10 Mesmerizing Facts About the Mayan Empire

The Mayan Empire was one of the largest and most powerful empires in North America. They reigned supreme in the jungles of what’s now known as Southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala from 1800 B.C. until around A.D. 900. While most native North and South American peoples were content to roam the land following game, the Mayans were building elaborate cities, playing sports, writing books and practicing mathematics.

They Ate Chocolate

Several varieties of chocolate, beans, and bars on a wooden table
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The Mayans are believed to be the first civilization in the world to consume chocolate. They would collect the beans from the cocoa tree, ferment them, dry them, roast them, remove the shells, and grind them into a paste, which is very similar to the way cocoa beans are processed today.

Instead of fashioning them into bars or Kisses, the most common way the Mayans consumed chocolate was in a drink made of chocolate, water, cornmeal, chili peppers, and spices.

Elaborate System of Writing

Mayan glyphs
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Much like the ancient Egyptians, the Mayans used an elaborate system of glyphs as a form of writing. In fact, the two are so similar that when early archaeologists were studying Mayan ruins, they believed they had stumbled upon evidence of Egyptians in the Americas. They were, of course, incorrect.

The Mayans established their system of writing around 300 B.C. It was complex. Glyphs could represent literal images, symbols, phonetic syllables, or combinations of all three. There were also prefixes, suffixes, pronouns, and verb tenses. In total, there were around 1,000 different symbols used in Mayan texts.

Avid Astronomers

View of star-filled night sky with treeline silhouetted in the foreground
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Mayans believed that the earth was the center of the universe and that the Sun, stars, and the planets were the gods that moved around them and watched over them. They used the celestial movements to plan their lives. For instance, they might wait to go to war until the gods were in the right places.

Because the planets and stars were so important, the Mayans kept a close eye on them and created several calendars that tracked their movements.

They Used Calendars

Large colorful wheel with Mayan symbols, antique calendar system
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The Mayans were master record keepers. They used three different calendars simultaneously: the long count, the Tzolkin, and the Haab. The long count calendar is the most famous Mayan calendar. It’s the one that “predicted” the end of the world in 2012. In reality, it just ran out, much like your desk calendar runs out at the end of the year. The long count calendar counted a span of more than 5,000 years.

Hardcore Beauty Regimens

Field of corn at sunset
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One of the most important gods to the Mayans was the maize god. Just like an ear of corn narrows at the top, they believed that an elongated head was attractive. When babies were born, the parents would attach two boards to the child’s head that sloped up and back. They would gradually tighten ropes over the next few days to flatten the baby’s soft skull until it was elongated. Around 90% of Mayans had elongated skulls.

Built Some of the Largest Pyramids in the World

Aerial view of temple at Mayan ruins site of Chichen Itza
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While the Egyptians might boast the most famous pyramids in the world, there are more pyramids in North America than the rest of the world combined. The ancient Mayans were expert pyramid builders and used their expertise to construct some of the largest pyramids ever.

The Mayans built pyramids for religious and aesthetic purposes. Often, they would build on top of existing pyramids to make them even taller than before. Many of the pyramids still exist today and are popular tourist attractions.

They Liked to 'Talk to the Spirits'

Up close view of several wild mushrooms growing out of the ground
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It was common for Mayan religious leaders and healers to enter trance-like states before performing rituals. In order to “talk to the spirits,” they used hallucinogenic drugs. Some of the more popular drugs were made from cacti and mushrooms. They would also brew a drink made of fermented honey and plant extracts designed to get them high.

The First Saunas

Person's hand pouring water over bin of hot sauna rocks
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The Mayans believed that sweat baths were an important part of healing and purification of the body. To induce sweating, the Mayans were the first people to use saunas.

Mayan saunas were stone huts with a small vent in the roof. They worked in a very similar way to modern saunas. Water was poured over hot rocks to create steam. People would use the sauna to sweat out illnesses, snake bites, or just about anything that was ailing them.

Sports Were Important

Stone ring sticking out of a wall, used for traditional Mayan sports
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The Mayans played an intense game that involved getting a solid rubber ball through a hoop without using your hands. It was so important to their culture that it was even used in Mayan mythology. And it was common for the losing team captain, or entire team, to be used as a ritual sacrifice after the game was over. You might say that the stakes were a little higher than just missing out on a Super Bowl ring.

Their Decline Remains a Mystery

Mayan ruins
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Despite being such a prolific and powerful civilization, by A.D. 900, most of the massive Mayan cities were abandoned. The reason why has remained a mystery that stumps archaeologists to this day. The most common theories involve overpopulation, military conflicts, or some sort of catastrophic environmental event like a drought.

Today, around 6 million Mayan still live in southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, and they continue to practice many of the old customs and traditions.

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