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LOCATION: Southeastern Mexico; Guatemala; Belize; Honduras; El Salvador

POPULATION: About 810 million

LANGUAGE: Spanish; English; various Mayan dialects

RELIGION: "Folk Catholicism"; evangelical Christianity


Today's Maya are descended from one of the great civilizations of the Americas. They live in the same regions of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras as their ancestors and retain many of their ancient traditions. Mayan history reaches back some 4,000 years to what is called the Preclassic period, when civilization first began in Central America. However, it was during what came to be known as the Classic periodfrom roughly ad 250 to 900that Mayan culture reached its peak and the Maya achieved their celebrated advances in architecture, mathematics, agriculture, astronomy, art, and other areas.

They built spectacular temples and palaces, developed several calendarsincluding one reaching back to 13 August, 3114 bcand evolved a numerical system capable of recording a number that today would be expressed as 142 followed by 36 zeros. They developed a complex system of writing and, beginning in 50 bc, were the first people in the Western hemisphere to keep written historical records. Around ad 900 the construction of buildings and stelaestone slabs inscribed with names and datesceased abruptly, and the advanced lowland civilization of the Maya collapsed, creating a mystery that has fascinated scholars for many years. Possible causes that have been proposed include warfare, drought, famine, and disease.

The Spanish campaign to subdue the Maya and conquer their lands began around 1520 and ended nearly 200 years later when Tayasal, the last remaining Mayan region (in present-day Guatemala), fell to the conquistadors in 1697. The Spanish seized Mayan lands and enslaved their populations, sending many to labor in the mines of northern Mexico. In addition, thousands of Maya died of diseases spread by the Europeans, especially smallpox. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Central American lands won their independence from Spain, but the lives of the Maya did not improve. They labored on vast tobacco, sugarcane, and henequen plantations, in virtual slavery enforced by their continuing debt to the landowners. In the Yucatán, many joined in a protracted rebellion called the Caste War that lasted from 1847 to 1901.

After the revolution of 1910, the Maya in Mexico gained increased legal rights and better educational and job opportunities. However, a steep drop in world prices for henequenthe "green gold" from which twine was madeturned the Yucatán from one of Mexico's richest regions to one of its poorest. In Guatemala, the disenfranchisement and poverty of the Mayacomprising roughly half the populationcontinued unchanged into the twentieth century. Since the 1970s, political violence has forced many Maya to flee to Mexico, where they remain as refugees. In Chiapas, Maya of the Tzeltal and Tzotzil tribes took part in the Zapatista uprising of January 1994.


The modern Maya live in southeastern Mexico and northern Central America, including Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Altogether, their homelands cover an area of approximately 125,000 square miles (323,750 square kilometers) with a varied terrain that encompasses both northern lowlands and southern highlands. Volcanic mountains dominate the highlands. The fertile soil of the highland valleys supports the largest segment of the Maya population. While many Maya have settled in citiesparticularly Merida and Cancúnand adopted an urban lifestyle, most remain rural dwellers.

Reliable figures for the total number of Maya are unavailable. Estimates range upward from 4 million. The true figure is probably between 8 and 10 million, including about half of Guatemala's total population of 10 million, close to 2 million Maya in the Mexican Yucatán, and additional numbers in Mexico's Chiapas state, as well as Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Among the larger individual groups are about 750,000 Quiché (K'iche') in the midwestern highlands of Guatemala; 445,000 or more Cakchiquel in several Guatemalan departments (provinces); and over 500,000 Mam in southwestern Guatemala and southeastern Chiapas.


Most Maya today speak Spanish. The two Mayan languages of the Classic period, Yucatecan and Cholan, have subdivided into about thirty separate languages, some of which are not mutually intelligible. The most widely spoken are Mam, Quiché, Kekchí, and Cakchiquel. Advocates of Mayan cultural autonomy protest against the relegation of their indigenous languages to limited use, often in remote rural areas, while Spanish remains the language of government, education, the church, and the media. The following example is drawn from a creation myth in the Popol Vuh, the Mayan holy book:

Keje k'ut xax k'o wi ri kaj nay puch, u K'ux Kaj.

Are ub'i ri k'ab'awil, chuch'axik.


And of course there is the sky, and there is also the Heart of Sky.

This is the name of the god, as it is spoken.


