Social Hierarchy

Each Maya city had its own ruler, who was usually male. Maya records and carvings show that women occasionally governed on their own or in the name of young sons. Nobles served many functions in support of the ruler. Some were military leaders, while some collected taxes and enforced laws. Others managed public works, similar to the way the Olmec used collective labor for monument and temple building. Scribes, painters, and sculptors were also very highly respected. Merchants may have formed a middle class in society, though the wealthiest and most powerful merchants were certainly nobles, as they had been in the Olmec civilization.

The majority of the Maya were farmers. They grew maize, beans, and squash—the basic food crops of Mesomerica—as well as fruit trees, cotton, and brilliant tropical flowers. To support the cities, farmers paid taxes on food and worked on construction projects. Some cities also included a population of slaves, who generally were commoners who had been captured in war.

Photo of an ancient temple in a tropical setting, with a staggered pyramid design and a temple situated at the top. Central stairs connect the ground to the upper temple.

Maya temples were built in the shape of pyramids using hand-cut limestone blocks. The interior usually consisted of a few narrow rooms, indicating that they were intended for ceremonial purposes rather than for the public.

Maya Cultural Life

The cultural life of the Maya included impressive advances in learning and the arts. In addition, the Maya developed a complex polytheistic religion, perhaps inherited from the Olmec, that influenced their cultural life as well as their spiritual beliefs. Many Maya today maintain elements of the traditional religion established by the ancient Maya, such as the belief that each person's spirit is associated with a particular animal.

A Legacy in Stone

The cities of the Maya are known today for their towering temples and palaces built from stone. Temples rested on pyramid-shaped platforms, reflective of the Olmecs' first pyramid, that were often quite large. Atop the temples, priests performed rites and sacrifices, while the people watched from the plazas below. Some temples also served as burial places for rulers, nobles, and priests. Palaces may have been used as royal residences as well as locations for meetings, courts, and other governmental activities. The multi-use aspect of royal residences is reminiscent of the Olmec ceremonial centers.

Photo of an ancient mask with painted eyes, attached ears and open mouth. A crown of green stone is included.

Maya artifacts reflect their lifestyle and culture. Maya rulers and other nobles commissioned art such as this carved ceremonial mask.

The Maya placed elaborately carved sculpture on many of their buildings. They also sculpted tall stone monuments, as did the Olmec, each of which is called a stela (STEE luh). These carvings preserve striking images of nobles, warriors in plumed headdresses, and powerful rulers.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments