5 Misconceptions About the Maya Civilization

Tourists in front of the Maya's Temple of Kukulcan in Yucatán, Mexico.
Tourists in front of the Maya's Temple of Kukulcan in Yucatán, Mexico. / Wolfgang Kaehler/GettyImages

If you have a hard time telling your Maya from your Aztecs, are unsure of the fate of this once-thriving civilization, or just have questions about that whole end-of-the-world-prediction business, we're here to dispel some popular myths about the Maya civilization, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: The people are known as Mayans.

The word Mayan actually doesn’t exist in Spanish or in Mayan languages. That distinction—between a people and their language, or languages—is one place that this somewhat small misconception comes into play. The one field of study where Mayan is still widely used is in linguistics. In that field, Mayan refers to the family of around 30 languages used by the Maya.

Scholars today generally agree that the preferred nomenclature is Maya, not Mayan, even in adjectival form. So you’d refer to the Maya civilization, Maya culture, and the group of people known as the Maya (or in Spanish, usually, Los Maya).

2. Misconception: There was a Maya Empire.

The many Mayan languages include Yucatec, Quiche, Kekchi, and Mopan [PDF], and there was a time when the various groups in the Yucatan Peninsula were identified primarily by these individual languages, not by the more all-encompassing label Maya. (There is also one specific Mayan language called Maya, by the way.) The people we call the Maya today spanned thousands of miles of area and thousands of years of history.

In the second half of the 20th century, a movement arose recognizing some of the shared interests of these various indigenous groups. It’s been called the Maya Movement and the Pan-Maya Renaissance, amongst other names. So, yes, in some context, the Maya can be talked about as one group. But the diversity within that group indicates an important point: By most definitions, the Maya were never really an empire.

Many consider a necessary condition of empire-dom to be a ruling central power. That was true, to various degrees, of the Roman Empire, and it was true of the Aztec and Inca Empires (which, for the record, came into being more than a millennium after the Maya first hit the central American scene). But while the different city-states comprising the Maya often had meaningful commonalities, from their religious beliefs to their understanding of the cosmos, they never unified in the way that empires do. There were local kings who sometimes gained prominence and dominated nearby factions, but there was never a single emperor of the entire Maya civilization. And these interconnected city-states didn’t always get along.

3. Misconception: The Maya were either blood-thirsty monsters or completely peaceful.

Section from the Mayan Troano Codex, 15th century.
Section from the Mayan Troano Codex, 15th century. / Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

There was a time in the 1900s when the popular understanding of the Maya, perhaps in contrast to the Aztecs, was of a uniquely peaceful people. Yes, the Maya had engaged in forms of human sacrifice, but even this seemed in some ways less violent than other cultures: By organizing their warfare around capturing and sacrificing specific elite rivals, the Maya avoided total warfare and left most members of the civilization untouched by intercity-state conflict.

The fact that ancient Mayan writing could not be deciphered by modern sources until the past few decades may have helped this misconception persist. And there may well have been an element of truth to it. There is evidence of Maya leaders apparently bragging of being “he of the twenty captives,” or even “he of the three captives.” This has tempted some to conclude that the Maya were uniquely peaceful, with a society built entirely around agriculture and astronomy. 

But a full examination of the historical record complicates this bucolic image. Some Maya leaders evidently waged war for old-fashioned goals like territory and resources. And while academics once believed that large-scale, violent conflict amongst city-states arose only in the late Maya period, newer evidence casts doubt on that account. In 2019, a researcher from the University of California Berkeley, along with colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey, dated a layer of thick charcoal at the bottom of a lake in Northern Guatemala to between 690 and 700 CE, the classic Maya period. That geological evidence, combined with a written record of a “burning” campaign undertaken by a nearby rival city, suggests that a version of total warfare had been conducted in the area.

If the researchers’ analysis is correct, fighting amongst the Maya wasn’t just carried out in a quasi-ritualistic fashion. Measures were evidently taken to ensure that an entire population would be affected by the conflict—in this case, by the razing of an entire city with fire. It’s just one site, but other evidence is mounting to give us a more bellicose picture of the Maya, including mass burial sites and fortified cities. Professor David Webster was partially responsible for excavating some of those defensive fortifications and concludes “we can no longer regard them as paragons of political tranquility.” At the same time, Dr. Webster acknowledges that “the ordinary Maya person was assailed ... by war only on rare occasions, and … witnessed only a handful of human sacrifices (if any) during an entire lifetime.”  

About those human sacrifices. While they may be exaggerated in the popular imagination, they’re a real part of Maya history. There is evidence for infant sacrifices and religious practices involving decapitation, personal bloodletting, and the mutilation of captives.