The greatest body of Mayan tradition is contained in the Popol Vuh, an ancient text first transcribed into Latin and later translated into Spanish that preserves both sacred and secular lore. According to its creation myth, the gods made three different attempts at creating human beings before they had a version they were satisfied with. The first beings, which were made of mud, were destroyed because they had no brains. The next ones were made of wood and proved deficient because they were without emotions and thus could not properly praise their makers. Finally the correct materialmaize (corn)was found, and perfect beings were fashioned. Ultimately deciding to protect them by limiting the extent of their knowledge, the gods decided to damage their eyes so they could not see too much, and the resulting beings were the first Maya.


The traditional religions of the Maya, in which astrology and ancestor worship both played a role, were based on a system of beliefs that included the world, the heavens, and an unseen underworld called Xibalba. When Spanish missionaries introduced Catholicism to their regions, the Maya tended to add it onto their existing religion, creating a unique brand of "folk Catholicism." Their traditional gods that belonged to the natural world, such as corn, rain, and the sun, became associated with Christian saints, and various rituals and festivals were transmuted into forms approved by the church.

Since the 1960s, evangelical Christianity, mostly promoted by churches in the southern United States, has been adopted by large segments of the Mayan population. Entire towns have embraced conservative forms of Protestantism, which have not proven as amenable as Catholicism to the retention of customs related to traditional folk religions, such as the use of alcohol in association with religious rituals or the retention of the sacred brotherhoodsknown as cofradias in Guatemala and as cargos in Chiapaswhich traditionally oversee village festivals and other aspects of civic life.


Most holidays currently observed by the Maya are the holy days of the Christian calendar. Many of their observances, however, still have characteristics of the traditional nature worship of their ancestors. The most important celebrations are generally Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter in late March or early April) and Christmas (December 25). The Maya living in the Chamula region of Chiapas are known for their five-day Carnival celebration, called Crazy February, whose Christian significance (the period preceding Lent) coincides with the older observance of the five "Lost Days" at the end of the Maya solar calendar. Religious societies called cargos sponsor the festivities, which include ceremonial dances, feasting, processions, and ritual reenactments of both religious and historic events.


Major life transitions (such as birth, puberty, and death) are marked by religious ceremonies, many of which combine Christian and ancestral traditions.


The religious societies known as cargos in Chiapas and cofradias in Guatemala have been an important vehicle of social cohesion among the Maya. Charged since colonial times with organizing Catholic religious festivals, they provided the means for the Maya to conform to the customs of their colonizers while privately preserving their own religion, traditions, and world-view. Mayan villages today have both civil and religious cargos, whose officials may ascend through a hierarchy of positions to ultimately become respected village elders, or principales.


Housing varies among the different regions and groups of Maya. The Mam, who live in southwestern Guatemala and southeastern Chiapas, live in houses with adobe walls, small shuttered windows, roofs of tile or corrugated metal, and a floor of hard-packed dirt. The K'iche' in the Guatemalan highlands build rectangular houses with double-pitched tile roofs and walls of adobe, thatch supported by boards or poles, or other materials. Increasing numbers live in more modern homes built from brick or lumber with tin roofs.

Maya folk medicine includes the ministrations of ritual healers called curanderos and female herbalists who may double as midwives. Common cures include prayers, offerings, herbal remedies, and sweat-baths.

The main means of transport for most Maya is the bus. Buses in Maya areas may be crowded as early as 4:00 or 5:00 am, often with people traveling from remote villages to the larger market towns. By late afternoon and evening there are fewer travelers on the road. Trains in the Maya regionslike those in many parts of Central and South Americaare generally slow, old, and unreliable. In some areas, boats are used for public transportation.


Both nuclear and extended families are found among the Maya. Couples generally marry in their late teens or early twenties. Traditionally, all marriages were arranged, but since the 1950s it has become increasingly common among some groups for young people to choose their own mates. In arranged marriages, contact may be initiated by the couple, followed by negotiation between the two families. Gifts are generally exchanged, and in some cases the bride's parents receive a payment to compensate them for having raised her. Couples often have both civil and religious ceremonies, and they may live with the groom's parents until their first child is born.

Family structure may alternate between nuclear and extended, with the addition of newly married couples who will eventually leave to establish their own homes, or elderly parents who come to live with the family when it becomes hard for them to manage on their own.


