The Mayans

The Mayans


The Mayan were a Mesoamerican civilization that is known for developing written languages, arts and architecture, arithmetic and mathematics and did astronomical studies. They Mayans spread throughout the present day Mexican states such as Chiapas, Tabasco, and in YucatanPeninsula. They also extended to Central American region such as Guatemala and Belize, as presently known. They are best known for their classical civilization in the Mesoamerica period that developed astronomy and calendar systems hieroglyphic writing (Lost Civilizations, N.d.). The Mayans are also highly regarded for their elaborate highly decorated architectural designs of their ceremonial structures such as temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories. They were also known for their agricultural skills, which included clearing tropical rain forests, and building reservoirs for water storage. They were also skilled in weaving and pottery, and engaged in long distances to trade their items with other communities (Lost Civilizations, N.d.).

In current times, the Mayans “are regarded as the inventors of many aspects of Mesoamerican cultures including the first calendar and hieroglyphic writing in the Western hemisphere,” (Lost Civilizations, N.d.). During the classic period, 300-900 AD, major artistic and cultural developments were achieved. It is during this time that the Mayans built an intricate hierarchical social structure that were divided into classes and professions, developed centralized governments headed by a king, and they ruled several territories with clearly marked boundaries (Lost Civilizations, N.d.). At this time, they built more cities such as Tikal, Palenque and Yanxchil. They made much science discoveries such as using zero in mathematics, and their writing was the first in America that expressed all types of thoughts (Lost Civilizations, N.d.). Monumental public works: Architecture

The Mayan architecture dated many years back as its formal settlement started. It was impressive in terms of the structure sizes and design, as well as external decoration, which highlighted its artistic skills. They built their big structures such as temples on top of pyramids, platforms or acropolises. Their public buildings were decorated with sculptures and big stylized masks. However, their interior was not as elaborate as the exterior; it did not have much decoration, and looked bare (Maya and Aztec 2011). Their cities were not built on formal designs as today, but rather, they were built on topographical places where high places were used for observatories and temple, where they carved the limestone to have high pyramids. Despite the lack of a formal plan, the buildings had a common characteristic design, where they all had an open courtyard, terraced pyramids, palaces, shrines, sweat baths and ball courts (Maya and Aztec, 2011).

Most of their structures were built using lime as the primary material, where most of the buildings were constructed on carved rock. The pyramids, some of which were raised platforms with staircases, and a temple at the top, were meant for worship, where people climbed and worship took place here as well as sacrifices. Others were not to be climbed and were considered holy and sacred. Since the pyramids were tall enough to be seen from far in the forest, they were used as landmarks. Some of them served as burial sites for the high ranked people such as the priests. The palaces were built at the center of the cities; they were large and were resided by class of the elites. They were highly decorated, of one story and had small areas and one courtyard in the interior. An acropolis was the name used to refer to any large royal building with several chambers. The cities also had ceremonial platforms that were built of limestone, with a height of about 4 meters, and had alters on them, where ceremonies would be held (Maya and Aztec, 2011).

Mayan architecture ranged from small domestic huts, to large houses, to big intricately designed temples. Their basic structure was the hay huts that majority of the Mayans lived I in, and their walls were made of mud or stone, and then covered with wooden poles. They used limestone, which was easily available, and could be calved into different shapes using harder stone tools since they did not have metallic tools at the time. The difference was only the materials but the roof, which was dome shaped and the style was the same.

Irrigation Systems

As the Mayans population grew after they settled, they needed more food to sustain the population. They came up with techniques that were necessary for food production in the tropical rain forest. Since the topography was sloppy, they built terraces, which were narrow stretches of flattened ground on the sloppy sides. They used embankments of stones on the sides to prevent the soil from being washed away by rain. In the low lands, they built high raised lands and allowed the water from the mountainside to drain into the canals without flooding the area, and farming was easily practiced. The water was controlled, and the deposits from the mountain that were brought in by the water were spread on the high raised ground to create a fertile soil that supported farming. This ensured that corn, bean and melons grew well and sustained the population. These drainage systems were also used as irrigation systems since they could direct the water to where it was required and they controlled the amount that was retained and used.

This was a clear knowledge of irrigation schemes from the Mayans, and considering it was during the early stages of civilization.