We can understand that these acts came out of a completely different culture than our own while still acknowledging they were sometimes startlingly violent. But it’s worth putting this violence in some perspective: in the European Conquest of the New World, tens of millions of indigenous people were killed. Millions more died during World War I, but our picture of most of those combatants isn’t of a one-dimensional killing machine.

Alongside violence, ritualistic and otherwise, the Maya carved out a widespread civilization amongst the rather inhospitable rainforests of central America. Though there’s heavy regional and temporal variation between groups, in general, they grew maize as a staple crop alongside secondary crops like beans and squash, and they helped give the world corn and corn products like tortillas. They also grew cacao and enjoyed chocolate drinks derived from it.

The Maya incorporated the concept of the number zero, or a placeholder, more than a thousand years before it was introduced to modern Europe from the East. They also had an advanced system of hieroglyphics, but unfortunately the Spanish destroyed much of their written record, deeming it heretical. The surviving Mayan texts reveal careful observation of astronomy—tracking the appearance of stars and planets, and predicting celestial events like eclipses.

This focus on cycles of time, which was evidently tied into their religious practices, extended to the famous Maya calendar. Or, more accurately, calendars.

4. Misconception: The Maya predicted the world would end on December 21, 2012.

The potential apocalypse of 2012 was at the top of people's minds in the early 2010s. The hysteria caused a spike in the sale of bomb shelters in the U.S., and various cults sprang up around the world to seemingly get everyone on Earth ready for the end times. (We even got a blockbuster movie out of the whole thing.) And while the big day came and went without incident, these doomsayers can be forgiven for being a bit nervous. After all, the Maya calendar specifically said the world would end on December 21, 2012. Right?

First of all, the Maya actually had a number of calendars, including the 260-day Tzolk’in and the 365-day Haab. Those two could be mashed together to create an approximately 52-year Calendar Round. When people referenced “the Mayan calendar” ending in 2012, they were (perhaps unknowingly) referring to a different calendar system, the Long Count Calendar. This calendar splits time up into a number of units: kins, or individual days; uinals, which we might call months of 20 kins; and tuns, which are made of 18 uinals. Units of time continued to ascend all the way through the alautun, equivalent to more than 63 million years. (They weren’t kidding when they said Long Count.)

The Long Count calendar began with a creation date, usually calculated to be August 11, 3114 BCE. And it did indeed have a big cycle (called the 13th baktun) that was set to end sometime around late December 2012. It may not have been December 21, exactly, but even if it was, there was never any evidence that the Maya thought this would coincide with the end of the world. 

There are only a couple of known Mayan inscriptions that referred to this date at all, and the main reference is on a monument that had been damaged and is therefore not perfectly legible. Experts in Mayan languages believe it’s more likely looking to the future, not the apocalypse. At the end of the Baktun, the Maya probably would have just started a new cycle, as they had done before [PDF].

That’s not to say it wouldn’t have been seen as a significant day; the Maya surely would have placed some type of special importance on the end of the Baktun.

5. Misconception: The Maya disappeared.

Mayan lintel listing the nine generations of rulers at Yaxchilan, 450-550.
Mayan lintel listing the nine generations of rulers at Yaxchilan, 450-550. / Print Collector/GettyImages

By the time the Spanish made contact with the Maya in the early 1500s, the civilization’s peak (in terms of sheer scope) had long passed. Scholars debate the reasons for this. Given the disparate composition of the civilization—with city-states occupying different locations and presumably facing unique challenges—it seems safe to assume that there was not any one reason for a downturn in the region. Some areas may not have collapsed at all, while others were completely abandoned. Factors like drought, deforestation, and warfare likely all played a part in reducing the population by as much as 90 to 95 percent from its peak around 800 CE.  

So while we can't definitively say what reduced the Maya population so severely in the post-Classic Period, we can dispel one myth: The Maya never fully disappeared. There was, in fact, an independent Maya Kingdom that remained unconquered until 1697.

And while war with the Spanish and the introduction of “old-world” diseases like smallpox further devastated the region’s population, there are still around 7 million Maya today. Many of these people speak Mayan languages and preserve elements of their culture, from spiritual beliefs to traditional medicine. Some belong to groups who evaded “Christianization” by fleeing from the Spanish, while others intermixed with Europeans and speak Spanish alongside their indigenous language.

Descendants of the Maya civilization make up a significant percentage of the population in Guatemala [PDF] and in the Mexican state of Yucatan. So while the Maya civilization may be a part of history, the Maya people are very much of the present.