaps from the upper class of the opposing state. It is still unclear whether the Maya, like the Aztecs, only waged wars to gain possible human sacrifices or whether the kings only wanted to demonstrate their power to humans and their piety to the gods by sacrificing their opponents . Although the Mayan culture was very belligerent, it is unlikely that the Maya even came close to the Aztecs in terms of human sacrifice. The earlier image, however, that the Maya, in contrast to the Aztecs, were characterized by peacefulness and only very rare sacrifices, has been put into perspective by more recent research results (especially since the writing was partially deciphered in 1973). The difference in the perception of the Aztecs and Maya has historical causes: When the Spanish arrived in Central America, they were still eyewitnesses of the Aztec religious practice, while the classical Maya culture had long since perished. In the post-classical cities in northern Yucatán, however, the culture had changed significantly. For example, it can be seen from the buildings of today's ruined cities from the time of the Spanish conquest that religion obviously no longer played the prominent role it did in the classical era.

Many of the outstanding cultural achievements of the Maya are closely related to their religion, including calendars, writing and construction.


Stylized Mayan hut on the roof of a palace building in Uxmal

Mayan huts

The starting point for the later development is the so-called Maya hut , a - to protect against penetrating water and animals living on the ground - mostly slightly elevated structure made of approx. 2 m long branches that were tied together with the help of thin twigs or plant fibers; this usually took place on three levels: below, in the middle and above. The approximately 3 m wide narrow sides of the 8 to 10 m long huts were rounded - so there was no gable . The roofs were covered with reeds or corn stalks . The huts had only one door and no windows. Inside, crossbars were used to stabilize the outer walls and to fasten baskets or towels with food, etc. The huts, which are still almost unchanged today, have been depicted in many ways on the outer walls of the later stone buildings.

Stone architecture

Dzibilchaltún , 'Temple of the 7 Puppets' (6th / 7th century)
Palenque , 'Temple of the Inscriptions' (7th century)
Uxmal , 'Governor's Palace' (8th / 9th century)
'Arch of Kabah ' (8th / 9th century)

Many Maya buildings have survived the collapse of their culture as ruins and are among the richest evidence of the pre-Columbian peoples of America. The remains visible today consist entirely of stone buildings; Buildings made of wood or clay have rotted away over the centuries due to the weather in Central America and have only been preserved as traces of foundations.

Two different basic types have survived from the Mayan buildings: the temple pyramids built in a vertical orientation and the palace complexes built in a predominantly horizontal orientation; Common to both types is the lack of gable fronts. In contrast to the pyramids of the Egyptians, the pyramids were only rarely used as tombs, but were mainly used as a base for sacrificial sites. As a rule, there was a temple on its top, where the sacrificial ceremonies were performed. The exact use of the so-called palaces, however, is less clear and not fully researched. It is not certain whether they served the city nobility or the religious caste as dwellings or the pyramids for ritual purposes. In addition to the palaces and pyramids, there were mixed forms of both types of buildings, other important structures include "triumphal arches", which sometimes marked the beginning (or end) of a processional street ( sacbé ), as well as the stone surrounds of the ball fields and the observatories .

The Maya invented a form of concrete and developed a shell structure by pouring and filling double walls of hewn stone. The main building materials used were tamped earth, the abundant natural stone and some form of stucco. The lime required for Maya concrete and stucco was burned in simple layer kilns. The Mayan architecture is characterized by the complete lack of round arches and real vaults . These were unknown to the Maya and the style of their architecture is thus very much characterized by horizontal, vertical and angled lines. The use of cantilever vaults showed that the interiors could not be spanned very far and thus remained relatively small and cramped - the same as their huts. Instead of less large rooms, the Maya often developed a sequence of numerous smaller rooms that led to so-called chamber palaces with an ornamental floor plan. Since the Maya used next to no windows and light only came in through the doorways, they did not develop any significant interior design. Their buildings were designed primarily to look outside, and the rooms, which were primarily used for liturgical purposes, were decorated with wall hangings, and traces of paintings were rarely found.

Another feature of Maya architecture is that older or too small buildings were usually not demolished, but enlarged and built over if necessary. Many temples and pyramids conceal their predecessors within the building mass. This gives today's science the opportunity to decipher the structural development of the Maya. Stylistically recurring forms are the mighty ornate eaves, which held the cantilever vaults with their own weight or the so-called cresteria (“ cockscombs ”) by the Spaniards , structures made of intricate stone ornaments to crown the roofs. In many places the facades of the buildings were decorated with masks and animal motifs. The Maya developed different architectural styles in different regions of the area they inhabited and also took on stylistic influences from neighboring peoples such as the Toltecs.

