Map

Map of Mesoamerica

The Maya civilization was spread throughout Southern Mexico and Central America. What was once ancient Mesoamerica, is now modern day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and parts of El Salvador. In this article we will discuss the locations of the most famous Mayan pyramids.

Yucatan Peninsula (the Mayan Riviera)

Pyramids

Tulum

The area in Mexico known as the Yucatan Peninsula was once a major center for the Mayan civilization. The first Maya were here long before the Spanish came, beginning along side the Olmec, and Toltec civilization.

Overlooking the ocean cliffs, Tulum flourished in the post-classic period between the 13th and 15th century,  Tulum in Mayan means "wall", and was a major trading port for the Maya in this area.

 

How Old Mayan Pyramids Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

This is one of the most famous pyramids in the Yucatán Peninsula, Chichén Itzá. The name of the pyramid is technically Temple of Kukulkan, but has been popularly named "El Castillo".

Why is the pyramid so important?

The position of the pyramid is so precise that every equinox, the light from the sun creates a lighting effect on the pyramid. This effect creates the illusion of a serpent descending from the sky along the edge of the pyramid. The pyramid was literally a giant physical calendar for the Maya.

During the late Classic period, Chichen Itza was a key focal point in the Northern Maya Lowlands. The site features a variety of structures, pyramids to ball courts. Thirteen ball courts have been discovered by archaeologists.

 

 

Chiapas, Mexico

Palenque

Palenque

The Palenque ruins lie on the edge of the jungle of Guatemala in the state of Chiapas in the south-west of Mexico. These immense pyramids are some of the most important Mayan monuments in Mexico.

Palenque is the home to some of the most important discoveries in Mayan archaeology. King Pakal, who's tomb was found inside the great Temple of the Inscriptions, ruled Palenque in the 6th century. During his reign he commissioned a massive building campaign, which has been preserved so well compared to other sites. His son Kan Balam, continued the building frenzy with the famous cross group of temples.

Tonina - Chiapas, Mexico

West of Palenque resides the site of Tonina, who were famous enemies of Palenque. Famous for it's massive terraces, stucco sculptures, and war like reputation.

Tonina is a far trek from any major city in Chiapas, sitting close to 3000 ft. above sea level in the Chiapas highlands.

Tikal - Northern Lowlands of Guatemala

Tikal

Temple of the Jaguar at Tikal

In the northern lowlands of Guatemala is the great site of Tikal.

How to Get to the Pyramids

The best way to explore Mayan sites in Mexico, is to base yourself out of one city for a few days while you explore the neighboring sites.

In Chiapas, Palenque is a great base camp to visit many sites. The city itself has the famous Palenque site, just down the road about ten minutes. From Palenque, you can book day trips to Yax Chilan, Bonampak, Tonina, and also many waterfalls like Agua Azul and Misol Ha.

In the Yucatan, you can either stay on the coast in Cancun or Inland in Merida. In-between these two major cities is Chichen Itza, which is a good day trip. There are many busses and van type tour companies you can book.

South of Merida is Uxmal, which is a very amazing Mayan site famous for the "magicians pyramid".

South of Cancun is Tulum, the Mayan pyramids overlooking the ocean.

Flores, Guatemala is another great base camp for exploring Mayan sites. The city of Flores is on Lake Peten, and has a very European vibe with its cobblestone streets and restaurants.

North of Flores is Tikal, which you can do in a day, but the bus ride is long so it is recommended to stay a night at the site in one of the hotels.

El Mirador, El Zotz, Yaxha  are some more adventures you can do out of Flores.

Humble Beginning

Maya

Tikal

Arguably the most successful ancient civilization in the Mesoamerican region. The mayans had a very humble beginning.

Hunter gatherers in Mesoamerica, slowly formed farming villages thousands of years prior to the first major mayan cities. Evidence of these hunter gatherers and settlers has been dated to around 7000 B.C. 

Cultural ties to the Maya have been linked to villages in western Guatemala as far back as 2500 B.C. 

Ancient Neighbors

Olmec

Olmec Colossal Head

The Olmec people were an ancient Mesoamerican group who flourished from around 1600-1000 B.C. centered on an area of the Gulf Coast region in what is now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco.

They were engaged in trade and crafts with other Mesoamerican civilizations and developed sophisticated astronomical, geometric, and numerical systems.

Known as the “rubber people” The Olmec are even more mysterious than the Maya. With controversial colossal stone heads, and carvings of bearded men. 

