How much do you know about the Maya civilisation in Guatemala?

Maya civilisation in Guatemala - Jürg Widmer Probst

Guatemala was the centre of the Mayan Empire, which reached its peak of influence and power in the 6th century AD. Just 300 years later, most of the huge Maya cities were abandoned.

We know plenty about the height of the civilisation, thanks to artefacts discovered over relatively recent times. Mayan civilisations left architecture, art and pottery and evidence for their sophistication in maths and calendar making and much more.

6 facts you don’t know about the Maya civilisation in Guatemala

  1. Chocolate has been enjoyed by Mayans for centuries

Loving chocolate is a common modern trope, but it might surprise you to know that the Mayans got there first. They were enjoying a form of chocolate more than 2,600 years ago.

The Olmecs were the first to process cacao approximately 3,500 years ago but it wasn’t much longer before the Maya civilisation got in on the act. There is plenty of archaeological evidence to show Mayans in Guatemala were doing it too. And it was the Guatemalan Mayans who turned chocolate into an art.

Archaeologists have dug up ceramic vessels in Guatemala dating back to 600 BCE. They are impregnated with chemical evidence that they once contained cacao. Of course, it wasn’t the same as Cadbury’s or any of the chocolate we love today. In fact, it was quite different.

Mayans mixed their cacao with honey, water, cornmeal and chili peppers to make a foamy, spicy hot chocolatey drink. Art and hieroglyphs from the time show that cacao appeared to be instrumental to celebrations and rituals too. For example, in the Dresden Codex we can see a clear image of K’aqil, the god of sustenance, holding a beaker filled with cacao beans.

  1. An architect worked out how to read Mayan writing

You may suppose an archaeologist discovered the code to Mayan writing, but it was actually an architect. Tatiana Proskoyriakoff was an American architect who was born in Siberia. She started a part time job at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia after failing to find one in her sector.

And in the 1930s she went to Guatemala with the museum’s curator to visit the Maya site at Piedras Negras. Although she had no training as an archaeologist, she became an expert in Maya history and antiquity. In 1960 she published a paper titled ‘Historical Implication of a Pattern of Dates at Piedras Negras, Guatemala.”. This paper was a vital breakthrough in deciphering and translating Mayan glyphs.

She was the first person in the world to work out that the upended frog glyph from the Mayan alphabet means birth. After working out that the toothache glyph corresponds to the date the king ascended the throne, she had effectively discovered a way to identify birth and death announcement. This has allowed scholars to identify and understand Mayan rulers.

  1. Guatemalan Mayans wrote a lot of books

The Maya people wrote elaborate and sophisticated books on long strips of paper. They made the paper from the bark of fig trees. Today, however, just three Maya codices survive, called the Dresden Codex, the Madrid Codex and the Paris Codex.

It’s thought that the majority of Mayan books were destroyed by the invaders from Europe. There is evidence directly from the source. Diego de Landa was a friar from Spain who travelled to the Yucatan around 1540. He wrote: “We found a large number of books in their letters… we burned them all, which… caused them sorrow.”

  1. They were into beauty regimes to enhance their appearance

Make up and nice clothes didn’t cut it for the Maya civilisation. They went much further to alter their appearances. During childhood, both men and women had their heads bound to force their skulls into an elongated shape. It’s likely that this signified differences in social statuses.

They also frequently drilled holes into their teeth so that they could inlay them with jewellery made from jade, pyrite, turquoise and hematite.

  1. Mayan people loved extreme sports

Everywhere across the Mayan region, people played a game called pitz. We know this from archaeological evidence of ballcourts. The game involved passing a heavy ball to each other without touching it with their hands. They wore protection on their ribs, knees and arms as they fought to score a goal through a high stone hoop. It all sounds like fun until you realise that pitz was a ritual. And, as such, it’s likely that the losers were sacrificed, according to some evidence.

  1. What caused the fall of the Maya civilisation?

Scholars and historians still debate on the issue of the Mayan civilisation’s decline. Its peak was during the Classic Maya period between 300BCE and 600 BCE. By the 9th century AD it all went wrong. Cities that appeared to have housed up to 70,000 people simply vanished as they were suddenly abandoned.

There are many theories as to this mass evacuation, ranging from overpopulation, a war between city states and drought to mass migration to the coast. The civilisation may have been hugely depleted, but it never died out. Their descedenats live to this day in Guatemala and other regions of Central America. In Guatemala itself, the Maya are still the dominant ethnic group in the country.