Maya Facts for KS2 Children and Teachers
The Maya was a fascinating ancient civilisation with a rich culture and heritage. Check out these fascinating Maya facts:
The Spanish Conquistadors
In 1519, a group of Spanish explorers, led by a man called Hernan Cortès, sailed to Mexico. There they met a native people called the Aztecs. The Spanish explorers (who came to be known as conquistadors) fought to take over the land from the Aztecs.
When they succeeded two years later, they started exploring this new land. They travelled deep into the rainforests and one day found something that amazed them! They discovered whole abandoned cities with strange pyramids and other buildings in the middle of the rainforest.
150 years later, more Europeans and North Americans started exploring these ruins further. They found many more sites and started to understand more about the people who had lived there. These people were the Maya.
Mayan Temples of Gran Plaza, Tikal National Park, Guatemala
Who were the Maya?
The Maya were an ancient civilisation of people who lived in an area that used to be known as Mesoamerica. People had lived in the area from around 5000 BC but it wasn’t until around 300 BC that the first cities started to form. Before this people were hunter gatherers, or lived in small villages.
Where did the Maya live?
The Maya lived in an area of North America that was known as Mesoamerica but which is now the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. This area is often referred to as Central America today.
Mayan City States
Mayan society was organised into city states. Each city has its own king who had complete control over his subjects. City states would often trade with each other but would also go to war frequently to try and gain power, wealth and glory for their city state.
Mayan society was structured a bit like a pyramid. The higher up the pyramid you were, the more important you were:
1) King: The king was at the very top of the pyramid and was the most important person in the city state. Mayans believed that kings were chosen by the gods. This meant that a king’s orders and wished had to be obeyed.
2) Nobles and Priests: These were very important people who were educated. They were the scribes and astrologers of society. They lived in grand houses.
3) Palace Officials: These were also very important people. They were in charge of the day-to-day running of the city.
4) Craftsmen: Craftsmen included anyone who had a skilled job, such as a stonemason, tailor or woodcarver.
5) Farmers: Most ordinary people in Mayan society were farmers. They usually lived in small settlements and lived simple lives.
6) Labourers: Labourers did the hard manual labour that was needed to build temples and other buildings. Labourers were paid a very low wage.
7) Slaves: Slaves were at the very bottom of the social pyramid. They also had to do hard labour, and anything else they were told to do, but they didn’t get paid for their work. They were given food and shelter by their masters.
Mayan king and his nobles
Teachers: Check out our Mayan City States lesson if you're looking for more in-depth teaching materials about Mayan society.
What were Mayan houses like?
The most common houses had walls made of stone or mud. They had thatched roofs. Mayan houses were oval in shape and had just one room. Families would all live and sleep in one room. Extended family members would build their houses next to each other and would often share a kitchen garden to grow fruits and vegetables to eat.
Rich Maya lived in much more elaborate houses built of stone, often on raised platforms.
What did the Maya eat?
Maize was a staple part of the Mayan diet, along with beans, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, avocados, chillies, papaya, pineapple, limes and many other fruits and vegetables. They also ate fresh meat from the animals they kept or hunted, like fish or turkey.
The Maya believed in hundreds of different nature gods who ruled people’s lives and decisions, such as the gods of maize, the Sun and fire. The lives of the Maya revolved around religion; they had many special ceremonies and rituals to honour the gods and ask for blessings. Cities had special temples were people went to worship and offer the gods gifts.
As well as gifts, the Maya believed that they had to offer blood sacrifices to the gods. They believed that if they didn’t, the Sun wouldn’t rise and the world would end. Blood sacrifices could be given in many ways. Rulers, for example, would pull spiky ropes through their tongues to draw blood, or fingernails would be pulled from slaves or captives.
10 Mayan Gods:
- Itzamna is a creator god who was one of the creators of human beings
- Kinich Ahau is the sun god
- Ix Chel is the goddess of medicine and midwifery
- Chaac is the god of rain and storms
- Ah Bolon Tzacab is the god of farming who is also associated with royal power
- Buluc Chabtan is the god of war, violence and sudden death
- Hun Hunahpu is the god of maize
- Awilix was the goddess of night and the moon
- Bahlam is the jaguar god of the underworld
- Colel Cab is the goddess of bees
The Maya had a writing system made up of glyphs. Glyphs are signs that represent a word or sound. The Maya had more than 800 glyphs in their writing system! At first, historians didn’t think that the signs represented writing at all, or at least not a complete writing system. It wasn’t until the 1950s that it was proved to be a language. After that, people were able to start translating the writing the Maya left behind and learn more and more about their society and culture.
The Mayan number system involved using lines, dots and shells. A dot represented one, a line represented five and a shell represented zero. Any number could be made with the combination of these symbols.
Did you know…?
The Maya had a symbol for zero way before the Europeans did.
Teachers: If you're looking a lesson on Mayan writing and number systems, check our Mayan Writing lesson.
The decline of the Mayan civilisation
Historians learned a lot about the Maya from the records they left behind but around the year 900 AD, the records disappeared and the cities vanished from history. The Mayan city states were abandoned and weren’t discovered again until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the sixteenth century.
No one knows exactly why the great Mayan cities fell into decline. Here are some of the theories:
- Disease wiped everyone out
- There was a drought, causing crops to fail and food to run out
- The Maya were conquered by neighbouring tribes
- A great battle killed too many of the population for the civilisation to continue
- A natural disaster killed everyone
Which do you think is most likely?
Despite the fall of the great cities, the Mayan civilisation didn’t end completely. Small groups of Maya continued to live in the rainforests and volcanic mountains of Mesoamerica. These people kept the Mayan culture and traditions; the Maya still live in the region today.
Teachers: If you're looking for more in-depth resources to teach the Maya to your class, check out our KS2 cross-curricular Maya Topic with lesson plans, slideshows and printable resources.