Mesoamerican tribe originating from the Yucatan peninsula around 2600 BC.
Most probably of the first people of America to developed astronomy, calendrical systems and writing (in hieroglyphs).

The Mayas had a very strong religion and they built all their important cities around big pyramid shaped temples - the biggest ones probably Chichen Itza and Tikal - the latter estimated to have had around 60000 inhabitants in the first part of the first millenium.

The temples were used to make sacrifices to the gods (the sun) of blood (the best sacrifice was blood from the penis of the king). Human sacrifice was also common.

As the sun was so important for the Maya religion, the Mayas had an extremely precise calendar. Big observatories were built to track the movement of the sun (and planets and stars as well), leading to a calculation of the duration of the year that was only 19 minutes wrong (the Europeans didn't manage doing that until more than a thousand years later).

For some unknown reason, the Mayas always abandomned their cities and built new ones. It might have had something to do with their religion. This has luckily lead to the Spanish not discovering the cities (as the jungle grew around them and hid them) - which leads to having very well preserved cities even today.

Unlike practically all other indian tribes, the Mayas have maintained their culture and some of their religion until today (making them the oldest civilization on the planet - 4600 years old) - and about 6 million people living in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador speak different dialects of the old Mayan language.
The language of the Mayas also gives its name to a family called Mayan, consisting of about seventy languages in Mexico and Guatemala. They include Quiche (as in real Mayans don't...), Mam, Jacalteco, Chol, Huasteco, Tzeltal, and Tzotzil. One characteristic of them is that syllables are typically closed, that is of the form CVC.

See under Tzotzil for a simplified grammar of a Mayan language.

It is not Mayan of the once-mysterious glyphs, but it is related. For an introduction to the writing system you need pictures, which I shan't attempt here. There is a good introduction by Nancy McNelly at

Ma"yan (?), a.


Designating, or pertaining to, an American Indian linguistic stock occupying the Mexican States of Veracruz, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, and Yucatan, together with a part of Guatemala and a part of Salvador. The Mayan peoples are dark, short, and brachycephallic, and at the time of the discovery had attained a higher grade of culture than any other American people. They cultivated a variety of crops, were expert in the manufacture and dyeing of cotton fabrics, used cacao as a medium of exchange, and were workers of gold, silver, and copper. Their architecture comprised elaborately carved temples and places, and they possessed a superior calendar, and a developed system of hieroglyphic writing, with records said to go back to about 700 a. d.


Of or pertaining to the Mayas.


© Webster 1913

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