It is noteworthy that the Maya, like the other peoples of America (with the exception of the Incas , who used llamas to a small extent ), had no beasts of burden at their disposal, and that the wheel (although known in principle) was not used as a mechanical aid. The large amounts of building material were therefore moved solely by human power.

Political and social situation

The Maya were particularly involved in foreign policy. One of the reasons for this was that the individual city-states constantly rivaled each other and at the same time had to control the trade routes for the supply of long-distance goods. The political structures varied according to region, period, individual people and also according to city. In addition to hereditary kingships under the rule of an Ajaw (female rulers have also been handed down), there are oligarchic and aristocratic forms of rule. In the Quiché there were different noble families who performed different tasks in the state. In the post-classical period of Northern Yucatán there seemed to have been alliances of cities and collective aristocratic rule ( League of Mayapán ), which in some ways are reminiscent of the ancient trading republics of Greece. Democratic structures can also be observed at least on the lower social level: The tradition that still exists today of electing a new mayor, the “Mayan Mayor”, seems to have existed for a long time.


The Maya often waged wars among themselves . A number of historians even see it as one of the main factors behind the demise of classical Mayan culture. This thesis is, however, questionable (and probably also partly a legacy of a pacifist ideology ), since with the classical Maya the meaning of war and the cultural prosperity apparently went hand in hand for centuries. For example, even in classical Greek culture, the importance of war can hardly be overestimated. However, such a war tradition can have a devastating effect if the other conditions (climate, but also the emergence of an overpowering enemy) change. Under these circumstances, constant wars between in principle largely "equal" opponents can drastically accelerate the decline of all. In fact, there is a number of indications that there were more acts of war in the period of the decline of the classical centers.

War functions

The practice of war had many functions among the Maya. It served political, economic and religious purposes: a frequent goal was dynastic control over rival city-states, i.e. H. the war was fought to replace an enemy dynasty with dependent rulers. From a political point of view, the reputation that victorious rulers and participating nobles could win in war was also important . From an economic point of view, the control of long-distance trade and the "solicitation" of tributes were important; in addition, some inhabitants of defeated cities were probably enslaved. In religious terms, human sacrifices for religious ceremonies could be won through the war - but whether the latter was an actual war goal or rather a welcome effect of war has not yet been finally clarified. Remarkably, war was generally not waged in classical times to destroy an opposing city or to incorporate an opposing territory into one's own territory. Instead, a defeated city and its territory were made dependent on tributes and devoted and / or related rulers. Logically, there was also no formation of territorially determined larger kingdoms in classical times. Rather, powerful rulers contented themselves with the title of "upper king" and dependent kings who immortalized the note on their rulers' steles "King W of Y was appointed by King X of Z" . A decisive disadvantage of the Mayan rule system, which aimed at personal dependence, was of course that the ties between the cities were extremely fragile and so there were regular grounds for new wars.


The Mayan warriors used spear throwers ( "atlatl"), blowpipes and with Obsidian equipped blades give shock weapons such as maces, spears, axes and knives. Bow and arrow were also used. However, these do not seem to have played a major role in classical times, while images from the time of the Spanish conquest show numerous battles in which the bow and arrow are used by Mayan warriors (who, however, are entrenched here). While helmets seem to have been little used, the Maya used shields made of wood and animal skin and also made of woven mats.

Forms of warfare

One is dependent on speculation about the forms of waging war among the classical Maya. Spanish depictions from the time of the conquest show us mostly simply dressed fighters in white cotton costumes and with the typical round shield, while older depictions from the classical period such as the wall paintings by Bonampak also depict extremely elaborately costumed warriors. The elaborate war costume - probably reserved for military leaders and specialists and provided that it not only served to depict victory after the fight, but was also used, as was the case with the later Aztecs - is best illustrated by imagining traditional South American carnival costumes. The fact that it was certainly difficult to fight in such costume shows that the form and function of the fight among the Maya were in part apparently different than among comparable peoples (especially outside of Central America).

For the Maya it seems no soldiers ( "paid professional warriors") - so no standing army in the true sense - to have been probably been in war the nobility , and as a military leader with under their short term dug farmers. a. added. This recruiting process made it possible to put together very large combat units in times of low peasant workload. Since not a few victories over kings and entire cities have been recorded, the military mobilization must have been considerable from time to time. On the other hand, the defensive structures (systems of trenches and palisades ) of the city-states are nowhere near as developed as we know from other cultures. In the post-classic period, however, regular fortifications were also built. Especially in the southern highlands, which were exposed to the pressure of the Aztecs, settlements are now increasingly being built on mountains and protected by massive stone buildings.

