Who Are the Maya?

Long before Europeans thought to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, Mayan people conquered the rugged highlands of Guatemala, the dense jungles of the Yucatan, and the tropical lowlands of the Pacific coast. Here, Mayan people built vast cities, cities that rivaled those in Europe in terms of size and complexity. These cities were governed by a ruling elite and were supported by an elaborate system of taxation. The Mayans were incredibly successful at exploiting their environment through slash-and-burn agriculture. The surplus that farmers produced went to support huge governmental and religious centers like Tikal, Chichén Itzá, and Palenque. For various reasons, many of these large Mayan cities fell out of use, even before Europeans arrived to conquer the "New World."

Classic Mayan architecture in the Yucatan
peninsula of Mexico
(Photograph by Michelle Stokely)


But this governmental decline, as well as the changes that occurred with the arrival of the Spanish, did not
prevent Mayan people throughout the area from continuing many of their cultural traditions. Mayan farmers
continued to grow their crops of corns, beans, squash, and chilies, the basis of the Mayan economy.
Fishermen on Lake Atitlán fished, potters made pots, weavers wove cloth, and painters painted. Mayan
priests continued to divine the future and practice their rituals. Mayan children still grew up speaking their
native language. Of course, the Spanish Conquest did bring many changes to Mayan life, but the Mayan
people, even in the face of political domination, have an incredible knack for persistence.


From Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan highlands to the Lacandon rainforest and to the
tropical Yucatan peninsula, the
Mayan territory is vast and
very diverse. Take a tour of the Mayan homeland.

The Mayan langauges are
incredibly varied and often differentiate social and political divisions. Discover more
about the linguistic diversity
of the Mayan people by exploring the Mayan languages section.

Mayan history was recorded for thousands of years through a hieroglyphic writing system, colonial texts written in Spanish
and Mayan,and oral traditions.
Take a brief look at
Mayan history
.