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
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.