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The Maya was a fascinating ancient civilisation with a rich culture and heritage. Check out these fascinating Maya facts to help you learn all about the Mayan civilisation.
In the early 16th centuries, Spanish explorers - including Hernán Cortés - led missions to the Yucatan pennisula of North America. Here, these explorers (who became known as the conquistadors) found the indigenous peoples of the Aztec and Maya civilisations.
In 1519, Cortes landed in modern-day Mexico. He claimed the land for the Spanish crown and began to colonise the land, taking advantage of the fact that the Maya and Aztec civilisations were made up of several competing kingdoms. Some kingdoms were conquered quickly or made early alliances with the Spanish and others resisted the Spanish conquest for almost two centuries.
So, who were the Maya and why are they so significant?
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.
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 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.
Teachers: Check out our Mayan City States lesson if you're looking for more in-depth teaching materials about Mayan society.
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.
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 where 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.
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.
If you enjoyed reading this blog, have a look at some of our other fact blogs.
Teachers: If you're looking for more resources to teach the Maya to your class, check out our collection of Maya downloadable PDFs, including an in-depth KS2 cross-curricular Maya Topic with lesson plans, slideshows and printable resources.
Traditional Tales English Pack
Would have given 5 stars except for Americanised spelling of ‘sombre’ in the wordsearch.
Hi Ann, thank you for taking the time to leave us a review, and bringing our attention to the mistake. The word search (which is a FreeBee, and not in this Sample English lessons pack) has now been updated - please check your email as we have sent you a copy!
Brilliant site, loads of useful stuff of every sort and topic.
We're so pleased that you think our resources will be helpful to you, Lisa!
It never came
Hi Kate, all of our products are digital downloads. You can access them as soon as you have purchased them by checking your 'My Downloads' area when you are logged in to PlanBee. I hope this helps, and if you have any more questions or we can help you further, please do not hesitate to contact us at email@example.com.
Useful resource to laminate and distribute amongst the table groups as we are learning how to use these in our explanation text writing.
We're so pleased to hear that this resource was useful to you, Jane! Thank you for taking the time to leave us a review :-)