The Maya undoubtedly inherited and carried on traditions from the Olmec, despite no evidence of being dominated by them.

Zapotec

Gran Plaza from the South platform, Edificio J in front

The Zapotec, another major civilization dominated the region in what is now Oaxaca, Mexico for approximately 1000 years.

A little over 100 miles away from the Olmec, they had a very similar culture. 

In the first century B.C. to the far north, in central Mexico, the Aztecs were beginning their legendary history as well. 

Mayan Timeline 

Due to their cultural, scientific, religious and geographical importance they have been studied extensively by archaeologists for many years.

Mayan history is divided into three periods Pre Classic, Classic, and Post Classic. These periods roughly define the beginning, middle, and end of their civilization. 

Pre Classic Period

The Mayan civilization originated in what is modern day Mexico, and Central America. The formal beginning of the Maya civilization happened in 600 B.C. in the Peten region of northern Guatemala, with the establishment of the city Nakbe. Other major sites in the area like El Mirador, Uaxactun, and Cival also flourished in this period. From their humble beginning, the Maya became skilled astronomers and traders launching their civilization into greatness.

Classic Period

Palenque

The Palace at Palenque

As previously stated the Maya civilization flourished between the years 250 and 900 A.D. The Mayans were made up of several independent Kingdoms or city states, and stretched from the Yucatan, as far down as El Salvador and Honduras.

The Maya city of Tikal, located in Guatemala, is thought to have been the largest in the region at the time. Some even argue that it may have been the largest city in the world. Archaeologists now estimating that as many as 10 million people occupied the area at its height.

The Maya civilization was based around the Mayan Long Count calendar, which had a 13,000 year cycle. The Maya civilization developed an advanced writing system, and transformed it into a highly sophisticated script, along with a very advanced astronomical calendar, which were all used as part of a calendar cycle. In fact the Maya had three consecutive 13,000 year cycles, one of which was when their Mayan calendar would start and end.

The most famous sites in this area were Tikal, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Copan. Bonampak Calakmul, Caracol (c. 1200 to 1350 AD) are considered the most important cultural centers during this period.

The city at Chichén Itzá, located in the Yucatán Peninsula, is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world. It

was of considerable size and influence for its time and had survived several wars until its destruction in 1540 by the Spanish conquest of Yucatán. It was a powerful city, not only due to its population, but due to its natural resources and strategic location on a number of trade routes.

For a long period, it was the most important center in the ancient Mayan civilization. It is particularly renowned for its massive pyramid, the temple of Kukulkan.

However the Maya civilization had their fair share of damage and conflict. This unfortunately contributed to their inevitable decline. But the Maya had a lasting legacy that still influences many cultures in the region today.

Post Classic Period 

Mayan City

Mayapan

The Post Classic city Mayapan is located in the Yucatán Peninsula and is characterized by various artistic symbols, like the shell-patterned facades and the mirror reflecting facades. It is one of the most popular archaeological sites in the Yucatán. Mayapan was discovered in the late 15th century, and has been considered the most important of all the pre-Columbian Maya archaeological sites, after the city of Palenque. Archeologists believe that Mayapan was the capital of the civilization in this Post Classic period.

The Mayans constructed some of the largest and best-preserved ancient cities in the Americas. They left behind an amazing amount of history.  Although shrouded in mystery, archaeologists are making new discoveries every year. 

Origin of the Mayan Civilization

The Mayans were an ancient civilization which existed thousands of years ago. They populated the regions of the Yucatán Peninsula, southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and a part of El Salvador.

They dominated these regions for thousands of years, building huge cities and enormous pyramids. Experts in Math and Astronomy, they excelled in agriculture and trade, and they even developed a very unique writing and number system, not to mention their calendrical systems. 

Maya

Stone Jaguar Heads

The Mayans developed a sophisticated literary culture, and many of their monuments and religious ceremonies are of great archaeological significance.

Archaeologists are now discovering even more astonishing things about the Maya, underneath the overgrowth of the jungle. The Maya left behind quite a mystery for the future to uncover…

Timeline

There is still debate about an exact timeline for the Maya, as new discoveries keep changing the history. A general consensus is that the earliest Mayan villages in Central America and Mexico, are dated back to as early as 2500 B.C. 

Great waring city states were established, and the Maya civilization prospered for thousands of years. 

Just before the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica, the Maya began to disperse. This is a big mystery in the history and understanding of the civilization. 

 

The Mayans became the dominant power in Mesoamerica in the second half of the first millennium A.D. But the Maya were not the first civilization to emerge in this ancient land.

