A Quick History of the Mayan Empire

(Last Updated On: April 3, 2019)

Although it’s usually the pyramids of Egypt that get all the attention, there are numerous pyramids of equal splendour in Central America thanks to the Mayans. But who were the Mayans of ancient times and what happened to the Mayan Empire?

The famous Mayan pyramid of Chichen Itza

Who were the Mayans?

The Mayans can lay claim to one of the most sophisticated societies in pre-Colombian times, and their cities included palaces, residences, temples, plazas and ball-courts. (It is believed that their ball-courts hosted team sports played with a rubber ball of sorts, and that the losing side was sacrificed after the game!) But it was their stepped pyramids, typically topped with a temple sanctuary, that remain one of the most distinctive features of Mayan cities. Along with a full 365-day solar calendar, an advanced knowledge of astronomy and a complex writing system, the Mayans had a vibrant, deeply spiritual, strict – sometimes brutal – society that thrived for some 2000 years.

Palenque Mayan Ruins 

What happened to their empire?

Suddenly, the Mayan civilisation appears to have been turned upside down at some point in the 9th Century. Theories abound as to why this may have been the case – but it’s likely that some combination of war, famine, disease and over-farming put an end to their prosperity. Building and monument-making stopped, and there is evidence of violence and destruction in many regions around this time. By the time the Spanish arrived in the Americas in the 15th century, the Mayans were unable to defend their lands from the invaders, their already abandoned cities left to the jungles, and the few texts that had survived were destroyed by the Spanish priests.

Teotihuacan Pyramid of the Moon. (Image courtesy of Olivier Bruchez)

What is left today?

However, the Mayans are not an extinct race. Today they continue to maintain distinctive languages and beliefs, elements of which can be traced back to pre-Colombian times. Deep in the jungles of Central America their pyramids can still be seen, ancient reminders of an age long past, rising majestically from the green of the forest.

Visit Central America and see the incredible Mayan ruins for yourself.

Leave a Reply