View looking north from the Governor’s Palace towards the Nunnery and the Ball Court with the Pyramid of the Magician on the right, at Uxmal, Yucatan, Merida, Mexico, June 1989. (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

What happened to the Mayans?

The Mayans were much more advanced that once thought. Anywhere from 7 to 11 million people lived within its expansive kingdom. Though the popular opinion is that the Mayan civilization was conquered by Spanish Conquistadors, we don’t actually know what led to the decline of their society. However, there are many theories.


The Mayans peaked long before European explorers arrived (roughly 1,200 years ago, while Columbus only arrived about 500 years ago). New laser technology is giving archaeologists clues about what made Mayan civilization decline to the point that it was largely undefended when the Spanish arrived. So if the Spanish didn’t wipe them out, then who or what did?

Once a city, now it’s a jungle

The ancient Mayans has been studied by mainstream archaeologists and historians since the culture was rediscovered in 1843, but not until recently has the exploration of Mayan culture gone full throttle. In 2018 alone tens of thousands of structures have been found and dozens of miles of roads, canals, and causeways connecting the massive society.


The year 2018 has been especially kind to researchers, and new technology is enabling a renaissance of finds that show us the real Mayan culture. The next photo shows us just how incredible the technology is, as it peals back the layers of the photo above, and reveals how the jungle made it so difficult to learn Mayan secrets.

Archaeologists used to walk the jungle to find Mayan ruins

For over 150 years, archaeologists have been exploring ancient Mayan ruins in much the same way. While flying technology allowed for a nice aerial view of Mayan ruins that poke through the thick canopy, much of the real work and discovery was done on the ground.


But the jungle is a thick mangled mess of vegetation that enables just 2% of sunlight to weave its way to the ground. That means that plant life has to grow, fast, to reach the light of the sun. That growth swallows anything in its path and buries it deep. It’s not science fiction, but scientists are flipping the script by opening the lid on the jungle canopy using new laser technology.

People flying over Mayan civilization couldn’t see much

Jungle vegetation has literally covered up an entire civilization, leaving future generations unable to discover how Mayans truly lived. Only the most massive of structures poke their tops through the jungle canopy, and if it weren’t for UNESCO and the Mexican government they would still be completely covered.

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For 1,200 years the jungle slowly ate away at ancient Maya. In 1929 Charles Lindbergh took his wife Anne for ride over the Yucatan Peninsula, offering a view of the jungle rarely seen before. In her diary she wrote, “unspeakably alone and majestic and desolate — the mark of a great civilization gone.” Too bad she didn’t have a LiDar laser, because this next bit gets a little interesting to say the least.

Newly discovered pyramid

Historians and archaeologists will likely continue to make theories only to see them debunked by new discoveries. The new technology that is making this all possible is something called LiDAR (“Light Detection and Ranging”) imaging, and it’s responsible for the over 60,000 structures just discovered in September 2018, which includes a pyramid that is seven stories high!

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The team responsible for the imaging covered an area of almost 800 square miles and fired pulses of laser at the ground at a rate of 900,000 times per second that gives such an accurate picture of the topography that any man-made structures stand out against the natural jungle. So what was it that they found?

An ancient highway

Only about 5% of the 900,000 laser beams fired every second actually reaches the floor of the rain forest. From that, the team uncovered over 60,000 structures and a series of interconnected highways that are making historians rethink just how many people may have lived in ancient Maya.


While current models estimate there were between 7–11 million people who lived under the Mayan kingdom, now researchers think there may have been double that amount. The reason is the vast network of highways that connect massive agricultural operations to enormous cities. Given the scale of the venture, there must’ve been a lot of hungry mouths to feed!

150 square miles of modified terrain

Agricultural findings have been difficult to come by for researchers when it comes to digging for ancient Mayan artifacts. The reason is very simple: jungle overgrowth. While the jungle continues to swallow everything within its canopy, it’s important for researchers to realize how the topography has changed over the years.

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Areas previously thought of as too wet for cultivation were found to show evidence of agricultural growth. In fact, much of the area considered “wetland” in the jungle was found to have supported farming. Researchers found almost 150 square miles of modified terrain, and nearly three times that as viable farmland. They said they found cacao, papayas, pineapples, chili peppers, avocados, squash, beans and maize.

Incredibly advanced agriculturalists

A top researcher at the University of California Berkeley said of the agricultural finds that, “My work has demonstrated that the ancient Maya were able to work with nature. They were forest gardeners using observational skills developed over centuries, scheduling their annual planting and reaping cycle, their clearing and growing cycle, and their perennial management cycle, to work with the forest.”