The Maya wear both modern Western-style clothing and traditional garb (although the latter is more commonly worn by women). Men generally wear trousers and sport shirts or guayaberas dress shirts with decorative tucks worn outside the belt in place of a jacket. Women wear either traditional woven and embroidered clothing, or stylish dresses and skirt-and-blouse outfits. Traditional women's attire includes the huipil (plural: huipiles ), a long, sleeveless tunic; the quechquémitli, a shoulder cape; and the enredo, a wrap-around skirt. Maya garments are commonly decorated with elaborate and colorful embroidery. The designs, which include humans, animals, and plants, often have some religious significance, and every Maya group and village has its own distinctive patterns of decoration. The decorative designs for huipiles are often said to appear to women in their dreams. Men often wear the traditional tunics over store-bought shirts. Fajas are sashes that hold garments in place and also serve as pockets.


The Maya generally eat three meals a day: breakfast (el desayuno), lunch (la comida), and supper (la cena). Corn, the most important food of their ancestors, remains the central ingredient in their diet today and is used to make tortillas or tamales. After corn, beans (frijoles) are the most basic staple, served boiled, fried, or refried. Soupsmany of them actually thick stewsform a large part of the Mayan diet. One of the most popular is lime soup (sopa de lima), made from chicken, limes, and a variety of spices.

Poultry forms the basis of many mealseither turkey, which is native to the region, or chicken, which was introduced by the Spanish. Plentiful seafood caught on the coasts of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico is also an important part of the diet. The Yucatán is known for its ceviche, a cold dish made with fish prepared with an acidic marinade (usually lime juice), served with onions, chiles, and cilantro. Popular desserts include flan (a custard introduced by the Spanish) and Torta del Cielo (Heavenly Cake), a cake made with rum, almonds, and ten eggs that is served at weddings and other special occasions.

One of the best-known foods of the Maya is Cochinita Pibil, a pork dish that dates back to pre-Columbian times, when it was made from wild boar cooked in a coal-filled pit. Domesticated pigs, introduced by the Spanish, have replaced the boar, but the dish is prepared with the same seasonings as it was in the past. A recipe for Cochinita Pibil is included in this entry.


The Maya are educated at either public or Catholic schools. In Guatemala, a half-dozen Catholic-run boarding schools are the main source of education for those wishing to progress beyond the basic education available in the villages. Maya concerned with preserving their traditions believe that the formal education available to them has caused them to lose touch with their own culture. The Guatemalan Academy of Maya Languages (Academia de Lenguas Mayas ) leads a movement to preserve the languages of the Guatemalan Maya.


The Maya have preserved many aspects of their ancient culture, including their traditional clothing, folklore, agricultural techniques, family structure, language, and dance. Many elements of their ancient religions have also survived for centuries under the guise of Catholic religious observances.


In rural areas, the Maya farm their maize fields, or milpas, much as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. Forested sites are converted into new fields by felling the trees and burning the brush (today known as "slash-and-burn" agriculture). Maize kernels are then planted into holes made with digging sticks. Where the ancient Maya used stone tools for clearing and hardened the end of the digging stick with fire, today's farmer uses a steel machete and metal-tipped stick. Because this type of agriculture rapidly depletes the soil, fields must be left fallow for periods ranging from seven to as many as twenty years. Besides farming, Maya also work as laborers and artisans or own small shops. In urban areas, they work in jobs involving textiles or computers, for example.


Cochinita Pibil (Pork Marinade)


  • ¼ teaspoon ground pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • cup lime juice
  • 2 pounds lean pork, cut in 2-inch cubes
  • Banana leaves or aluminum foil
  • 1 small can chopped hot chilies
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Sliced purple raw onions
  • 2 bay leaves, crushed
  • String


  1. Combine the pepper and the cumin with the minced garlic.
  2. Combine the garlic mixture with the lime juice, bay leaves, and oregano.
  3. Put the pork cubes in a large plastic bag and add the spice mixture. Seal and turn and shake the bag until the pork is well coated with the mixture. Marinate for at least 3 hours or overnight.
  4. Place banana leaves or aluminum foil on the bottom of a roasting pan. (Leaves or foil should drape over the sides of the pan.) Pour the pork cubes and the marinade onto the leaves (or foil).
  5. Top with chopped onions and chiles. Fold the leaves (or foil) over the meat. If using banana leaves, tie with string to secure. Preheat oven to 325°f. Cover the pan and bake for 1½ hours.

Serve with beans, salsa, and heated corn tortillas.

Adapted from Gerlach, Nancy, et al. Foods of the Maya. Freedom, Calif.: The Crossing Press, 1994.