Pre Maya 

Before the Mayans established their Civilization, The Olmec and Zapotec people made their mark. The Olmec famous for their enormous stone heads, lived in southeastern Mexico, what is now the modern state of Tabasco. 

Olmec

Olmec Stone Head

La Venta is one famous site left by the Olmec, dating to around 1100 B.C. they left behind many amazing giant sculptures, pyramids, and monuments. Archaeologists say that the Olmec date back to about 1500 B.C.

The Zapotec culture, dating to around 700 B.C, pre date the Maya. They ruled in the region that is now Oaxaca Mexico. One major site the Zapotec built, is a large pyramid complex called Monte Alban. 

Piecing together the chronology of the city through pottery, archaeologists have pieced together 2000 years of history for this ancient city. Divided into 5 parts of history, this one city in Oaxaca Mexico has a rich and deep past. 

Pre Classic

Generally the Pre Classic period for the Maya describes the civilizations beginning. From settlers to villages, the Maya began to establish their culture. They begin constructing their first ceremonial city’s and temples.

Around 750 B.C the Mayans establish their first city Nakbe in the northern Guatemalan lowlands. Nakbe is just a few kilometers south of the recently heralded El Miradaor, site and its massive pyramid La Danta.

One of the most famous Mayan archaeological sites, Tikal, was constructed in the Pre Classic period around the 4th century B.C. It is towards the end of the Pre Classic period the Maya start erecting massive cities all over southern Mexico and Central America. 

Classic Period

The Classic Period of the Maya is when the civilization flourished. 

In this period of Mayan history, many major city states battled with each other for power over certain regions.

King Pakal and his lineage start to build amazing temples at Palenque in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico. Including the temple of inscriptions, the palace, and the temple of the cross group. The history of Palenque stretches from 226 B.C. to 799 A.D. 

Palenque

Palenque

Although not as big as other Mayan sites like Tikal. Palenque is known for its massive amounts of monuments, glyphs, and reliefs that were preserved so well. It’s lineages of rulers also added to the history of Palenque. Including the famous Pakal, who ruled Palenque for 68 years. 

Tikal one of the biggest Mayan sites known today, was a powerful city state in the Classic Period. Tikal reigned over a large part of the Guatemala lowlands and part of Mexico during its rule. 

Many cities all over Mesoamerica flourished in this period.

Copan in Honduras

Bonampak in southern Mexico

Chichen Itza and Uxmal in the Yucatan 

After the flowering of the Classic Period, the Maya began to gradually fall…

Post Classic Period 

Mayapan one of the last city’s of the Maya was built in the late Post Classic period around 1220 A.D. The city contains thousands of structures. Eventually abandoned in the middle of the 14th century. 

There are many theories of why the Maya abandoned their cities. Some say overpopulation, some say drought or war, but we still do not know exactly why.

Maya

Mayan Ruins

After thousands of years the Mayan civilization passed into history. The ancient settlements vanished, but traces of their existence in the form of structures are being discovered every year.

Did the ancient Mayans have a longer recorded history than previously thought? With the new discoveries, archaeologists are now claiming that the Mayans may have solidified their culture in the Pre Classic period.

New Discoveries 

Using LIDAR, a light detection and ranging technology. Archaeologists have been able to see through the jungle from above and scan the forest floor. 

This technology has changed the whole perception of the Mayan city Tikal. Archaeologists are now saying that ten to fifteen million people once lived in this region. 

LIDAR has revealed numerous previously undiscovered structures. Leading to new theories about the Maya.

The Maya People Still Live

The Ancient Mayans are gone, but the Maya people still live in modern day Central America, and Mexico. They carry on their past with oral tradition and ceremony. 

Traveling through the Yucatan and Guatemala, one can see the Maya people are still here.

Conclusion

Thankfully the Mayans were obsessed with their calendars and recording the dates of major events. They recorded astrological events, war related events, they also preserved lineages and recorded the dates kings and queens would ascend to the throne.

The history of the Mayan civilization survived on pottery locked away in secret burial chambers, hidden inside the pyramids. Survived on large carved monuments called “stela”, and the remaining codices that escaped the cultural destruction by the  Spanish.

Preserved by time and the aggressive jungle, hiding pyramids and almost the whole civilization under the trees. 

The Pre-Hispanic Mayan culture was the most advanced ancient civilization on the American continent, and existed for over 2,000 years from 800 BC to 1440 AD.