Extensive Roads

The Mayans made roads that enabled access to their raised fields of agriculture, and in the cities, they made roads out of the lime, which were well carved as one entered the cities. Since they engaged in long distances, and more so, they had settled from nomadic life, they needed established roads that connected their cities to the rural settlement and to other communities for trade. This was very important for a city that was involved in trading its items and getting others from other communities.


The Mayans, at their time were able to develop a system of counting that represented very large numbers with the use of only three symbols, which are a dot, a bar, and a shell to represent zero. The Mayans incorporated place value in their counting to be able to write large numbers. The dot represented one, and when they are two, they would represent two, but when they are five, they are put down as a bar, to represent five. Two bars would represent ten. It a dot is put on top of two bars, it represented eleven. This is a bit similar to the statistic mathematics we use today in tallying, where after four vertical bars; you cross with a horizontal one to indicate five.

One difference of the Mayan arithmetic is that their numbers had a base of 20 rather than 10, as in the current numbers. A base of ten will mean that the number before the other will have a value of ten times the number that comes after it. A base of 20 in the Mayan numbers meant that the number that was before had a 20 times value more than the number before it. According to Sean (2010), “That means that every digit in their “tens” place would really be worth 20 each, and each digit in their “hundreds” place would really be worth 400, etc.” For instance, in the ones place value, a dot was one, in the second place value, it would be 20, in the third place value, it would be 400, and in the fourth, it would be 8000.

The numbers were written vertically, for instance, 19 would be written using three horizontal bars with each below the other, to represent 15, and 4 dots on top, to represent four, hence completing it to 19. 20 was written in a different way, where the shell, which represented zero was written below a dot, hence the dot would be considered to be 20 times more than the number below it. While writing 21, one would use two dots with one on top of the other dot. It is important to note that their numbers could include huge values such as 8,421, where one would write four dots below each other, where the bottom most will mean one, the second will mean 20, the third will represent 400, and the last will represent 8000. all the values that we currently use, from 0 to 9, which represent all values, in the Mayan arithmetic, the three symbols, the dot, the zero, and the bar can include all values just the same as the current one, the only difference occurring in the base (Dave, 2009).


The Mayans were also keen astronauts who wee interested in the Zenial Passages. According to Lost Civilization (N.d.), “Their primary interests, in contrast to “western” astronomers, were Zenial Passages when the Sun crossed over the Maya latitudes. On an annual basis the sun travels to its summer solstice point or the latitude of 23-1/3 degrees north.” Considering that, their cities were located on the southern side of this latitude, observing the sun as it passed on this latitude was easy. The sun passed over the latitude twice a year, and it had a specific time, which enabled the Mayans to notice this dates, since at noontime, they would cast no shadows (Public Citizen, N.d.).

According to Local Citizen (N.d.), the Mayans believed that, “…the Earth was flat with four corners. Each corner represented a cardinal direction. Each direction had a color: east red, north white, west black, south yellow. Green was the center.” According to them, at each corner was a jaguar, each with a different color, which supported the sky, and they were called bacabs and each held up the sky (Public Citizen, N.d.). They also believed that the world had thirteen sections each with a god of its own. It is also important to note that the number thirteen was considered special and sacred since it represented the number of gods of the Maya.

The Mayans referred to the Milk Way as the world tree represented by a tall and majestic flowering, the Ceiba. In addition, they called it the Wakah Chan, with Wak meaning six or erect, and Chan meaning four, serpent or sky. It was considered erect when the Sagittarius was over the horizon as this time the Milk Way was regarded as the tree of life (Public Citizen, N.d.). The Mayans gave special attention to the center of the galaxy, where the tree meets the ecliptic, and Kawak monster with a giant forehead with a kin was the major element of the tree. When the Milk Way dominated the sky during the winter, the Mayans called this the “white boned serpent” the ecliptic crosses the  Milk Way again near the constellation of Gemini which is the approximate location of sun during Summer Solstice (Public Citizen, N.d.). The ecliptic was portrayed as a double-headed serpent in the Mayan art.

