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The Maya—Yesterday and Today

The Maya—Yesterday and Today

 The Maya—Yesterday and Today


IT IS said that they were one of the greatest civilizations of the Western Hemisphere. And no wonder, for these ancient inhabitants of Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico were the producers of exceptional architecture, painting, pottery, and sculpture! They developed an advanced form of writing and made great strides in the field of mathematics. They even perfected a calendar based on the solar year. Who were these people? The Maya—builders of one of the richest and most brilliant of early American civilizations.

Much of what we know about the Maya is learned from stone inscriptions and reliefs. Using a writing system containing more than 800 characters, many of which were hieroglyphic, the Maya recorded their history and customs on stairways, lintels, and stone slabs or pillars. They also wrote on paper made from the inner bark of wild fig trees. By folding the sheets, they formed books (called codices), which they then covered with jaguar skin. Most of these volumes were destroyed when the Spaniards conquered the Maya about 1540 C.E., but a few still exist.

 The first Maya farmers may have settled in the lowlands of northern Guatemala about a thousand years before Christ. But Maya civilization was at its height between 250 C.E. and 900 C.E.—commonly called the Classic Period. Let us briefly consider what has been learned about the ancient Maya.

Master Architects and Builders

The Maya were masters of stone carving, and they made great pyramids and temples out of mortar and limestone. These pyramids bear a striking resemblance to the pyramids of Egypt, and in the past this led some to conclude—erroneously—that the Maya were actually descendants of the Egyptians.

Ruins of stone-built Maya cities have been found in Guatemala and Honduras and at Yucatán, in southern Mexico. At its height the Maya empire had more than 40 such cities, each with between 5,000 and 50,000 residents. According to The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “the peak Mayan population may have reached 2,000,000 people, most of whom were settled in the lowlands of what is now Guatemala.”

The building of these cities with their magnificent stone structures would have been impossible were it not for the painstaking efforts of the Maya corn farmers. In addition to raising food for their families, these hardworking men were expected to contribute their labors to construction work. In addition, they had to raise food for the nobles and priests, who, it was reasoned, had more important work to attend to.

Maya Family Life

Maya families were close-knit. Indeed, grandparents, parents, and children often lived under the same roof. Most of the  farm work was performed by the men and the older boys. Girls learned to cook, make clothes, and raise their younger siblings.

Maya farmers grew avocados, chili peppers, and sweet potatoes. But the principal food of the Maya was corn. The women and girls prepared it in a variety of ways. There was the flat cake, or what we know today as the tortilla. Even the alcoholic drink called balche had corn as one of its principal ingredients. It is estimated that today about 75 percent of Maya food contains corn in some form, and the proportion may have been even higher in past times.

A Multitude of Gods and Goddesses

Religion played a prominent role in the life of the Maya. They worshiped a multitude of deities, 160 of them being mentioned in one document. To name just a few, there was a creator god, a corn god, a rain god, and a sun-god. Women made pilgrimages to the temple of the goddess Ixchel on the island of Cozumel to pray for fertility or, if they were already pregnant, to plead for a successful birth.

 To the Maya, each day had religious importance, and each month on the Maya calendar had its own festival. Special ceremonies were also held in connection with the burial of the dead. After being painted red, corpses along with some of their personal belongings were wrapped in straw mats. Then they were buried under the floor of the house in which they had lived. It was somewhat different for the rulers, for they were laid to rest in the pyramids, underneath the temples. Their servants were killed and then buried with them, along with various utensils that the Maya believed would be useful in the next life.

As part of their religious observance, the Maya sometimes pierced the earlobes or the lower extremities. They even pierced the tongue. Scenes depicted in sculpture and murals and on pottery clearly show that sacrifice was also a part of Maya worship. “They frequently practiced it upon a variety of animals,” writes Dr. Max Shein in his book The Precolumbian Child, “but the supreme sacrifice was that of human life. The victims of these rites were enemy soldiers and slaves, but also free-born children of both sexes.” Some historians have said that young girls were once offered as brides to the rain god by being thrown alive into a sacred pool at Chichén Itzá. If a girl survived until sundown, this was interpreted to mean that the rain god was content with the bride that had previously been offered. Hence, the girl would be pulled out of the water.

