Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange
Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange

Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange

Shannon Quinn - February 21, 2023

Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange
An example of Mayan piercings and tattoos. Credit: Pinterest

Blood From Body Piercings Was An Offering To The Gods

Body modification was a huge part of Mayan Culture, and one of the most common forms was body piercings. One particularly important ceremony involved an individual getting their tongue pierced with a stingray spine. Both the blood and the pain from the ordeal was considered an offering that pleased the gods. It was meant to bring good rain, harvests, and luck to the people. The whole community would gather around and watch the event. It was a celebration of both community and individuality in the pursuit of a greater connection to the gods. Even individual piercings were marked by Piercing Parties, where they would invite their friends and family to watch. Everyone attending would then get something pierced, because it was expected. They pierced their noses, ears, and lips, and also wore large ear gauges made out of precious stones, like jade or obsidian.

Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange
The ancient Mayan calendar. Credit: Shutterstock

The Mayans Didn’t Believe The World Was Ending

Anyone who lived through 2012 will recall the predictions that the world would end. This was allegedly because of the Mayan calendar. However, there is simply no evidence that the Maya ever thought the world was ending in 2012. None. No specific belief about a doomsday, much less what exactly will cause it, has ever been discovered. Hence why most of the 2012 predictions were so all over the place and silly. It is pure conjecture, at best, since one particular Mayan stone calendar ended around 2012. However, there have been other calendars found that end at other dates, such as the year 3,500 AD. Calculating out future dates is a time consuming process, because it all had to be done by hand. You have to stop somewhere. It doesn’t mean the world ends at New Year.

Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange
Ancient skulls that were elongated since birth. Credit: Atlas Obscura

Mayans Practiced Head Binding to be More Beautiful

Attempting to bend and shape your baby’s skull into something more pleasing would likely get you arrested today, because it’s child cruelty. However, the practice of head binding in order to elongate the shape of the human skull is a practice that spans across many cultures. It goes back at least 10,000 years. The shape of the skull was a sign of status, with the higher status individuals with the more prominent deformations. It is debated among archeologists as to exactly why they pursued this form of beauty. Some say they were emulating the maize god, whose head was the shape of corn. Others say it was meant to imitate a jaguar’s skull. Whatever the reason, it was an instruction from the gods, that they might appear more noble.

Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange
A centuries-old latex ball made by the Olmec in what is now Mexico. Credit: National Geographic

They Made Rubber Long Before Anyone Else

One of the markers of modern technology is the use of rubber, from tires to ear buds. The Mayans were way ahead of the curb on many things, and this includes the invention of rubber. This took 3,000 years before it was re-invented by Charles Goodyear in the 19th century. It was made from local latex, and used in the rubber ball in Mayan sports. Although no physical specimens of them still exist to confirm this, the Spanish explorers who encountered the Maya reported back that they wore rubber sandals. It’s likely they were far more comfortable than anything made in Europe out of wood and leather, hence why it was one of the particular things the Spanish reported back on. Perhaps the most useful thing the Maya also used were rubber bands.

Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange
An ancient Mayan city. Credit: Shutterstock

The Mayans Lived on Volcanically Active Ground

It’s never safe to build your civilization next to a volcano. The Mayans had to learn that lesson the hard way during the El Chichón eruption in 540 AD. The sky turned black with smoke, blocking the sunlight. That would not have been good for crops, but that would have been the least of their problems. The smoke from the volcano would have been filled with microscopic pieces of glass. Inhaling it would have resulted in irritation and microscopic cuts in their lungs. Even if you survived the initial eruption, the sulfur thrown into air would have blocked out so much sunlight as to decrease global temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius! Crop yields would have been devastated. The poor harvests resulted in both the Maya and Inca revolting against their rulers. This was the beginning of the Maya Dark Age. For 100 years, no buildings were constructed.

Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange
Mayan codex with hieroglyphic alphabet script writing system. Credit: Shutterstock

Europeans Burned Mayan Books

Countless history nerds mourn the loss of the Library of Alexandria. However, the true History Chad will be shedding a tear over the burning of the Mayan Codices. One could easily condemn Bishop Friar Diego de Landa (1524-1579) as one of the most evil and ignorant men in history. His zealous persecution of the Mayan religion through torture and death by burning, in spite of the fact that the Church actually forbade abuse of the natives, drove many Maya to commit suicide. He nonetheless was convinced he was saving lives, as the Maya were still practicing human sacrifice in their rituals. De Landa himself documented a time when he burned about a hundred Mayan texts he believed satanic in front of a local community. He remarked about how much sorrow and regret was expressed by the Maya, and how strange he thought it was.

Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange
LiDAR technology helped uncover this hidden Mayan city. Credit: BBC

An Ancient Mayan City Was Recently Discovered

Modern technology truly is amazing. One of these technologies is something called LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection And Ranging. LiDAR uses laser pulses to map areas of terrain to exquisite detail. What’s especially useful is that it can see through foliage,making it perfect for places like a rain forest. Indiana Jones would have taken a lifetime to discover what can now be found in minutes. The use of this technology is what led to the discovery of a previously unknown Mayan city in Guatemala. This city is over 2,000 years old, and spanned for a huge 650 square miles. Previous research had concluded that the population was very small. The discovery of this massive city with canals, reservoirs, and ball courts, showed that the population was much higher and denser than originally thought. Modern technology is helping us connect to the beauty of the past.

Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange
Detail of a bas-relief carving in the ancient Mayan city of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. Credit: Shutterstock

No One Knows What Caused the Downfall of the Mayan Civilization

It remains a mystery to this day why the Maya Civilization declined and died off. The collapse did not happen everywhere and all at once, however. Mayan civilization appears to have had many local ups and downs, but the common pattern was that cities were eventually abandoned and lost. Why this happened exactly is a mystery. Scientists have theorized all sorts of causes from warfare, famine, overpopulation, trade disputes, drought, and environmental degradation. Though as some cities fell, others rose to prominence. Most of the northern cities were populated when the Spanish came and eventually conquered the Maya. Many Maya cities would be lost and forgotten until their rediscovery in the 19th century. The fact that the Maya still exist as a people and carry on their traditions today despite all the disaster and tragedy is a testament to both the sophistication and spirit of their people.

Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange
Page from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala showing the conquest of Quetzaltenango. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Mayans Fought the Spanish For Two Centuries

Mayans were badd asses. Even in the face of a technologically superior enemy that may have seemed almost supernatural, they refused to surrender. The warfare between the Spanish and the Maya lasted from 1517 to 1697. That’s 180 years! Imagine waking up one day and knowing you are fighting a war your father and grandfather fought, and it was a war your children and grandchildren would also fight. One might think that lack of political unity would be a weakness for the Maya against the Spanish. In reality, it was this division of power that made the Maya so hard to conquer. There was no single capital city to storm and take over. Whenever you conquered one Mayan Kingdom, there were still more who had not yet begun to fight. Nojpetén, located on an island in Lake Petén, was the last Mayan City to fall.

Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange
Ancient Mayan ritual, show by the Mexican group Xipetotek, reenacting Maya history. Credit: Shutterstock

Mayans Haven’t Completely Disappeared

Sometimes old civilizations die hard. The Maya are still alive today. Though no longer at the height of glory, there are still 8 million people of Mayan ancestry who live throughout Central America. Both the Mayan people and modern researchers work passionately to try and recover as much of the Maya’s lost cultural past as they can. The Mayan language is even taught today in schools. There is hope among some researchers that ancient Mayan medicine will prove useful in curing modern diseases. Some of the Maya live as close to their traditions as they can. Others have decided to integrate into modern society. Mayan culture is attracting more and more attention and appreciation. It’s truly inspiring how far the Maya have come in the face of so many centuries of persecution and suppression. Perhaps one day we can see Mayan culture reborn, thriving in the 21st century.

Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange
Much of the ancient Mayan civilization is either underground or lost in the jungle. Credit: Shutterstock

Most of the Mayan Civilization Remains Underground

Despite being over 40% of the population of Guatemala, people of ethnic Mayan descent still often suffer discrimination for their ancestry. As recently as 1960 to 1996, the Mayan people were subject to genocidal oppression during the Guatemalan Civil War. Scorched earth tactics involving raping, pillaging, destroying crops and cultural artifacts. They killed almost 200,000 people during the war. The oppression of the Maya was done because they were “suppressing communism”. It’s no wonder why the Maya might want to integrate and abandon their heritage, or hide it. However, things are changing. Knowledge of and appreciation for Mayan culture is spreading in the West. Cultural tourism is now a huge part of the Guatemalan economy. This has had a negative effect, however, and traditions are sometimes invented at the expense of authentic ones in order to meet western tourists’ expectations.

Life In The Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange
A modern cacao ritual. Credit: Shutterstock

You Can Still Experience Mayan Cacao Rituals Today

Since the first mass market chocolates got churned out of Hershey, Pennsylvania, chocolate has been an essential part of the modern western experience. We love chocolate! It is only natural that when someone discovers a culture that shares that love, because we want to know more and dive deeper into their unique and shared experiences. Mayan Cacao ceremonies are a key part of the shaman and yoga communities. They can be found in San Francisco, Portland, New York, and London. These eclectic groups use these ceremonies for meditation, spiritual reflection, and uniting the community. The ceremonies themselves vary. Some involve singing and dancing, others quiet meditation. Some try their best to be as ritually close and authentic as possible to Mayan tradition. Other groups add in other multicultural flares. The historical accuracy may be questionable in most cases, but one can’t deny the natural allure of experiencing spiritual chocolate.

How did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Everyday Life In The Mayan Empire Was Way Weirder Than You Thought. Katia Kleyman. Ranker. 2021.

Top 10 Maya Secrets. National Geographic. 2012.

25 Unimaginable Things About The Maya Civilization We’re Still Discovering. Val Kornev. The Travel. 2018.

Human Sacrifice in Maya Culture. Emory University. 2017.

Chocolate and the Mayans. How Stuff Works. 2021.

Scientists find first proof of potent tobacco use among ancient Mayan people. Cathleen Crowley. Times Union. 2012.

The Mayans and Their Hair. Yurina Fernández Noa. Yucatan Today.

The Maya Concept of Beauty. History on the Net. 2023.


Ancient Maya cities, ‘super highways’ revealed in latest survey. Reuters. 2023.

Did the Maya Really Sacrifice Their Ballgame Players? Laura Geggel. Live Science. 2022.

Ancient Mayans Used Saunas For Healing Purposes. Ancient Pages. 2016

Experiencing Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed- Maya Body Modifications. Sarena Salmeri. Connecticut Science Center. 2020.

Head Space: Behind 10,000 Years of Artificial Cranial Modification. Chris White. Atlas Obscura. 2015.

Aztec, Maya Were Rubber-Making Masters? Rachel Kaufman. National Geographic. 2010.

Volcanic Eruption May Have Plunged the Maya into a “Dark Age”. Shannon Hall. Scientific American. 2017.

Ancient city hidden for 2,000 years is discovered in the forest. Jeff Parsons. Metro UK. 2023.

This is Why the Maya Abandoned Their Cities. Elizabeth Nix. History. 2018.

Maya Today. Meso American Research Center.