The ancient Maya played hip-ball, a game that involved keeping a hard rubber ball aloft with any part of the body other than the hands, head, or feet. In some regions, the ball had to be hit through a set of stone rings. Soccer is popular among the Maya of today.


Sunday afternoons after church are the most popular time for recreation. Most businesses are closed, and many people stroll the village streets or relax in local parks. Popular forms of musical entertainment include marimba teams and mariachi bands.


Maya women are famous for their weaving, often using locally handspun yarn and natural vegetable dyes. Using the pre-Columbian back-strap loom of their ancestors, they produce striped and plain white cloth for shawls, shirts, and children's clothes, some with designs that are over 1,200 years old. Colorful hammocks are woven from fine cotton string. Other craft items include both glazed and unglazed pottery, ceremonial wooden masks, and goods woven from palm, straw, reeds, and sisal.

For centuries, traditional Maya dances have been preserved by the religious men's fraternities called cofradias. These dances were performed for both ceremonial and entertainment purposes. The Pop Wuj dance depicts the four stages of humankind's development: the Man of Mud, who is destroyed because he does not recognize the gods; the Man of Wood, who is too rigid and ultimately burns; the Monkey Man, who is too silly; and the Human Being, who respects and prays to the gods. The K'iche' Maya of Chichicastenango have a dance that centers around Sijolaj, a harvest king whom the Spaniards identified with St. Thomas.


The Maya of Yucatán, like many other Mexicans, suffer from overpopulation, unemployment, and periods of political unrest. In Guatemala, Mayan farmers have been crowded onto mountainous areas with poor land, and laborers must work for extremely low wages. The most serious problem for the Maya in that country has been over two decades of violent political repression by the military and right-and left-wing death squads. Thousands have been murdered or "disappeared," and many have fled the country for Mexico or the United States.

The health of the Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya of Chiapas has been compromised by their inadequate diet, which consists of fewer than 500 calories a dayone-fifth of the minimum standard set by the United Nations. Life expectancy is only forty-four years, and the infant mortality rate is 150 deaths per 1,000 live births.


Brosnahan, Tom. Guatemala, Belize and Yucatan: La Ruta Maya. Hawthorn, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1994.

Canby, Peter. The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Gerlach, Nancy, and Jeffrey Gerlach. Foods of the Maya: A Taste of the Yucatan. Freedom, Calif.: The Crossing Press, 1994.

Olson, James S. The Indians of Central and South America: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Trout, Lawana Hooper. The Maya. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.


Columbus Group. [Online] Available, 1998.

Embassy of Mexico in Canada. [Online] Available, 1998.

Science Museum of Minnesota. Maya Adventure. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available, 1998.

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1. The mother of Gotama who became the Buddha. She died within a few days of his birth. Later accounts (e.g. Buddhacarita) recount many miracles, including a virgin birth.

2. (Skt., ‘supernatural power’). In the early Vedic literature, māyā generally means supernatural power or magic. It also carries the connotation of deceit or trickery. In the Bhagavad-gītā, māyā is the power to bring things into apparent form.

In Advaita Vedānta philosophy, Gauḍapāda used the term māyā for the power of the apparent creation of the world as well as the world so created. Śaṅkara extended the term by associating it with avidyā (ignorance). For Śaṅkara, avidyā, ignorance of the Ultimate Reality (Brahman) produces the illusory world of name and form, or māyā, through superimposition. It is usually misleading to translate māyā as ‘illusion’. Nevertheless, soteriologically the power of māyā is wisely treated as such; and in later Hinduism, māyā as Cosmic Illusion is sometimes personified and identified with the great goddess Durgā.

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, māyā means a delusion or an illusion such as that produced by a magician. The phenomenal world is illusory, māyā, with the Mādhyamaka arguing that the separate dharmas themselves are conditioned and have no being of their own, and the Yogācāra/Vijñānavāda school regarding the dharmas as merely ideas or representations.

Among Sikhs, the teaching of the Gurūs is that māyā is a real part of God's creation. However, the attractions of māyā (i.e., wealth, physical love, etc.) are also, in the end, delusory and cannot accompany a person beyond death.

