1500 BC to 1519 AD: The rise and fall of the Mayan city-state

Separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico in southeastern Mexico is the Yucatan Peninsula. The peninsula is comprised of such Mexican states as Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatan.

Within this region (specifically Quintana Roo) the city of Cancun is situated, along with the islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. Today, this is where many of Mexico's tourists go to take their vacation, but hundreds of years before the area was even discovered by Europeans, the Mayas called the Yucatan Peninsula their home.

Who They Were

The Maya people were a civilization in the pre-Columbia Meso-Americas known for their fully developed society. They had their own written language, mathematical, and astronomical systems, and their architecture and artwork are still studied to this day. It is important to note that the Maya were not organized under one common state, but smaller groupings with similar organization and common culture. In this city-state structure, a class system was in place, consisting of the ruling class, clergy, farmers, artisans, and slaves.

How They Lived

Much of what has been discovered about Mayan culture is centered on the ruling class, and very little remains that would give us insight as to how the Maya lived on a day-to-day basis. What we know of the ordinary Maya is learned from a collection of murals discovered in at the Calakmul Pyramid.


It appears that loincloths were the premier form of dress, sometimes woven or painted with patterns depending upon social status. Head scarves and jewelry was worn by both sexes, though women often painted their faces. Long, flat, backward sloping foreheads and crossed eyes were thought to be most attractive. To achieve this look, the heads of infants were bound with wood to flatten their forehead, and small objects were dangled in a particular spot in their lines of vision in order to permanently cross their eyes.

The murals also shed light on the fact that the Maya organized a market economy, trading amongst those in their settlements and from other areas as well. Foodstuffs, tobacco, and ceramics were market place staples. Agriculture was important as well, being the center of the Mayan economy. Maize, beans, squash, and cotton were commonly grown items.

What They Ate

The Maya diet consisted of a great variety of foods. Central to the Mayan diet was maize (or corn) because it could be used in so many different ways, and other staples included squash, beans, chillies, onions, and various fruits. Meat came from monkey, iguana, deer, foul, and sea life.


Mayas were polytheists, believing in dozens upon dozens of deities who they used to explain the workings of the world. They also believed in an afterlife in which everyone went to hell, except for women who died in childbirth, or people who has been sacrificed or hanged.

Mayan religion was very influenced by time. The Maya believed in the cylindric nature of time, and made careful record of celestial and terrestrial cycles. There were several calendars in use at one time, and priests were in charge of interpreting the calendars to determine the best time for religious rituals.

Religious rituals involved music, dance, prayer, and sacrifice. Mayas believed that the Gods must be nourished, and often offered food to their deities. When food was not enough, they practiced human sacrifice. This would often take the form of bloodletting, in which the people would willingly pierce a part of their body and give their blood to the Gods. Other times, human sacrifice was achieved by holding down a still-living person, making an incision in his lower chest, and having a priest rip his still beating heart from his body. The heart would then be burned.


The collapse of the Mayan “empire” in 900 A.D. was sudden and for reasons unknown. Scholars speculate that any number of reasons could have contributed to the demise of the Yucatan's Mayan cities: disease, drought, invasion, or harsh weather such as a hurricane or earthquake. Another well-liked theory is that because Mayan urban centers were centered on religious ritual, the sites we are familiar with today were abandoned as the culture's ideas about religion began to change. If this is the case, it gives light to why the Maya occupying the surrounding rainforests and farm lands saw little change to their every day lives outside of how they worshiped when the urban centers were abandoned. Several hundred years later, as the working class Maya moved on and joined with other cultural groups, the area now known as Cancun was used for little more than a burial site.

Much about the Mayan culture is still a mystery to us today. Though we have no idea why the Mayans abandoned their cities and integrated themselves into other societies of people, what we do know is this: by the time the Spanish arrived in the Yucatan in 1519, the Maya who once occupied the well-built urban centers of that area were already gone.


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