10 Fascinating Facts About Ancient Mayan Civilization

Mayan main

Surprise! The world didn’t end today just because the Mayan calendar ended. The Ancient Maya may be best-known in modern times for their supposed prediction of the apocalypse, but in fact, they were a surprisingly advanced culture of millions, inhabiting Middle America (the region between Mexico and South America) for thousands of years. Here are 10 fascinating facts about Mayan civilization.

Invention of the Calendar/

Mayan calendar

(image vía: carlos van vegas)

The Mayan calendar isn’t just noteworthy for its spurious connection to doomsday theories. It was the first known incidence of humans attempting to keep a historical record, and counts the days since a mythological starting point. Mayan calendars were carved into stone monuments, and covered periods ranging from 13 days to the ‘Long Count’ calendar that expired on December 21st, 2012. These complex calendars showed off the Mayan’s impressive grasp of mathematics and astronomy.

Writing and Codexes

Mayan writing

(image via: wikimedia commons)

The Mayans developed a complex script that has now been almost completely deciphered. Mayan writing consists of glyphs in both syllabic (writing things out phonetically) and logogram (full words) form. One of the best examples of Mayan writing is the Dresden Codex, a pre-Columbian text that is the oldest known book written in the Americas.

Ritual Sacrifice

Mayan ritual sacrifice

(image via: national geographic)

Ritual sacrifice was an integral part of Mayan religion – with the victims being both animals and humans. Animal sacrifice and human blood-letting attended by a priest was a frequent practice at festivals and rituals, but human sacrifice was far less common. Ritualized sacrifice was sometimes as simple as piercing a soft body part like the ear, but people were also killed to appease the culture’s gods. The bodies of the sacrifices were often placed in sinkholes, which were seen as thresholds of communication with the spiritual world that lay under the surface of the earth.

Medical Practices

Mayan medicine

(image via: library of congress)

Mayan medicine men, who were viewed as middlemen between the physical and spiritual worlds, were quite skilled with suturing wounds with human hair, repairing fractures, making dental prostheses from jade and turquoise, and even filling cavities with iron pyrite. They also had extensive knowledge of medicinal plants, preparing herbal concoctions that were taken by mouth, applied to the skin or administered in the form of an enema.

Hallucinogenic Drugs

Mayan hallucinogen

(image via: british museum)

Mayan shamans took hallucinogenic concoctions to induce trance-like states during performances and rituals in which they attempted contact with the spirit world. Many of these substances were also used for pain relief.

Playing Ball

Mayan ball court

(image via: wikimedia commons)

The Ancient Mayans played a number of sports, and many of their ballcourts stills tanned all over Mexico and Central America. Many of the courts have slanted stone side-walls that enabled balls to bounce from one side to the other. But these racquetball-like games were more than just a fun pastime – major ball games were ritual events that often included human sacrifice. It would appear that losing wasn’t an option if you wanted to live; murals from the time depict the sacrifice of ballplayers.

Rubber Making

Mayan rubber making

(image via: national geographic)

So, what did the Mayans use for a ball? While there’s evidence that the skulls of sacrificed players were sometimes used, researchers have discovered that the Ancient Mayans knew how to make different grades of rubber long before Charles Goodyear, the tire giant, “stabilized” the material in the mid-19th century. Along with other Mesoamerican cultures, the Mayans made rubber from natural latex and mixed in other plant substances to create rubber products with different properties, including bouncy balls.

Mayan Mathematics

Mayan mathematics

(images via: ncsu)

The Mayan number system was own as “calendar script”, and worked in conjunction with numerology, ritual astronomy and the calendar system that the Mayans themselves developed. The system included symbols for numbers zero through twenty, with the Mayans credited as the first culture to “discover” zero. Mayans considered certain numbers to be ‘magic’, with the numbers 9 and 13 having particular importance.

Astronomical Knowledge

Mayan codex astronomy

(image via: wikimedia commons)

The bulk of the knowledge that the Mayans used to create their complex calendar system is right up there in the sky. The Mayan’s knowledge and understanding of time, astronomy and mathematics was fair more advanced than that of most other cultures at the time. Mayan priests recorded astronomical observations for centuries, noting the positioning of stars and planets with incredible precision.

Mysterious Collapse

Mayan collapse

(image via: wikimedia commons)

One thing many people don’t realize about the Mayans is that they still exist. There are still millions of Mayans living in their home regions, many of whom continue to honor their cultural traditions. But the reasons for the collapse of the ancient civilization of their ancestors remains a mystery. Why did such an advanced culture decline so dramatically? The largest and most advanced Mayan centers were abandoned by the 9th century, and nobody knows exactly why. Theories include foreign invasion, social turmoil, collapse of trade routes, epidemic diseases and droughts.