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The Maya were American Indians who settled in southern Mexico and in Central America. Their territory covered Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, much of Guatemala, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. Originating in the region about 1000 b.c., the Maya developed a highly advanced civilization which reached its height during the Classical Period, a.d. 300-900. At its peak, the Mayan population numbered some fourteen million people who lived in agricultural communities and in the city-centers in Honduras (Copan), Mexico (Palenque, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza), and Guatemala (Piedras Negras, Uaxxactan, and Tikal). The capital was at Tikal (population 50,000), which was a center of education, economics, science, and religion. Mayan accomplishments were numerous and many were unparalleled at the time. Engineers produced remarkable architecture including flat-topped pyramids, temples, and towers. Artisans created elegant sculptures, paintings, and murals. Scholars developed an original writing system, which was used to record astronomical observations, chronology, and history. Mathematicians developed a system more advanced than any European system of that time.

The Mayans supported themselves by using slash- and-burn agriculture. The vegetation was cut down and burned to clear the land and provide nutriments for the soil, which was then planted with crops, especially corn, beans and squash. The Mayans also developed advance systems of irrigation and terracing. Terracing involves the construction of horizontal ridges in a hillside as a means of increasing the arable (farming) land. It also hindered soil erosion and evaporation. Though they used no beasts of burden, the Maya established a trade network that linked several Central American Indian groups and eventually extended into central Mexico, where the Maya exchanged goods with the Aztecs.

During the Post-Classic Period, a.d. 9001546, the Maya were invaded by the Toltecs, whom they eventually absorbed. Rebellions and civil war as well as widespread famine dominated the century preceding the arrival of the Europeans. When the Spaniards arrived in the mid-1500s, the Mayan civilization was in decline. The Maya were conquered by the Spaniards and they became assimilated into the larger Hispanic culture that developed in the region.

See also: Aztec, Inca, Mesoamerica

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Maya Outstanding culture of classic American civilization. Occupying s Mexico and n Central America, it was at its height from the 3rd to 9th centuries. The Maya built great temple-cities, with buildings surmounting stepped pyramids. They were skilful potters and weavers, and productive farmers. They worshipped gods and ancestors, and blood sacrifice was an important element of religion. Maya civilization declined in the 10th century, and much was destroyed after the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. The modern Maya, numbering c.4 million, live in the same area and speak a variety of languages related to that of their ancestors.

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A term used in Hinduism to denote the illusory nature of the world or empirical reality. It is to be distinguished from delusion, since it implies that there is something present, although not what it seems to be. According to the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, the divine infinity of Brahman (impersonal absolute) or Brahma (creative God) is real and is present in empirical reality but is veiled by the illusory power of maya.

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Maya2 an American Indian people of Yucatán and elsewhere in Central America, with a civilization which developed over an extensive area of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize from the 2nd millennium bc, reaching its peak c.300–c.900 ad. Its remains include stone temples built on pyramids and ornamented with sculptures. The Mayas had a cumbersome system of pictorial writing and an extremely accurate calendar system.

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ma·ya / ˈmīə; ˈmäyə/ • n. Hinduism the supernatural power wielded by gods and demons to produce illusions. ∎ Hinduism the power by which the universe becomes manifest. ∎  Hinduism & Buddhism the illusion or appearance of the phenomenal world.

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maya (in Hinduism)

maya (mä´yä), in Hinduism, term used in the Veda to mean magic or supernatural power. In Mahayana Buddhism it acquires the meaning of illusion or unreality. The term is pivotal in the Vedanta system of Shankara, where it signifies the world as a cosmic illusion and also the power that creates the world.

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Maya (indigenous people of Mexico and Central America)

Maya (mī´ə, Span. mä´yä), indigenous people of S Mexico and Central America, occupying an area comprising the Yucatán peninsula and much of the present state of Chiapas, Mexico; Guatemala and Belize; parts of El Salvador and extreme western Honduras. Speaking a group of closely related languages (with an outlier, Huastec, spoken in the Pánuco basin of Mexico), the population of Maya today is over 4 million.

Maya Prehistory

Archaeologists divide the prehistory of the Maya region into the Preclassic (c.1500 BC–AD 300), Classic (300–900), and Postclassic (900–1500) periods, and concur that in most parts of this large region the most spectacular florescence occurred during the Classic period. This was followed, in much of the area with the exception of Yucatán, by a demographic collapse at the end of which (c.AD 1100) close to 90% of the population had been lost. Although little understood, the earliest inhabitants seem to have been relatively few in number and practiced shifting cultivation.