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That’s some incredibly advanced work! And the researcher went on to say that, “That is why the dominant plants that blanket the landscape are all useful for fruit, wood, roofs, construction, products, oils, medicine, incense, [and] poison.” That means Mayan planting is still having an effect on the rain forest to this day!

Mayan infrastructure

The most recent findings tell a story of a culture and an empire that was vast and required massive infrastructure to keep the whole civilization going. We already mentioned massive highway systems that enabled remote locations to be connected to the big cities of the Mayans.

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The Mayans also built water management systems on a mass scale that are historically unique. The main reason is that there are no major water sources that run through Central America, and they relied almost entirely on cenotes. Over 2,200 cenotes have been found, and many have cities built around them, complete with stairs and paths to natural cisterns.

A similar find in Guatemala

LiDAR imaging has been at work for a couple of years now, and the September find was not the first. Earlier in 2018, a similar find was discovered in Guatemala that gave researchers a glimpse of what happened to the Mayans culture before it declined so sharply.

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Among the many finds in the Guatemala study were massive city walls, meaning warfare was constant. One researcher remarked, “Warfare wasn’t only happening toward the end of the civilization, it was large-scale and systematic, and it endured over many years.” Given the location in the Mayan empire, researchers may have uncovered evidence of what caused the Mayans to almost disappear.

Stacks on stacks on stacks

Ancient cities, just like today’s cities, often have new construction built right on top of old buildings and structures. From the air a spotter might see the top of a pyramid, but not only would they just be seeing the tip of the iceberg, but also what lies beneath.

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In the photograph above an elongated structure at the top right is estimated to be 2,500 years old, while the larger structure on the other side of the valley is said to be only 1,500 years old. But that doesn’t mean they’re from different eras, as the bigger structure is built on layers of older structures.

Ancient Mayans society collapsed before the Spanish arrived

Here’s what we know about the decline of the Mayans: Their cities were densely populated and they had a fantastic handle on agriculture. The Mayans also had interconnected roads (even raised off the ground to combat flooding) and waterways to link these two important settings of their society.

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We also know that around 700 or 800 AD the Mayans began abandoning their villages in the south and their civilization collapsed. Many theories try to explain what happened to one of the most dominant societies in the Americas. As we explore them, it’s important to take a closer look at all aspects of Mayan society to find out what happened.

“Many theories on Mayans are about to change”

The leading archaeologist on the site of a newly discovered Mayan village said earlier in 2018 that, “These results show that many theories on the Maya are about to change and at a fast pace if we continue to acquire… data and share those data among collaborating scholars in real time.

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“So far, we have been able to discover many aspects of Maya civilization we had not appreciated — the size of their cities, the sophistication of their agricultural engineering, as well as the scale of their wars. Many more discoveries will be made if archaeologists have access to… Big Data.” We can’t wait! And until then, let’s look at what we’ve found and what those theories are about Mayan culture.

The Mayans retreat

We don’t know exactly why, but we do know that the southern cities of the Mayan kingdom, one by one, slowly became abandoned. The peak of their culture came about 1,200 years ago when the Mayans began retreating to the north.


We do know that the Mayans were not the only game in town over 1,000 years ago, and may have been the victim of a massive city-state on the rise. The Aztecs arrived on the scene a couple hundred years later, so even though defensive structures suggest they were under constant threat from outside attack, it may not be the reason they abandoned their cities.

Decline of the Mayans

Military conquest from an invader is one idea, but more likely invasion from outside came from crumbling social structures on the inside. Just like the courts of Europe, Mayans engaged in marriages to keep up alliances and good relations with rival city-states.

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As warfare intensified, complex systems such as trade alliances may have broken down. Scholars argue that if these breakdowns led to the diminished power of Mayan leaders, then their system of rituals that identified them as living gods may have broken down. With reduced stature, their hold on the Mayan people would’ve been greatly reduced, and whether it was the main reason or not, it would’ve certainly caused problems within the complex Mayan society.

Did drought bring down the Mayans?

Another theory as to why the Mayans disappeared is the way in which they used the land around them. From the studies conducted using LiDAR technology, we know the Mayans were smart enough to rotate their crops in order to preserve the quality of soil.

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But if their population and food demands got too big for the surrounding area to support, then it’s possible the Mayans could’ve caused massive forest erosion. If that wasn’t enough, given their utter dependence on rainwater, if a drought struck the area, it’s plausible that it contributed to a major die off of their population.

An ancient lake reveals a secret

Archaeologists will likely have their hands full for awhile, as they estimate there’s some 2.7 million structures yet to be found, over an expanse of nearly 40,000 square miles. But using laser technology isn’t the only way to uncover the mystery of what led to the downfall of the Mayans.