The Mayans, like other civilizations in the pre-Colombia history, had a profound knowledge of the sky, and it was recorded by the priests who passed them to the other generations. Their astronomical observations resulted to a calendar that was quite accurate in predicting the eclipses that would come, and revolutions of Venus with an error of just a day, in 6000 years (Public Citizen, N.d.). The calendar is divided into sections of 3 million years long in total, with one section being 20 years, the other one is 400 years, 8000, and 158,000 years. In addition, there were subunits for that marked the death and rebirth of the sun and fire. “… Incorporated mathematically contrived Long Count dates and ‘Distance’ numbers into their codices and inscriptions, using these and other techniques, the Maya developed mathematical frameworks through which astronomical and calendrical cycles could be viewed as interconnected parts of a grand astronomical order” (Authentic Maya, 2005). The Mayans used their arithmetic in making their calendar and to put specific predictions which were quite accurate.

One illustration of these facts was the Mayan ball game, which was played using hips legs and the head to pass the ball across the line or through a hoop. The ball game had different symbols brought together, to illustrate a certain meaning. According to the archeologists, the ball was used to symbolize sun, and the game indicated the orbit around the sun. The sun was looked upon as a god to be worshiped, and by playing the game, they were worshiping the sun god. The game could have illustrated the changing of season, and rituals in the Mayan society served as timekeeper for regulating the agricultural tasks. The ball courts and other buildings acted as religious and observatories (Public Citizen, N.d.).


Just as their knowledge for astronomy and other sciences such as arithmetic, the Mayans had a good geometric knowledge that was incorporated in their daily activities, especially in their construction of buildings. Majority of their buildings were trimmed four faced rectangular prisms, cylinders that indicate that these buildings were well planned before constructions since there are measurements that apply to the buildings such as the diagonal length of the rectangular buildings. To fix the roof in the shape they did, which was dome shaped, they needed to know the measurement required to meet all sides equally as their buildings looked. This was proof of knowledge for geometry, which is more of a natural math, where certain rules apply. considering that geometry is about shapes and measurements, it can be said that from the ruins of the Mayans, where buildings with different shapes were found, and at the same time different shapes of those buildings being repeated, it is a sure sign that  they knew about geometry, and their construction work was planned before it  was done (Hoffman, 2005).


The different shapes such as the pyramids, needed to have definite measurements that would ensure that the top met as uniformly as shown in their buildings. If one side of a pyramid were longer, the shape would not be a pyramid since it would not meet at the top as expected to make it a pyramid. The rectangular shapes needed two sides of it two be equal and the other two to be equal to make a rectangle shape. The ball court was made in a shape that resembled a capital I, which means that measurements to make it so were needed.

The Mayans can be considered a very innovative civilization that brought several civilizations that have relevance even in the current times. It is evident that Mayans were very intellect people who were much skilled and civilized at their time. From their cities, some of which are still standing to date, it is clear that they had knowledge of architecture and arts, as well as pottery and agriculture. They were among the first people in Mesoamerica to domesticate plants, and practice formal farming that incorporated irrigation schemes, and building terraces and raised fields without sophisticated technology as today.

From their astronomy, it is clear that they were great observers and could predict astronomical events accurately such as the eclipses, and the revolution of Venus, which they just missed by a day. Their arithmetic was very sophisticated but it managed to allow representation of huge values of numbers, and used zero in their numbers, which helped in calculations such as addition. This was an evidence of their scholarly prowess possessed in them. They also used geometry in their construction, which proves that again, they were well aware of measurement and shapes (Hoffman, 2005). The Mayans can be considered as one of the pioneers of civilization in American history since some of the civilizations that took place are still practice today, such as irrigation, astronomy, geometry and some of their architectural designs. They are known for their massive contribution in civilization during the classic and pre-classic period.



Authentic Maya. (2005). Maya Astronomy. Retrieved from

Dave. (2009). Mayan Civilization Math. Retrieved from

Foster, L. (2002). Handbook to life in the ancient Maya world. New York, NY: InfoBase Publishing.

Hoffman, M. (2005). The History of the Maya: Using Computational Skills in Problem Solving.New York, NY: Rosen Classroom.

Lost Civilization. (N.d.) Mayan Astronomy. Maya. Retrieved from

Lost Civilization. (N.d.) Mayan history. Maya. Retrieved from

Maya and Aztec. (2011). Mayan Architecture. Retrieved from

Sean. (2010). Arithmetic. Retrieved from

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