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The Mayan City-States for Unit 1 of AP World History

Cate O'Donnell

9 min read

Dec 24, 2023




Are you an AP World History student who is yearning for a deeper understanding of the Mayan civilization? Have you heard of Mayan city-states, but don’t know much about them? Then look no further! This article will guide you through the complex and fascinating world of Mayan city-states. From the political structure to the religious practices, you’ll learn all the essential information you need to know about this lost civilization. With an estimated population of 15 million people occupying the Central American region during the Classic Period, the Mayans were renowned for their sophisticated knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, and engineering. Moreover, ancient Mayan hieroglyphs remain a source of mystery and awe even to this day. So buckle up and get ready to explore the alluring world of Mayan city-states!

You can read and watch videos on the Mayan City-States using Google Slides, or you can scroll down to read on the website.

Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza 2111903147/Shutterstock

The Beginning of the Mayan City-States

Around 2000 BCE, the Maya began settling in the lowland regions of present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Initially, these settlements were simple villages centered around agricultural activities. However, by 1000 BCE, the Maya had developed advanced agricultural techniques, such as the slash-and-burn method, which allowed for more intensive farming and population growth.

As the population expanded, so did the complexity of societal organization. By approximately 600 BCE, the first ceremonial centers began to emerge, featuring monumental architecture and evidence of religious rituals. These early centers laid the foundation for the city-states that would later define Mayan civilization.

The city-states became the focal points of Mayan civilization, characterized by impressive structures, intricate artwork, and elaborate ceremonial complexes. Each city-state functioned as a political and religious hub, with powerful rulers overseeing both secular and spiritual affairs. The Mayan city-states reached their zenith during the Classic period (c. 250-900 CE), with iconic cities like Tikal, Calakmul, Palenque, and Caracol dominating the landscape. This era saw the flourishing of monumental architecture, sophisticated writing systems, and intricate calendrical and astronomical knowledge.

Social Structures of the Mayan City-States

The social structure in Mayan city-states was hierarchical and stratified, reflecting a complex organization that encompassed various social classes. The society was broadly divided into distinct groups, each with specific roles, privileges, and responsibilities.

Rulers and Elite Class: At the top of the social hierarchy were the rulers, often referred to as kings or lords, who held both political and religious authority. These rulers were believed to have divine connections, serving as intermediaries between the people and the gods. The elite class surrounding the rulers included nobles, priests, and high-ranking officials who played crucial roles in administering the city-state.

Priesthood: The priestly class held significant influence in Mayan society. They were responsible for conducting religious ceremonies, interpreting celestial events, and maintaining communication with the gods. Priests played a central role in the elaborate religious rituals and ceremonies that were integral to Mayan life.

Merchants and Artisans: The middle class in Mayan society consisted of merchants and skilled artisans. Engaged in trade and craftwork, they contributed to the economic prosperity of the city-states. Merchants facilitated long-distance trade networks, exchanging goods such as obsidian, jade, and cacao beans.

Farmers and Laborers: The majority of the population was comprised of farmers and laborers. These individuals worked the land, cultivating crops like maize, beans, and squash using advanced agricultural techniques. The surplus produced by these farmers supported the urban centers and allowed for the specialization of other professions.

Slaves and Captives: At the bottom of the social hierarchy were slaves and captives, often acquired through warfare or as a form of punishment. Slaves served the elite class and were involved in various labor-intensive activities, contributing to the construction of monumental architecture and other infrastructural projects.

Social mobility was limited, with individuals generally inheriting their social status from their parents. However, exceptional skills or achievements in warfare or religious activities could sometimes elevate individuals to higher social ranks. The social structure in Mayan city-states was a complex web of interdependence, where each class played a crucial role in sustaining the overall stability and prosperity of the society.

Technological Advancements

The Mayan city-states were characterized by several technological advancements that contributed to the sophistication and prosperity of their civilization. While they may not have had some of the metalworking technologies found in other ancient civilizations, the Maya excelled in areas such as agriculture, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, and writing.

Agricultural Innovations: The Maya developed advanced agricultural techniques to support their growing population. They practiced terrace farming, raised fields, and the slash-and-burn method. The use of raised fields allowed for effective drainage and soil aeration, contributing to successful crop cultivation, particularly of maize (corn), beans, and squash.

