5 fascinating facts about Mayan culture

Jürg Widmer Probst Mayan Culture

I’ve always been fascinated by Guatemala’s history, and often blog about the complex and rich background of the Mayan people. There are millions of people today who are still part of Mayan culture. They still speak Mayan languages, eat traditional Mayan foods and keep the culture alive in the 21st century.

Any first-time visitor to Guatemala may be surprised at how prevalent the Mayan culture still is. It’s a living part of everyday life for people in the country and continues to influence just about everything.

5 facts you may not know about the Mayan culture

  1. The Mayan civilisation at its peak was enormous

When the Conquistadors hit the shores of Central and South America in the 16th century, there were millions of Mayan people. They lived in vast, complex and sophisticated cities, some comprising more than 100,000 civilians.

At that time the Mayan civilisation spread over modern-day Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. What we call the Mayan civilisation today comprised a number of relatively small, independent city states. It was comparable to the ancient Greeks, with each having their own King who ruled the city and its surrounds.

The reason we group them all into a ‘civilisation’ is due to the shared commonalities of their culture. Mayan city states were made up of every level of society across many groups, from craftspeople to farmers and nobility to the bureaucrats. All of the groups were closely linked by language and cultural traditions.

  1. There are a number of different Mayan languages

Ancient Maya people spoke very similar languages, and while they were all part of the same linguistic family, they weren’t all the same. In fact, there’s nothing to suggest they could all understand each other. As the Mayan civilisation was spread over such as vast area, languages tended to develop independently.

We can still see this today. There are 31 different languages spoken by the six million people who identify as Mayans currently. And while the languages do sound similar and have some of the same characteristics, this doesn’t mean every group can understand each other.

  1. You can see the Mayan influence in Guatemalan art today

Visitors to Guatemala will see echoes of Mayan culture pretty much everywhere. Modern art in Guatemala today is still heavily influenced by Maya people and its ancient culture.

Carlos Mérida is one of the most famous artists from 20th century Guatemala. His works, often in the form of huge murals, fuse European and Mayan themes. Look out for some of his public work if you visit Guatemala City. The textile weaving craft that you will often come across in Guatemala is also heavily influenced by Mayan tradition.

  1. The Mayan religion is still alive in Guatemala

Religion is a major part of daily life in Guatemala, and it forms one of the most visually spectacular and vivid representations of Mayan culture. The dominant religion in Guatemala is Catholicism, thanks to colonialism. Many Maya people were forcibly converted at the time of the conquistadors.

Despite this, much of the Mayan ancient religion still survives. Often people will follow a fusion of the two, as they have a surprising amount in common. The Catholicism practised by modern day Mayans is a mix of ancient traditions.

Of course, some things have changed. Human sacrifice is thought to have been a key part of Mayan religion and, thankfully, that’s been left behind.

  1. Mayans today still face challenges to their culture

As you can see, Mayan people across South and Central America still have a major influence on the region. In fact, 51% of Guatemalans are descended from the Mayan culture. And while it is still alive and kicking, there are many challenges facing the longevity of the Maya people.

For example, communities in the Guatemalan region of Petén are under constant pressure to give up the rainforest for farmland. And while tourism is one of the biggest sources of income (in non-pandemic times, of course) massive numbers of people visiting the region causes other kinds of problems.

Maya people today are in a constant battle to retain their cultural identity in the face of an ever-encroaching modern world. The Mayan culture has survived this long primarily because its people have adapted and transformed with every new ear. And Guatemala in 2020 is an intriguing, fascinating and wonderful place precisely because of the Mayan influences.