Poking out of the lush green canopies of the Mayan jungles, are ancient ominous limestone structures. Rivaling the Pyramids of Egypt in size and in number, these overwhelming temples are still shrouded in mystery. These are the Mayan Pyramids. 

The Mayan pyramids are some of the largest and oldest structures in the world. Unlike the pyramids in Egypt, Mayan pyramids are ziggurat like step pyramids. With over 4,400 known mayan sites throughout Mexico and Central America, the Maya left a permanent mark in history. 

How Old Are the Mayan Pyramids?

Mayan Pyramids How Old

Tzol'kin Mayan Calendar

The Mayans civilization stretched over the span of thousands of years. Many kings and queens would go off on construction campaigns.

When the Mayan pyramids were first discovered, the pyramids had weathered severely. Some completely covered by the jungle, you would not even know you were standing on a pyramid. 

Many of the Mayan pyramids were built at different times. All over the Maya peninsula, there are cities that have still not been discovered.

Even well known Mayan archaeological sites continue to reveal more and more about the mysterious Mayans. Archaeologists are still uncovering new structures deep in the jungle, and the established knowledge and timeline is changing.

So how old are the Mayan pyramids? To answer this question, one needs to understand that the Mayan civilization was comprised of city states that were constantly at war with one another. City’s would rise and fall, change rulership, and literally be built on top of each other. 

Chichen Itza

How Old Mayan Pyramids Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

For example at Chichen Itza the famous pyramid “El Castillo” was built or enhanced onto an existing pyramid the Maya had built centuries previous. 

Archaeologists dub this former pyramid the substructure, and it is said to be built somewhere around 600 A.D. Hundreds of years later around 900 A.D the Maya complete the pyramid in honor of the god “Kukulkan”, which is the Mayan version of the Aztec god “Quetzalcoatl”. 

The Pyramid itself is a calendar. With a total number of 365 steps, representing their solar calendar “The Haab”. The temple also tracks the spring and autumn equinoxes, and is positioned so perfectly that on these two days triangles of light illuminate the staircase to form what looks like a serpent crawling down the pyramid from the sky.

Pyramids of Palenque

Ancient Palenque City

Palenque

In the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico lies one of the most beautiful mayan sites. Famous for its history of rulers, monuments and detailed inscriptions. Some of the city’s earlier structures date back to around 226 B.C. 

Temple of Inscriptions 

Palenque Pyramid

Temple of Inscriptions

Built by the infamous Lord Pakal around 675 A.D in the late Classic period, this massive 9 level pyramid gets its name from the many detailed inscriptions. At the top of the temple like platform, carved into the stone is 180 years of Palenque’s history. The pyramid houses a tomb where Pakal’s body is encased in an elaborate sarcophagus. 

Temple of the Cross, Sun, and Foliated Cross

Palenque Pyramids Cross Sun and Foliated Cross

Temple of the Sun

After Pakal’s death his son Kan Bahlam erected the three temples, to commemorate his lineage. Constructed in 692 A.D, these three pyramids all facing a central court yard are very unique.

Pyramids at Tikal

jaguar, stains, look

Jaguar

In the Guatemalan lowland jungles, the Mayans built an enormous city. Tikal was a massive city state that reigned for centuries. Flourishing in the classic period from around 200 A.D to 900A.D. 

Recent discoveries of raised highways and aqueducts, are rewriting the history books about this ancient city. Archaeologists are now saying that the area was home to close to ten million people. 

Tens of thousands of structures hidden by the jungle overgrowth still remain uncovered. 

Temple of the Jaguar

Guatemala Pyramid Jaguar Temple

Temple of the Jaguar

Tikal’s Temple of the Jaguar was constructed around 732 A.D. The temple is 180 ft tall and has 9 levels, representing the nine levels of the Mayan underworld Xibalba. 

Jasaw Chan K’awiil ruled Tikal in the Classic period, and was buried the Temple of the Jaguar’s tomb. 

The temple gets its name from a carving of a king sitting on a jaguar throne. Ironically enough this area is one of the few remaining bio reserves that is home to many wild jaguars.

El Mirador’s La Danta

 

North of Tikal, deeper into the dense jungle stands one of the largest pyramids in the world, La Danta. 

At the site of El Mirador, archaeologists have uncovered amazing carvings and reliefs that portray scenes from the Popol Vuh. Many of the structures at El Mirador are Pre Classic Maya. El Mirador lasted between 1000 B.C.- 250 A.D

La Danta is the largest Mayan pyramid at 236 feet tall, by volume La Danta is the largest in the world at 99 million cubic feet. 