Throughout Maya history, populations increased and agriculture, correlatively, became more intensive. Linked with this process, social organization became increasingly hierarchical, with increasing differentiations of wealth and status, shown primarily in the differential size and elaborateness of both residences and public buildings. Settlements in civic centers show a repeated pattern of arrangement of residences, pyramidal structures, and temples around courts or plazas, with buildings made of cut stone masonry, sculptured and stuccoed decorations, corbel-vault stone roofs, and paved plazas. Such groupings in small, poor rural settlements involve buildings of largely perishable materials and small size. Most of the elaborate carvings, relief and full-round, and the paintings, mural and ceramic, which are the hallmarks of Classic Maya art, come from the civic centers. These civic centers were numerous, including Copán in Honduras, El Mirador, Piedras Negras, Tikal, and Uaxactún in the N central Petén region of Guatemala, and Palenque and Uxmal in Mexico.

Neither during the Classic period nor at any other time does there seem to have been any political unification of the area as a whole. Rather, political organization seems to have been described by a series of small, city-state-like polities, each characterized by its own internal differentiation of status and power. While much earlier literature refers to professional rulers and priests, the present view is that the higher-status individuals were more probably heads of patrilineages (see kinship), and that much of the religious complex was centered on ancestor worship rather than on universalist gods. In contrast to the civilizations of central Mexico, urbanization and occupational differentiation in the Mayan region were poorly developed, even during the Classic period. On the other hand, the Classic Maya had a system of written hieroglyphic script, largely syllabic in nature, which, although once considered astronomical or religious in content, is now considered primarily dynastic and political. (Mayan writing, however, dates to the late Preclassic period.) Concomitantly, a vigesimal (base 20) numerical system was used, notable in its development of the zero as placeholder; several types of calendar reckonings were in simultaneous use.

The period following AD 900 was one of rapid decline, and many of the major cities were abandoned; it has been speculated that drought may have led to the collapse, and a number of studies support this theory. In the heartland of the lowland Maya, most major centers had been abandoned, probably more gradually than has been supposed, by around AD 1100. In the Yucatán highlands settlement persisted, with a probable colonization of the site of Chichén Itzá by Toltec from Central Mexico. By the time of Spanish conquest, most Mayan populations were centered around small villages.

Colonial-Period Maya

The Spanish conquistadors found a number of small polities in northern Yucatán, but, on their march into Central America, encountered few inhabitants. The introduction of new diseases by the Spanish contributed to the decimation of Maya populations, leaving the region still more sparsely settled.

For the remaining groups, the Spanish conquest led to the imposition of Catholicism and the establishment of various European forms of political organization. Although this imposition was not completely effective, Spaniards either eliminated or incorporated the indigenous elite into the new colonial system, leaving the Maya-speaking population a relatively undifferentiated mass of rural peasants. Administrative centers, inhabited largely by Spaniards, were established in the 16th cent. at Mérida in Yucatán, San Cristobal in Chiapas, and Antigua Guatemala in Guatemala. The latter was destroyed in a series of earthquakes in the 18th cent., prompting Spaniards to move the administrative center to Guatemala City.

For the most part, the Maya region was peripheral to the Spanish American colonies because the lack of mineral wealth, the relatively sparse population, and the lack of land suitable for the cultivation of export crops. Taxes were collected through church tithes and through the encomienda system. Only in a few coastal regions of Guatemala and Chiapas were plantations established for the cultivation of coffee and sugar. But even these were difficult to maintain, owing to the prevalence of malaria and other tropical diseases in lowland areas and the difficulties involved in extracting labor from adjacent highland areas, where slowly increasing numbers of Maya led relatively autonomous lives.

Independence Period

Beginning in the late 18th cent., demand for cordage and fibers on the world market stimulated the formation of enormous henequen plantations throughout the northern part of the Yucatán Peninsula. Previously, villagers in the region needed only to pay relatively modest taxes and submit to occasional labor drafts in order to be left alone by colonial authorities. By the end of the 18th cent., however, village lands were suddenly subject to expropriation by Spaniards. As the plantations grew in size and number, labor drafts became increasingly onerous, particularly among groups whose lands had been expropriated. This combination of pressures led to a widespread rebellion (1847–54), known as the caste wars, in which the explicit goal was to drive all European populations off the Yucatán Peninsula, a goal that was nearly realized. The Spaniards were never able to fully suppress the conflagration, leaving isolated areas outside the plantation zone beyond effective governmental control throughout the 19th cent.