Apparently war was not waged in formation, but apparently (how far the Spanish traditions also apply to the classical period remains to be questioned) without any apparent tactics, to kill each other. This fighting principle is based on speed, if you wanted to survive alone, you had to be faster and stronger than your opponent. At the end of every war, which apparently almost always resulted in losses for the enemy, the heads of the dead, vanquished, were impaled as trophies. Raid-like wars also seem to have been fought in the classical era. First the enemy king was kidnapped and sacrificed in order to then attack the completely confused inhabitants of his empire.

Mayan explorers

Maya huts near Cobá

Some well-known Mayan researchers are:

Known Maya


Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House (1921) is one of the earliest examples of the Mayan Revival style.


In the United States, architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and his son Lloyd Wright helped popularize a Mayan Revival style in the 1920s and 1930s . The architectural style, which was based on Art Deco , was characterized by, among other things, opulent ornamentation.

Entertainment films (without any claim to authenticity or documentation)

Pop Culture

In the video game "Shadow of the Tomb Raider" (September 2018) from the Tomb Raider series, adventure hero Lara Croft follows in the footsteps of indigenous South American peoples and has to save the world from a Mayan apocalypse. Lara goes through her darkest hours and finally follows her destiny as a "Tomb Raider".

See also


Web links

Commons : Maya  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Lamanai Archaeological Project site ( Memento of the original from February 28, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. Offer (English) to students of archeology (2001) @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  2. Takeshi Inomata et al. a .: Monumental architecture at Aguada Fénix and the rise of Maya civilization, Nature, June 3, 2020, online
  3. Researchers discover the oldest and largest monumental complex of the Maya , Spiegel Online, June 3, 2020
  4. Nikolai Grube (ed.): Maya, Gottkönige im Regenwald. Könemann, Cologne 2000, ISBN 3-8290-1564-X .
  5. Jacey Fortin: Lasers Reveal a Maya Civilization So Dense It Blew Experts' Minds . In: The New York Times . February 3, 2018, ISSN  0362-4331 ( [accessed April 4, 2019]).
  6. Nikolai Grube: Maya, god kings in the rainforest. Könemann, Cologne 2000, p. 103.
  7. Simon Martin, Nikolai Grube: Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya . Thames & Hudson, London 2000, p. 40.
  8. OF Cook: Milpa agriculture, a primitive tropical system. In: Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution = Annual report, 1919. Washington, DC, 1921, pp. 307-326.
  9. Gerald Haug et al .: Climate and the Collapse of Maya Civilization , in: Science 299, 2003, pp. 1731-1735. doi: 10.1126 / science.1080444
  10. NASA: Ancient Dry Spells Offer Clues About the Future of Drought Article on the Maya Pre-Columbian Collapse , with video and graphics, December 8, 2011, accessed on September 21, 2013
  11. Why the Mayan Culture Perished , Focus, February 24, 2012.
  12. Cortés, Hernán: The Conquest of Mexico. Three reports to Emperor Charles V p. 38
  13. ^
  14. ^ B. Traven : Land of Spring , Gutenberg Book Guild, Berlin 1928.
  15. See the title of the book by Nikolai Grube: Maya, Gottkönige im Regenwald
  16. ^ Franz Tichy : Codices and their meaning for astrological ideas and astronomical knowledge of the Mexica and Maya . In: Carmen Arellano Hoffmann, Peer Schmidt : The books of the Maya, Mixtec and Aztec. Script and its function in pre-Hispanic and colonial codices . Vervuert, Frankfurt am Main 1999, ISBN 3-89354-094-6 , pp. 307-342.
  17. Miriam Schultze: Traditional Religions in North America. In: Harenberg Lexicon of Religions. Harenberg, Dortmund 2002, ISBN 3-611-01060-X . P. 901.
  18. ^ Henri Stierlin: Maya , p. 94 f.
  19. ^ A b Henri Stierlin: Maya , p. 100
  20. ^ A b Henri Stierlin: Maya , p. 96
  21. ^ Henri Stierlin: Maya , p. 133
  22. ^ Henri Stierlin: Maya , p. 174
  23. ^ Henri Stierlin: Maya , p. 59
  24. See on both statements Simon Martin: Under a deadly star. War with the classical Maya . In: Grube 2000, pp. 175–185, here p. 185
  25. Architecture Spotlight: Art Deco's Mayan Revival. Retrieved June 22, 2020 .
  26. Shadow of the Tomb Raider Pre-E3 2018 Preview: Paititi Paradise. Retrieved August 9, 2018 .
  27. Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Rescue from the Mayan Apocalypse. Retrieved August 9, 2018 .
  28. 5 Things You Must Know About Shadow of the Tomb Raider . In: The German-language PlayStation Blog . April 30, 2018 ( [accessed August 9, 2018]).