Mayan Textiles Background

Who Are the Maya?

Classic Mayan architecture in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico (Photograph by Michelle Stokely)
Classic Mayan architecture in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico (Photograph by Michelle Stokely)

Long before Europeans thought to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, Mayan people conquered the rugged highlands of Guatemala, the dense jungles of the Yucatan, and the tropical lowlands of the Pacific coast. Here, Mayan people built vast cities, cities that rivaled those in Europe in terms of size and complexity. These cities were governed by a ruling elite and were supported by an elaborate system of taxation. The Mayans were incredibly successful at exploiting their environment through slash-and-burn agriculture. The surplus that farmers produced went to support huge governmental and religious centers like Tikal, Chichén Itzá and Palenque. For various reasons, many of these large Mayan cities fell out of use, even before Europeans arrived to conquer the “New World.”

But this governmental decline, as well as the changes that occurred with the arrival of the Spanish, did not prevent Mayan people throughout the area from continuing many of their cultural traditions. Mayan farmers continued to grow their crops of corns, beans, squash and chilies, the basis of the Mayan economy.  Fishermen on Lake Atitlán fished, potters made pots, weavers wove cloth and painters painted. Mayan priests continued to divine the future and practice their rituals. Mayan children still grew up speaking their native language. Of course, the Spanish Conquest did bring many changes to Mayan life, but the Mayan people, even in the face of political domination, have an incredible knack for persistence.

From Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan highlands to the Lacandon rainforest and to the tropical Yucatan peninsula, the Mayan territory is vast and very diverse. Take a tour of the Mayan homeland.

The Mayan langauges are incredibly varied and often differentiate social and political divisions. Discover more about the linguistic diversity of the Mayan people by exploring the Mayan languages section.

Mayan history was recorded for thousands of years through a hieroglyphic writing system, colonial texts written in Spanish and Mayan, and oral traditions. Take a brief look at Mayan history.