Common Misconceptions About the Maya Civilization

Chichen Itza's Pyramid of Kukulcan in Yucatán, Mexico.
Chichen Itza's Pyramid of Kukulcan in Yucatán, Mexico. / orestegaspari/iStock via Getty Images

The idea that the Mayan Empire suddenly disappeared sometime after explorers arrived in the New World may have been dramatic enough to inspire a high-octane Hollywood imagining of the events. But it—and Mel Gibson’s 2006 movie Apocalypto—isn’t exactly accurate.

And as Mental Floss host Justin Dodd explains on this episode of Misconceptions, neither is the idea of the Mayan Empire itself. For one thing, the correct term is Maya, not Mayan (unless you’re talking about languages; linguists refer to the 30 or so languages spoken by the Maya as “Mayan languages”). Furthermore, the word empire connotes a vast network of peoples ruled over by a single person or governing body—and the various indigenous groups now considered “the Maya” never truly had that.

So what was the Maya Civilization really like, what really happened to it, and what was all that business about the world ending on December 21, 2012? Answers to those questions and more below.

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