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Scientists analyzed sediment underneath Lake Chichancanab in the Yucatan Peninsula, and found that right around the time we see a dip in Mayan culture, a major drought deprived Mayans of 70% of their water supply. Losing 50% happened before many times, but only 30% water supply could’ve led to huge problems for Mayans.

Cortes the conqueror

We know Columbus arrived on the scene in 1492, and the Conquistador Cortes came nearly 30 years later. By that time, many Mayan cities were like they are today: hidden under the growth of the rain forest. And the main city-state that was in power in the region were the Aztecs.

Getty Images – The first meeting of Hernan Cortes and Montezuma

Emperor Montezuma of the Aztecs did not experience a good end to his regime. Cortes sacked his city with only 400 men, killed him, and then murdered an estimated 240,000 people on his way to founding Mexico City. With that kind of wholesale slaughter, it’s probably best that the Mayans were largely not around.

Chichen Itza

The Mayan city of Chichen Itza was one of the last cities still in existence that had Mayan inhabitants. But just like Montezuma’s city, Chichen Itza was taken by the Spanish. And also just like that conquest, the Spanish won by turning rival tribes against them.

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Most Mayans were living in self-sustaining agricultural villages when the Spanish arrived, but aside from Chichen Itza, the cities of Uxmal and Mayapan were still around. But given their location in the Yucatan, not far from Chichen Itza, they both succumbed to Spanish invaders. However one Mayan city managed to hold out for over 150 more years.

The Mayans last stronghold

Tayasal (modern day Tayasal below) was decidedly the Mayans’ last holdout that managed to live freely from Spanish rule. The town is located in Guatemala’s lake region, making it difficult to travel to. However, Cortes managed to do just that during his conquest of the area in 1525.


When confronted by the Spanish invader, the leader in the city promised Cortes that his people would convert to Christianity. It was a bold-faced lie, but Cortes bought it and moved on. The Spanish then left the city alone until 1697 when 235 Spanish soldiers armed with muskets successfully took the city. Unfortunately, just as in previous cases, the Spanish soldiers destroyed most items of cultural significance.

Mayans rediscovered

Mayan culture largely went underground for the next couple of centuries, as Christian inhabitants of the area were largely uninterested in digging up a pagan culture’s ruins. But that all changed in 1843 when a man named John Lloyd Stephens wrote a book titled, “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.”


Though El Castillo in Chichen Itza was nearly completely covered by overgrowth, Stephens found the area fascinating. Since then, Mayan culture has been carefully studied, but because of rain forest growth and the destruction of so many culturally significant artifacts by the Spanish, there is still much we don’t about the Mayans. Fortunately, there’s a lot we do know about the Mayans.

Being cross-eyed was attractive

Common folk in ancient Maya didn’t spend nearly as much time and energy morphing themselves into what they thought was attractive, and therefore probably look a lot more like modern people. The reason for that is Mayans thought that attributes such as being cross-eyed and having sharp teeth were coveted among other extreme beauty trends.

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The Maya really thought that a flat forehand was an attractive quality, so moms would flatten their babies faces by pressing a board against their foreheads. They also might dangle an object in front of a baby’s eyes to make them go cross, which was super sexy for the upper class.

This was attractive?!

If you find yourself confronted by an ancient Mayan woman with a flat forehead, eyes crossed, and sharpened front teeth, then you better hold onto her; she’s a keeper. That’s right, to make themselves even more attractive Mayan nobility filed their teeth to fine points.

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The Mayans didn’t stop there either, as hundreds of different patterns of jewels have been discovered in the teeth of old skeletons. They might include jade or fool’s gold. They were even able to apply a local numbing agent during procedures, as several plant species in the Belizean rain forest can be used as an anesthetic.

Mayan medicine

The Mayans didn’t stop their curiosity with medicine at just the mouth, as they were also very advanced in treating other ailments. The main reason why they were successful in advancing medical treatment is their undeniable resourcefulness. They used everything at their disposal, from plants and trees to their own hair.


Mayans would use human hair to suture wounds, which was highly effective at keeping wounds closed in a time where there were no antiseptics. The Mayans were so advanced that they even had prosthetics for patients with lost limbs. Archaeologists have unearthed Mayans with jade, and even turquoise limbs.

Mayan doomsday: December 21, 2012

One theory about Mayan culture that has been debunked was that the world was going to end on December 21, 2012. The evidence: we’re still here. So if the world didn’t end on that December day in 2012 then why did people think that?


The answer is the Mayan calendar that recycles every 2,880,000 days. The Mayan long-count calendar starts over almost every 8,000 years, and the Mayans never said the restart would bring about doomsday. That was the result of modern thinking and a fascination with Armageddon. Fortunately, the Mayans had two other calendar systems they used that were far more accurate.

