14 Things You Didn't Know About the Mayans

Photo: Dmitry Saparov/Shutterstock.

With the Mayan calendar firmly grabbing the imaginations of all who fixate on apocalypse scenarios, the Mesoamerican civilization is getting much attention these days. One can almost picture some first millennium Mayan PR executive plotting the abrupt calendar ending to ensure lasting fame for the ancient culture. And while all of the excitement has led many to newfound knowledge of the “Long Count” calendar and some of the mystical elements of the culture, much about the Maya still remains a mystery to many. With that in mind, we’ve created a crash course in Maya. With such a fascinating culture it would be a shame to remember them just for a purported prophesy that failed to pan out.

1. They've Been Around for Ages

The Maya culture was initially established some time around 2000 BC, with the classic Maya period spanning from A.D. 250 to 900, and the peak of power and influence occurring in the sixth century A.D.

2. Maya Culture Still Exists

There are more than 7 million Mayans still living in Mayan areas. Many have been able to maintain significant amounts of their ancient cultural heritage.

3. They Were Expansive

Maya civilization wasn’t an official empire, but rather a collection of “city-states” extending from modern-day Mexico through Guatemala, northern Belize and portions of Honduras and El Salvador. Classic Maya civilization grew to some 40 cities, with a population that may have reached 2 million.

4. They Developed an Early Writing System

The Maya Empire is noted for having the only known written language in Mesoamerica, dating back to sometime around 300 B.C. The calligraphic style and pictorial complexity of Maya glyphs are like no other writing system, with 800 distinct hieroglyphs.

5. Franciscan Missionaries Were Awful to Them

Much of what we know about the Maya comes from pages of bark-paper books called codices. In the mid-16th century, missionaries led by a Spanish Franciscan monk named Diego de Landa burned at least 40 Maya codices and 20,000 Maya religious images, leaving only four codices remaining. De Landa later wrote, "We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction."

6. They Were Astute Astronomers

One of the four remaining texts, the Dresden Codex dating to the Late Post Classic period (1250-1520) includes astronomical tables on Venus and Mars, eclipses, seasons, tidal movements and planetary motion. They also had advanced math concepts, including the use of the zero.

7. They Practiced Body Modification

High-status Mayan mothers attempted to induce strabismus (crossed eyes) by hanging balls in front of babies’ noses, in honor of Kinich Ahau, the cross-eyed sun god. They would also strap boards to the foreheads of noble infants to encourage flattening, as an enduring sign of high status. The permanent teeth of adolescent warriors were filed to sharp points to add to a ferocious appearance. And high-status women often had their teeth filed in different patterns with gems and stones embedded into drilled holes.

8. Mayans Were Hot for Cocoa

Astronomy and math were great and all, but the Maya people also were the first to develop cocoa for consumption. Using roasted cocoa they made a cold, spicy chocolate drink. Europeans brought cocoa back home where it was developed into chocolate and hot cocoa. Cacao was a sacred gift of the gods, and cacao beans were used as currency. Cocoa even had its own god: Ek Chuah, the Maya god of merchants and trade, was also the patron of the cacao crop.

9. Tamales Were Really Important

The Maya creation myth told that people were made from masa (corn dough), which to this day remains an essential element of the indigenous Maya diet in the form of tamales. In fact, tamales are even depicted in ancient Maya glyphs and excavated artifacts.

10. They Dabbled in Intoxicants

The Maya people commonly used hallucinogenic drugs in their religious rituals and as painkillers. Peyote, morning glory seeds, toxic mushrooms, tobacco, and fermented plants and honey for alcohol were all employed. They also had a novel way of consuming the drugs; enemas were used for their quick and effective absorption.

11. They Buttered up the Gods With Human Sacrifice

Ritualistic offerings included blood, which was obtained through pierced tongues, earlobes, genitals or other body parts. Animals (mostly jaguars) and humans were sacrificed as well. Human victims often included children and high-ranking enemy warriors who were thrown into cenotes, water-filled sinkholes that were thought to provide passage to the underworld.

12. They Played Ball

Excavations of Maya sites have unearthed grand plazas, palaces, temples and their famous pyramids, as well as courts for playing ball games that appear to have been similar to racquetball.

13. By 900 A.D., Maya Civilization Had Basically Collapsed

The classic Maya culture thrived periods of rain, and then collapsed as the weather turned to drought — which combined with overpopulation, overuse of the land, and endemic warfare caused the end of the Maya in the southern lowlands. In the highlands of the Yucatan, a few Maya cities continued to flourish until around 1500. But by the time of the Spanish invasion in the 16th century, most Maya were living in agricultural villages, with the great ancient cities having been consumed by the forests.

14. They Didn’t Actually Predict Doomsday

The Maya were very advanced calendar makers, with the most advanced of their calendars being the “Long Count” calendar. With a cycle of 5,126 years, it had a numerical foundation, almost like an ancient binary code. The calendar consists of 13 "Baktuns" (periods of 394 years). Dec 21, 2012 roughly marks the end of the 13th Baktun, leading to speculation by some that this means the end of the world.

But not to worry: According to the National Institute of Anthropological History in Mexico, of the 15,000 glyphic texts found in the ancient ruins of the Mayan empire, only two mention 2012. You’d think something as significant as the end of the world would get a bit more airplay than that. Not to mention that events after 2012 are referred to, which kind of puts a kink in the whole doomsday scenario.