5 Ways the Maya Were Ahead of Their Time

HomeHistory5 Ways the Maya Were Ahead of Their Time
Share Button

Scholars who have studied the Mayan Long Count Calendar have determined the calendar transitions into a new era on Dec. 21, 2012. Some misguided doomsayers have taken that information, noted its timing near the winter solstice and other astrological factors, and issued a dire warning that the Earth as we know it will end. Rest assured, there is no evidence pointing toward any type of cataclysm. But the fact that anyone would look at a calendar that dates to 3114 B.C. and give the culture that created it any credence in predicting the present day illustrates the mystique surrounding the ancient Maya. Just who were the Maya, and what made them so special? Here are five ways that the Maya were ahead of their time.

5. The Maya and Mesoamericans Were Huge Sports Fans

The Maya ballgame is the oldest organized team sport in the world.

The largest Maya ball court, in Chichen-Itza; Brian Snelson

More than 3,000 years before the first Super Bowl or World Series was even a thought, Mesoamericans (including the Maya) played their own version of a popular spectator sport: the ballgame. It’s considered the earliest known organized team sport in the world. According to The Architectural Background of the Pre-Hispanic Ballgame by Eric Taladoire, more than 1,300 ball courts have been discovered in Mexico and Central America, approximately 60 percent of them in the last two decades alone. Although the ball courts vary in size, they usually consist of two parallel walls on the sides of the playing field with distinctive additions that range from hoops 20 feet off the ground and primitive versions of “box seats” to arenas the size of modern-day American football fields. The games involved rubber balls and were a combination of basketball, soccer, and volleyball, and players often left the field a little battered. But the games were not solely for fun; they were dangerous demonstrations that combined spectacle and ritual. To make matters worse, members of the losing team were often sacrificed, sometimes by decapitation. Now that is much more of an incentive than a Super Bowl ring. By the way, some residents in western Mexico still play a sport known as ulama, which traces its roots to the Maya ballgame, but don’t worry — human sacrifices fell out of favor around 1300.


4. The Maya Built Enormous Cities and Pyramids

The La Danta pyramid, believed to be the largest pyramid by volume in the world. © Dennis Jarvis

The La Danta pyramid, believed to be the largest pyramid by volume in the world. © Dennis Jarvis

Located in the northern portion of the El Petén department (or region) of Guatemala, the ancient Maya city of El Mirador was once home to an estimated 200,000 people. Covering an area the size of downtown Los Angeles, its surrounding population actually reached more than one million. Like many of its Maya counterparts, El Mirador was abandoned approximately 2,000 years ago. Although it has been completely overgrown by the surrounding jungle, the La Danta pyramid, in its center, is so large that it appears to be a small mountain. But it is actually one of the largest pyramids in the world by volume. Covering approximately 45 acres with a height of 230 feet, its first tier alone is 980 feet wide and 2,000 feet in length. Dr. Richard Hansen, the director of the Mirador Basin Project, told Smithsonian Magazine in 2011 that as many as 15 million man-days of labor were used on La Danta, an investment of labor he says is unprecedented in history. Today, El Mirador is part of the Mirador-Río Azul National Park, but it is under serious threat from deforestation, bureaucratic problems, narcotics trafficking, and looters. Hansen hopes to change that by garnering more support from those in power as well as the media. Although El Mirador is often referred to as the “cradle of Maya civilization,” it is just one of many cities the culture built. Hansen estimates there are thousands of pyramids that remain undiscovered.


3. The Mayan Language is Still Spoken Today

Some three-dozen dialects of the Mayan language are still spoken.

Girls in Guatemala, where the Mayan language is still spoken; Reinhard Jahn, Mannheim

Maya civilization began around 2000 B.C. and peaked in the first millennium. But the Mayan language actually dates back to a similar Proto-Mayan language first spoken approximately 5,000 years ago. To put this in perspective, the English language appeared around 1,500 years ago while the Romance languages started roughly 1,000 years ago. Today, some three-dozen officially recognized versions of the Mayan language are still spoken by at least 6 million indigenous Maya living primarily in the countries of Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and Mexico. Although Spanish colonization of Central America resulted in the Spanish language becoming the primary language in major urban areas, the rural areas were much more resistant to outside influence. In fact, due to ethnic-pride-based ideologies in the 20th century, the Mayan-speaking people have developed a certain identity as the “heirs” of the former Maya civilization. Hypothetically speaking, if the Spanish had never arrived in the region, students in the United States might be attending Mayan language class instead of Spanish.


2. The Maya were Skilled Astronomers, Mathematicians, and Engineers

The Maya were skilled astronomers and mathematicians.

Chichén Itzá Maya observatory; Bruno Girin

Whether you believe the theory about the end of the world or not, the Mayans were indeed amazing experts in complex calendar calculations as well as astronomy. In fact, many of the Maya cities included important structures that were primarily designed for astronomical observations. One example is Petén in Guatemala, which includes a series of buildings aligned from north to south as well as doorways that aligned with the winter and summer solstices. From an observation point on a nearby pyramid, the Maya could watch the sunrise behind these structures in order to mark specific points of time on their calendars. These alignments also helped them track the orbits of the five visible planets and the Moon and make eclipse predictions long before Western astronomers took the credit. In terms of engineering, the earliest known example of an engineered water-pressure system in the New World was discovered in 2010 in the Maya city of Palenque in Mexico. Formerly credited to the Spanish, this primitive plumbing system actually predated the arrival of the Europeans. Based on an ingenious design that combined a downhill flow of water with sudden channel restriction, the theories of its usage range from wastewater disposal to an ornamental fountain.


1. The Maya Built Incredible Architecture We Still Marvel at Today

The Maya built thousands of cities in Mexico and Central America.

Palenque Maya ruins in Mexico; Jan Harenburg

Maya ruins are some of the largest and most detailed of any civilization in history. According to a 2005 study by Walter Witschey and Clifford Brown, more than 4,400 Maya sites have been documented. The architecture at each site alone spans periods of thousands of years and the individual structures were either restructured or enhanced based on the new ruler’s preferences. Overall, the Maya mastered four building methods: 1) urban design with structures that were integrated into the natural topography of the surroundings for maximum effect; 2) construction that consisted of cut and stucco stone exteriors filled with densely packed gravel for optimum strength and decorative lintels (load-bearing components); 3) pyramids and religious temples that were used for everything from charting the stars to sacrificing a willing (or unwilling soul) to the gods; and 4) cave sites that included uses that ranged from religious purposes to the spiritual entrance to the “underworld.”

So all this information about how the Maya were ahead of their time begs the question: Did the Maya know something about the end of the world that we don’t?

Written by

James Nalley is a full-time freelance writer specializing in a wide array of historical, travel and cultural topics. He is a leading contributor to the Discover Maine history magazine and the Feature Latin-America and Caribbean Travel Writer to Suite101, an online magazine based in Vancouver. He also writes commercially for Demand Media Studios and also serves as an editor for the Enago Corp. in Japan. His work has been published in over 100 magazines and websites.