The world was created on August 11, 3114 BC

The Mayans were extremely adept at figuring out celestial patterns in the stars. Based on the earth’s movements within the cosmos, the Mayans determined the world was created on August 11, 3114 BC. According to fossil records, we’ve determined that this isn’t the case, but their confidence in their precision is impressive.

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One of the calendars that the Mayans followed was far more similar to the Gregorian calendar that we follow today. It had 365 days in the year, and each day was given a name designation. That means that when parents had children they named them after the day of the year, without many exceptions. The calendar was nearly Holy to the Mayans, and also showed up in some of their structures.

El Castillo, Chichen Itza

Perhaps the most well-known city, and thus the greatest mystery to the Mayan culture, is the ancient city of Chichen Itza. It was founded sometime around the 500s and was probably invaded by the Mayans about 500 years later.

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The great pyramid called “El Castillo” at the heart of the city was built sometime after the invaders arrived. It’s an extremely impressive structure that speaks to the Mayan’s understanding of astronomy and earth’s place in the cosmos. It has 91 steps on each side, or 364 total, with one more at the top making one for every day of the year.

Underground caves provided water

The rituals that use to take place at Chichen Itza are legendary and in some cases, quite gnarly. One of the reasons Chichen Itza was a thriving city is because of its fresh water supply. The Mayans relied on cenotes for water, which were vast subterranean caves that conveniently collected millions of gallons of rainwater.


They also used them for their most infamous ritual. The Mayans relied completely on the rain to fill the cenotes and making a sacrifice to the god of rain was necessary. When the land was purchased in 1904 and the owner began dredging the cenote he found countless skeletons and jewels paid to the gods.

Mayan writing

Mayans were literate to the point of showing off, as they employed one of the first-known written languages. It appears they tried to write it on just about everything. It’s a good thing they did, because when the Spanish arrived they destroyed nearly every written work created by the Mayans.

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Historians and linguists have been gathering pieces of these written works and have been translating them for decades. It’s no easy task, as it’s all littered throughout the rain forest, and to add to the difficulty, the Mayan language is one of the most complex the world has ever seen.

How many languages?!

Mayans were also highly literate, as the average citizen could likely read and write. However, even though historians have been able to determine that there was one Mayan language to start with, nowadays, there are at least 70 different languages spoken that all stem from there.

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This language precedes even the Preclassic Period, which is when Mayan culture was taking shape. Once the Preclassic Period (1000BC – 250AD) took hold, Mayan culture spread throughout Central America and spanned two continents. This separation resulted in a rich diversity of dialects that varied by region. It’s estimated that there are five million people who still speak at least one of those dialects.


Mayans may have known about metal, but for one reason or another they never weaponized it. Instead, they mainly used obsidian, which is a type of volcanic rock. Obsidian could be shaped and sharpened enough to penetrate Spanish steel, but was also brittle and prone to breaking.

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Obsidian tips were placed on darts and arrows, and as long as 40,000 years ago the Mayans used the atlatl to hurl the sharp missiles though the air. The atlatl was an effective weapon against large animals such as a woolly mammoth, but once larger game died off Mayans switched mainly to the bow and arrow, which were also used in rare instances for human sacrifice
(Next: Mayan human sacrifice).

Human sacrifice

Human sacrifices were a big part of Mayan culture and at the heart of their religious practices. While slightly less common than the traditional practice of ritual sacrifice, Mayans would often have people stand up to a volley of arrows.


Far more common were the brutal sacrifices that took place during elaborate rituals. Victims of these rituals were painted blue, and ushered to the top of a pyramid. Priests would then cut out the living heart of the person as they were held down. In even more brutal fashion, sometimes they would be skinned alive, and the priest would dance with the skin as a cover.

Human heads as a ball in sports

Another aspect of Mayan culture that was equally brutal were their “ball” games. Courts for the games have been found in nearly every major Mayan city, and competitions between teams may have been played using a human head for a ball.

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And speaking of heads, the losing team literally had their heads roll, as they became the victim of sacrifice by decapitation. There is some evidence that Mayans were able to make rubber balls, but most historians agree it was at least originally a human head. This sums up historians views on Mayan culture, as they are finding and analyzing large tracts of information to this day.

The Mayans survive

As previously mentioned, the Spanish did a bang up job of eliminating most of the stories written by the Mayans. But through painstaking efforts by scholars over the past 100 years, all writings that have been found have been assembled and translated.


Today, there are over 70 Mayan languages spoken by some 5 million people, and much of their culture still survives. Descendants of the ancient Mayans even still engage in a variation of the game (called Ulama) played by their ancestors. The only differences are today they use a ball, and if they lose, they get to keep their heads. With all the efforts being conducted by researchers, its likely that more rituals like these will come to life, and reveal the mysteries that still surround the great Mayan culture.