Architectural Mastery: The Mayans were exceptional builders, creating monumental structures such as pyramids, temples, palaces, and ball courts. They used limestone, quarried from local sources, and constructed elaborate buildings with precise orientation to celestial events. The city of Tikal, for example, boasts impressive structures like Temple I and Temple II.

Urban Planning: Mayan city-states were carefully planned, with a focus on aligning buildings and ceremonial centers with astronomical events. The layout of cities often followed a grid pattern, showcasing a high level of organization and urban planning. Cities like Palenque and Copán exemplify this meticulous planning.

Mathematics and Astronomy: The Maya developed a sophisticated understanding of mathematics and astronomy. They created a complex numerical system using a base-20 system and a symbol for zero, which allowed for advanced calculations. The Maya were able to accurately predict celestial events, such as eclipses and the movements of planets, through their observatories.

Writing System (Glyphs): The Maya developed one of the most advanced writing systems in the pre-Columbian Americas. Their hieroglyphic writing, often found on stelae, monuments, and in codices, recorded historical events, rituals, and dynastic successions. The decipherment of the Maya script has provided valuable insights into their culture and history.

Calendar Systems: The Maya had multiple calendar systems, including the Tzolk’in (260 days) and the Haab’ (365 days), which were combined into a more extensive calendar known as the Calendar Round. They also developed the Long Count, a linear calendar used for historical dating.

Trade Networks: The Maya engaged in extensive trade networks, exchanging goods such as jade, obsidian, cacao, and feathers over long distances. Coastal trade routes connected the Maya to other Mesoamerican cultures, facilitating cultural exchange and economic prosperity.

Religious Beliefs

At the core of Mayan spirituality was a complex pantheon of deities, each associated with specific natural elements, celestial bodies, or aspects of life. The Maya believed in a cyclical concept of time, where the past, present, and future were interconnected, and cosmic events played a crucial role in determining the fate of individuals and the community.

The rulers of the Mayan city-states were often considered divine or semi-divine figures, serving as intermediaries between the people and the gods. Religious ceremonies and rituals were conducted by a powerful priesthood to appease the deities, ensure agricultural fertility, and maintain cosmic balance. The Maya also practiced elaborate bloodletting rituals, where self-inflicted wounds were offered as a symbolic sacrifice to communicate with the supernatural realm.

The Maya had a deep connection with the natural world, and their deities were often associated with animals, plants, and celestial bodies. Among the prominent deities were Itzamna, the creator god; Kukulkan or Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent; Ixchel, the goddess of fertility and weaving; and Chaac, the god of rain. Each city-state had its own set of patron deities, contributing to the diversity of religious practices across the Mayan civilization.

Ceremonial centers, characterized by towering pyramids and temples, served as focal points for religious activities. The alignment of these structures with celestial events, such as solstices and equinoxes, reflected the Maya’s intricate knowledge of astronomy and its integration into their religious calendar systems. The Maya also believed in an intricate underworld, Xibalba, which played a role in their cosmology and mythology.

The Maya left behind a rich legacy of religious texts and inscriptions, particularly in the form of hieroglyphic writings found on stelae, monuments, and codices. While many of these texts remain enigmatic, the decipherment of the Maya script has provided valuable insights into their religious beliefs, mythologies, and rituals, offering a glimpse into the spiritual foundation that shaped one of the most sophisticated civilizations in the ancient Americas.


Kukulkan, known as Quetzalcoatl in Aztec culture, is a prominent deity in Mesoamerican mythology, revered by various pre-Columbian civilizations, including the Maya. Often depicted as a feathered serpent, Kukulkan holds a central place in the religious beliefs of the Maya civilization. The name “Kukulkan” is derived from the Yucatec Maya language, and the deity is associated with a wide range of attributes, including creation, fertility, wind, rain, and Venus as the morning star. Temples dedicated to Kukulkan showcase the remarkable architectural and astronomical knowledge of the Maya. One of the most iconic structures is El Castillo at Chichen Itza, where during the equinoxes, the play of light and shadow creates an illusion of a descending serpent along the temple’s staircase, symbolizing Kukulkan’s descent to Earth. The feathered serpent god played a dual role in Mesoamerican cosmogony, representing both the forces of creation and destruction. Kukulkan’s influence extended beyond the Maya civilization, with the Aztecs adopting the deity as Quetzalcoatl. The mythology of Kukulkan reflects the intricate interweaving of celestial observations, religious practices, and architectural achievements that defined the spiritual landscape of the ancient Mesoamerican world.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza, located on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, stands as one of the most iconic and well-preserved archaeological sites of the ancient Maya civilization. Flourishing from the 7th to the 10th centuries CE, Chichen Itza served as a major political and religious center during the Late Classic and Early Postclassic periods. The site showcases a remarkable blend of architectural styles, reflecting both Maya and Toltec influences. One of the most notable structures is El Castillo, a massive pyramid dedicated to the feathered serpent god Kukulkan. During the equinoxes, the play of sunlight creates the illusion of a serpent descending the staircase, a testament to the advanced astronomical and engineering knowledge of the Maya. The Great Ball Court, the largest and most impressive in Mesoamerica, attests to the significance of the ball game in Mayan culture. El Caracol, an observatory, highlights the Maya’s keen interest in celestial events.