The Maya Today

After 900 C.E., says The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “the classical Mayan civilization declined precipitously, leaving the great cities and ceremonial centres vacant and overgrown with jungle vegetation.” No one knows precisely what caused the demise of the Maya. Some say that the farmland was exhausted. Others suggest that food shortages drove peasants into destructive farming practices, while others fled to cities that were already overcrowded and impoverished. Whatever the cause, the Maya did not die out completely. Some two million are  alive today, principally in the northern part of Yucatán and in Guatemala.

The predominant religion of the modern-day Maya is nominally Catholic, and the church has made great efforts to win the favor of the native population. For example, an Associated Press report states that “in 1992—the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of Guatemala—the Guatemalan Catholic Church issued a public apology for abuses committed against the Indians during its evangelization of Guatemala.”

But the acceptance of Catholicism does not mean that the Maya have abandoned the religion of their ancestors. On the contrary, many Catholic priests accept the blending of church practices and teachings with native rituals. For example, the Maya have long subscribed to animism, the belief that objects—whether animate or inanimate—contain a life force. This concept has been accepted by the church, though veiled in a cloak of Catholicism, causing some church leaders to wonder how much paganism the church can tolerate and yet still call itself Christian. *

The Maya and Jehovah’s Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses are teaching the pure truths of the Bible in the lands where the Maya are prevalent. Many are responding favorably. Consider just two examples.

“I enjoyed honor and a certain prominence within the indigenous circle in which I grew up,” says Caridad, “although that did not keep me from living a wasteful life characterized by drinking sprees.” Like many of the Maya, Caridad practiced Catholicism combined with spiritism. “When I got sick,” he says, “I would go to a witch doctor.” Caridad’s daughters began studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Little by little, I became interested,” Caridad admits, “especially when I saw how the conduct of my daughters had changed. Soon I began studying too.” The result? “The truth has helped me to know and love Jehovah,” Caridad says. “I have abandoned all practices and customs that displease Jehovah, and I have been freed from fear and superstition.”

Paula, a Maya from Guatemala, was grieved over the death of her two sons. “I would always put up altars for them,” she relates. “I had a Bible that a Catholic nun gave me, and I read it for two hours each night to find the answer to my question, ‘Where are my dead sons?’” Soon Paula began studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she immediately began attending their meetings. “They explained God’s Word to me clearly,” she states. “I am glad to know that God’s Kingdom will take away sickness and death. I always think about the resurrection hope.” (John 5:28, 29) Now Paula shares the good news of God’s Kingdom with others. “There are many who still need help,” she says.


^ par. 20 It is common to see the Maya cross themselves in Catholic fashion after walking miles to visit the shrine of San Simón, a wooden idol whose origin is unclear.

[Box/Picture on page 17]

The Maya Calendar

The Maya developed an accurate yearly calendar system that even took into consideration the leap year.

The Maya year consisted of 365 days. Of these, 364 days were divided into 28 weeks, each having 13 days. The new year began on the 365th day, on July 16. What about months? The Maya calendar, pictured above, had 18, and each of these was made up of 20 days. Thus, weeks and months ran independently of one another—that is, with one exception. Once every 260 days (the multiple of 13 and 20), the week and the month began on the same day. According to one reference work, “the Mayan calendar, although highly complex, was the most accurate known to man until the introduction of the Gregorian calendar.”—Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia.

[Graph/Picture on page 16, 17]

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Maya Chronology


1000 B.C.E.

500 B.C.E.




B.C.E | C.E.

500 C.E.




1000 C.E.



1500 C.E.


[Credit Line]

Mayan art: Dover Publications, Inc.

[Map on page 16, 17]

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[Credit Line]

Map: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.

[Picture on page 16]

Remains of a 75-foot-high temple pyramid in the ancient Maya city of Palenque

[Picture on page 16]

Making tortillas

[Pictures on page 18]

Chichén Itzá

Kukulcán temple

Guarding the entrance to the Temple of the Warriors, a figure holds a sacrificial vessel, possibly used to receive human hearts

[Picture on page 19]

Caridad with his wife and daughters