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Maya Facts for KS2 Children and Teachers

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 to help you learn all about the Mayan civilisation. 

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The Spanish Conquistadors

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? 

Maya Facts for KS2 - Mayan Temples of Gran Plaza
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.

Maya Facts for KS2 - Mesoamerica map
The Maya lived in Mesoamerica

 


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

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.

Maya Facts for KS2 - Mayan King and Court 
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.

 

Maya Facts for KS2 - Mayan Homes
A traditional Mayan house

 

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.

Maya Facts for KS2 - Mayan Food
Traditional foods eaten by the Maya

 


Mayan Gods

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.

Maya Facts for KS2 - Mayan Gods
A statue of a Mayan god

 

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

Mayan Writing

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.

Maya Facts for KS2 - Mayan Writing
Examples of Mayan glyphs carved in stone

 


Mayan Maths

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.

Maya Facts for KS2 - Mayan Numbers
Examples of Mayan numbers

 

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

Between 200 and 900 AD, the Maya civilisation was at its peak. Cities in the south began to collapse during the ninth and tenth centuries but some cities in the north continued to flourish for many centuries after that. By the 16th century, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, most cities were abandoned and some had already been swallowed up by surrounding jungle. However, the last Mayan city, Nojpetén, did not fall to the Spanish until the end of the 17th century in 1697 AD.
No one knows exactly why the great Mayan cities fell into decline and historians working in the field do not agree. Here are some of the theories:
  • Drought and crop failure leading to food shortages
  • Warfare between rival tribes intensified
  • Declining trade meant cities could not sustain their populations
  • An increase in diseases meant a declining population
  • A natural disaster killed everyone
What do you think is the most likely reason or reasons for the decline of the Maya civilisation?
Despite the fall of great cities, the Mayan civilisation didn’t end completely. Instead, the Maya favoured smaller village settlements among the rainforests and mountains of Mesoamerica. These people kept the Mayan culture and traditions; the Maya still live in the region today.
Maya Facts for KS2 - Mayan GamesModern Maya men performing a ritual before a ball game

Historical Sources

For many years, historians studying the Maya were limited to artefacts and environmental evidence uncovered in archaeological digs or sources written by European conquistadors. However, now that language experts have decoded the Mayan language, many other historical sources created by the indigenous Maya themselves have been unlocked for historians. 
These include the glyphs on ancient stelae (stone monuments with inscriptions - much like the ogham-inscripted stones of the Picts and Scots). It also includes four books called codices which were written on paper made from the bark of fig trees. The most well known codex which dates probably to between the 12th and 14th centuries, is called the Dresden codex. However, the oldest surviving codex is the Maya codex which dates to the 11th or 12th century.
Stelae depicting a King in warrior dress (600-900 AD)
Once they were decoded, it became clear that these glyphs and codices were not just a form of artistic expression. In fact, they tell us about the political structures of the societies - about the births, marriages and deaths of kings and queens, about conquests and trade. 
The codices also provide information about astronomy, astrology, religious ceremonies and rituals and how these linked to agriculture. These sources largely tell us about the political and religious elites - kings, queens and priests. However, they do also give us some insight into what clothing people wore and how they used everyday objects. It is true to say that, having better understanding of these indigenous records, has still moved on our collective understanding about the Maya civilisation considerably.
It is known that many codices were burned by the Spanish as they were drove the population to convert to Christianity. Some fragments of codices have been found in burial sites but are too far degraded to be readable. 
Maya codices historical sources ks2 written source primary source
The Dresden Codex (12th-14th century)

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.

 

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