The End of the Mayan City-States

The end of the Mayan city-states remains a subject of scholarly debate, marked by a complex series of factors that contributed to the decline and eventual abandonment of these once-thriving urban centers. While there is no singular explanation, several interconnected elements are considered. One significant factor is environmental stress, including prolonged droughts that affected agricultural productivity, a cornerstone of Mayan society. The strain on resources likely led to social unrest and conflicts. Additionally, internal strife, political fragmentation, and warfare among the city-states might have weakened the Mayan civilization.

The collapse of long-distance trade networks and the exhaustion of natural resources further compounded the challenges. The intricate web of interconnected city-states faced economic decline, and the rulers struggled to maintain control over their territories. There is evidence of increased warfare and defensive fortifications during the terminal Classic period, suggesting a breakdown of social and political structures.

While traditional theories often emphasized external factors such as invasion by outside forces, more recent research underscores the role of internal dynamics. It is now recognized that a combination of environmental, social, and political factors contributed to the decline of the Mayan city-states. The Classic period collapse, occurring around the 9th century CE, marked the end of the grandeur of cities like Tikal and Copán, as these once-thriving urban centers were gradually abandoned, leaving behind enigmatic ruins that continue to captivate and perplex historians and archaeologists alike.

The Spanish and the Mayans

The Spanish arrival in the Americas in the 16th century had a profound and often detrimental impact on the Mayan civilization. The introduction of European diseases, such as smallpox and measles, resulted in devastating epidemics that decimated the Mayan population. The demographic decline weakened the social structure and disrupted traditional power dynamics. The Spanish implemented colonial policies, including the encomienda system, which subjected the Maya to forced labor and exploitation. This led to economic hardship and contributed to the erosion of traditional societal norms. The Spanish sought to impose Christianity, suppressing indigenous religions and destroying temples and religious structures. The cultural and religious suppression aimed at eradicating traditional Mayan practices, although some syncretism occurred, blending indigenous beliefs with elements of Catholicism. The Spanish colonization also brought about significant changes in land use, as indigenous territories were claimed by Spanish colonizers, and traditional trade networks were disrupted. Despite the adversity, elements of Mayan culture persisted, and a complex process of cultural adaptation and survival unfolded over the centuries. The lasting legacy of Spanish colonization is evident in the modern Maya communities, where a blend of indigenous and European influences has shaped the cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic landscape of the region.


Nojpetén holds a significant place in Maya history as the last independent city-state that resisted Spanish conquest in the heart of the Petén Basin. In 1697, after decades of European colonization in the Yucatán Peninsula and surrounding regions, Spanish forces, led by Captain Martín de Ursúa, confronted Nojpetén on the island of Flores. Nojpetén, the capital of the Itza Maya, had remained a stronghold of Maya resistance against Spanish encroachment for years. The siege of Nojpetén culminated in a decisive battle that resulted in the surrender of the city on March 13, 1697. The fall of Nojpetén marked the end of independent Maya governance in the region and symbolized the culmination of Spanish colonization efforts across Mesoamerica. The conquest of Nojpetén also marked the final chapter in the long and complex history of the Maya civilization, as the once-thriving city succumbed to the forces of European colonization and the irreversible changes brought about by the collision of two distinct worlds. The surrender of Nojpetén effectively ended the political autonomy of the last remaining Maya city-state and signaled the completion of the Spanish subjugation of the Maya people in the broader historical narrative.

Would you prefer to watch a video about the Mayans?

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Cate O'Donnell

9 min read

Dec 24, 2023




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