Uxmal and the Magician’s Pyramid

At the Mayan site of Uxmal in the Yucatan Peninsula, is the Magicians Pyramid. A fairly large pyramid that was decorated with lattice type design. Uxmal thrived around 600 to 1000 A.D. It is said that the god Itzamna built the pyramid overnight, giving it the name “Magicians Pyramid”.

Civilization

The Mayan Civilization was a society that existed in Southern Mexico and Central America. Their existence has been uncovered through many archaeological discoveries.

The ruins of the Mayan Civilization still exist today, yet a large part of their knowledge, structures, and culture has been lost. This has created many questions about the origin of the Mayans, and how they became as advanced as they were.

Thousands of Years Ago

Pyramid

Mayan Pyramid

Before becoming the great Mayan civilization, the Maya people were hunter gatherers scattered throughout Mesoamerica. Evidence of this is found all over Central America and Southern Mexico.

In the beginning of the Pre Classic period the Maya were still farming settlements. Growing domesticated crops as early as 2500 B.C. such as vegetables and spices. Most famously corn or “maize”.

The Mayans believed that humans were created from corn and worshiped the maize god. This relationship with corn fueled their agricultural drive from the beginning, and played a major role in their development.

The question of when the Mayan civilization initially began remains up in the air and will probably remain that way for a long time. Some scholars estimate that the Maya formed as early as 2500 B.C. 

It is difficult to pinpoint an exact time for the emergence of the Mayan culture as an independent cultural identity. There are new discoveries every year that seem to change the perception of their timeline.

Around 600 B.C the Maya began creating larger settlements in the lowland jungles of Guatemala. The city Nakbe is one of the earliest known major sites for the Maya in this region. Its neighbor, El Mirador flourished around the same time as well. 

Before the Maya 

Monument

Mayan Monument

The Mayan culture arose through a series of cultures which developed around the region. Their predecessors, the Olmec and Zapotec, had been in southern Mexico long before the Maya. 

The Olmec established their culture around the 16th century B.C and were known for carving gigantic heads. 

The Zapotec civilization in the Oaxaca region began just before the Maya in 700 B.C. One of the largest cities in ancient Mesoamerica was built by the Zapotec.

The Pre Classic period is a time when the people of Central America are in their most rudimentary forms, and when the Maya civilization appears on the scene. The period is also one of cultural sharing and complex relationships between neighboring cultural groups.

Historic Influence

Aztec

Tenochtitlan

The Mayan Civilization had a great influence on the cultures of their time. Their influence and understanding of astronomy and agriculture has had major impacts on the world. 

The Mayan civilization had a surplus of knowledge, which was one of the reasons why they were able to flourish and become so impressive.

From pyramids to monuments, they constructed vast cities with architectural marvels. They built aqua ducts and raised roads. Archaeologists are now saying that at one point the city of Tikal held millions of people.

The Mayan civilization had a religious systems and a complex cosmology. Their understanding of astronomy and time was very important. 

Stelae

Stela

Tikal Stela 31

They recorded dates on stelae, which are large stone monuments that were erected throughout Mesoamerica. This is one of the main reasons archaeologists know so much about the Maya, because of their relentless obsession with recording time. 

These stone monuments depict dates associated with Mayan cosmology, and when rulers ascended to the throne or conquered other cities. 

Dresden Codex

codex

Dresden Codex

Still our understanding of the Mayan civilization is so limited because many texts were burned by the Spanish in the 15th century A.D.

Few written texts remain, such as the Dresden Codex. This is the  oldest written book found in the americas. The colored pamphlet style text, folds open Mayan history and astronomical charts. 

The dates found in the codex correlate to the planet Venus and phases of the lunar cycle. It also shows an assortment of gods and religious calendar dates.

Impact in the Region

The Mayan Civilization had an impact on the surrounding civilizations that came after, like the Aztec, Toltec, and the Mixtec.

These cultures adopted a lot of the knowledge from the Mayans. The Aztecs continued to keep the same calendars. Although they changed the names and glyphs, they continued to track and add to the same system of time. 

The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl is actually a reinvention of the previous Mayan God Kukulkan, the winged serpent. 

The Maya civilization spans over 2000 years and is the oldest civilization in the Americas.The Mayans were as mysterious as it gets. The reasons behind their downfall remains unknown…

Extra

Although the Mayans are not mentioned in the bible, there is a possibility that they were the source of the legend of the "Wandering Jew". Some dialects of mayan have distinct jewish like sounds.

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