The Twentieth Century

In the first half of the 20th cent., most of the Maya region looked much as it had centuries earlier. Society was divided between a commercial and administrative elite group of Spanish-speaking whites and ladinos, who resided in the larger towns, and a much larger group of Maya-speaking agriculturists, who resided in rural villages. In few areas of Latin America was a racial divide so clearly demarcated, with castelike divisions separating ladinos from the indigenous population. Although the political division between Mexico and Guatemala occurred early in the 19th cent., there were few discernible consequences prior to the years following the Mexican revolution (1910–17). At this time a land redistribution program, together with a set of legal guarantees preventing the expropriation of village lands, were applied to rural populations throughout Mexico; in contrast, no such guarantees were respected with regard to the Guatemalan population.

Demographic growth among Maya-speaking populations increasingly led to pressure on available resources, leading to widespread deforestation and erosion and forcing many groups to adopt commercial specializations to supplement income derived from agriculture. Among the better-known examples of the latter are the colorful cotton textiles produced in the Guatemalan highlands, marketed both locally and in industrialized countries. Also in Guatemala, seasonal labor on the growing number of coffee plantations along the Pacific coast became increasingly important throughout the first half of the 20th cent. Beginning in the 1930s and 40s, improved communications throughout the Maya region opened many new and often local economic opportunities for wage employment and commercial activity.

As Maya populations have become more tightly integrated into national economies, their distinctive ethnic markers, including dress, language, and religious practices, have often been abandoned, leaving increasing numbers culturally indistinguishable from the ladino population. Conversely, economically autonomous communities have used the same ethnic markers as a means of preserving the integrity of group boundaries and corporately held resources. Partly for this reason, the Guatemalan military unleashed a campaign of terror beginning in the mid-1970s, specifically targeting the indigenous population. All markers of traditional ethnic identity, including distinctive dress, language, and even Catholicism, became targets of military repression. Village lands were subject to widespread seizure, and government-sponsored resettlement programs were widely applied. In the 1970s and 80s there were tens of thousands of deaths and "disappearances" and an exodus of many hundreds of thousands, most from Maya-speaking regions, seeking sanctuary primarily in Mexico and the United States. However, over a million Maya remain in Guatemala. In Mexico, a 1994 uprising in Chiapas drew much of its strength from the support of Mayan peasants.


See K. Warren, Symbols of Subordination (1979); N. M. Farriss, Maya Society Under Colonial Rule (1984); M. Coe, The Maya, (4th ed. 1987); G. D. Jones, Maya Resistance to Spanish Rule (1989); N. Hammond, Ancient Maya Civilization (1990); S. Martin and N. Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens (2000); D. Webster, The Fall of the Ancient Maya (2002).

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Ma·ya / ˈmīə/ • n. (pl. same or Ma·yas) 1. a member of a an American Indian people of Yucatán and adjacent areas. 2. the Mayan language of this people. • adj. of or relating to this people or their language.

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maya in Hinduism, the supernatural power wielded by gods and demons; in Hinduism and Buddhism, the power by which the universe becomes manifest; the illusion or appearance of the phenomenal world. The word comes from Sanskrit māyā ‘create’.

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Mayaabaya, betrayer, conveyor, Eritrea, flayer, Freya, gainsayer, layer, Malaya, Marbella, Maya, Mayer, Nouméa, obeyer, payer, player, portrayer, prayer, preyer, purveyor, slayer, sprayer, stayer, strayer, surveyor, waylayer, weigher •tracklayer • bricklayer • minelayer •record-player • taxpayer • ratepayer •naysayer • soothsayer • crocheter •acquire, admire, afire, applier, aspire, attire, ayah, backfire, barbwire, bemire, briar, buyer, byre, choir, conspire, crier, cryer, defier, denier, desire, dire, drier, dryer, dyer, enquire, entire, esquire, expire, fire, flyer, friar, fryer, Gaia, gyre, hellfire, hire, hiya, ire, Isaiah, jambalaya, Jeremiah, Josiah, Kintyre, latria, liar, lyre, Maia, Maya, Mayer, messiah, mire, misfire, Nehemiah, Obadiah, papaya, pariah, peripeteia, perspire, playa, Praia, prior, pyre, quire, replier, scryer, shire, shyer, sire, skyer, Sophia, spire, squire, supplier, Surabaya, suspire, tier, tire, transpire, trier, tumble-dryer, tyre, Uriah, via, wire, Zechariah, Zedekiah, Zephaniah •homebuyer

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