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What were The Maya? - An Introduction for Keystage 2

Updated: Aug 21, 2023


The Maya (also sometimes referred to as "Mayans") was an ancient civilisation based in "Mesoamerica". They were well known for their large cities, step pyramids, early advancements in mathematics, astronomy, and the accuracy of their calendar.


The earliest Maya settlements date back to 1800BC - that's nearly 4000 years ago! But Maya culture was at its height during their golden years in the "Classical Period" between 200AD and 900AD.

Map of Maya cities in Mesoamerica


The Maya civilisation was based in a place called "Mesoamerica". This was a large area made up of Mexico and parts of Central America.

The Maya set up many cities in this area, some of which, like Chichen Itza, still survive in ruins today. Historians estimate that the largest of these cities, Tikal, had anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 residents.

These cities were all designed in a similar pattern and were often built as maps of the sky. Most Maya cities had a palace for the king or queen, various large step pyramids and temples, and a marketplace.

Although similar, Maya cities weren't part of a unified empire - each was ruled by its own king or queen and often went to war against each other. Despite this, all of the Maya cities had similar beliefs and traditions.

Maya Glyphs from the museum at Palenque, Mexico

Did You Know?

The Maya created a writing system using symbols or "Glyphs" (similar to that used by the Ancient Egyptians). There were more than 700 symbols in the Maya alphabet. They wrote on large stone slabs called Steles (a bit like the Rosetta Stone) and in books they made from the bark of trees.

El Casillo, a step pyramid in the city of Chichen Itza, is 30 metres tall and still stands today. At the spring and autumn equinox every year, the sun's rays create shadows on the pyramid that look like a serpent slithering down the stone steps.

Maya Games Court courtesy of samuel-alexander

The Maya studied mathematics and astronomy. From their studies, they created a complex calendar system that was used by most civilisations in Mesoamerica at the time. Their calendar is the most accurate in the ancient world.

The Maya played one of the earliest forms of competitive sport. They had special courts to play a popular ball game where players had to keep the ball off the ground using their hips elbows and knees, but not their hands or feet.

Most of Maya life revolved around religion. They believed that they could please their gods through human sacrifice! They would sometimes offer the lives of prisoners captured through war or even harm or kill themselves to satisfy their gods.


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