Mayans: Past History

The people of Maya have been known for being the “first with fully developed writing system in the Americas” – established between 2000 BC to 250 AD). Surviving many conquests including the more recent (past centuries) Spanish conquistadors, the Mayans of the areas of and around the Guatemalan highlands have flourished with notable arts and implements. As early as 1800 BC, maize, beans, squash, and chili pepper were being cultivated, as well as artistic objects such as pots and figurines. Jade and obsidian remained sources from the Guatemalan Highlands. In 250 BC, the first written Mayan “hieroglyphics” were reportedly written, as have since been discovered. IN 100 AD, a notable “abandonment” occurred from Mayan cities, known as the “Preclassic Collapse” and end of the Preclassic era.

A period of construction occurred between 250-900 AD, with structures like “Caana” at 140 feet high being built from stone, and agriculture flourished.   Monuments such as the stepped pyramids, palaces, temples, and other monuments were created. Carved stone slabs called “tree stones” depicted historical events and kings. In circa 900 AD, however, the Mayans again declined in population, theorized in retrospect due to severe droughts lasting for centuries and leading to abandonment of the regions – effectively ending the “Classic” period.

The Post-Classic period from 900 AD to 1500s AD resulted in some re-establishment of the culture by surviving Mayans, though fewer in number and more sparse geographically. This would change with contact with Spanish conquistadors, with a 150+-year battle resulting until control over Mayan lands was acquired. The fierce battle put on by each Mayan group, lack of “central rule” to overthrow resulting in all being overthrown, and lack of valuable resources such as sliver or precious metals, resulted in lack of motivation for Spanish conquistadors. The political structure of the Mayans was a single political ruler per small unit.

Mayan books were largely destroyed by the Spanish conquerors, with only three surviving and in the “folding-book style” – with the Dresden Codex being artistically advanced. Certain pottery, artistic carvings, and dyes (e.g. “Maya Blue”) were unique to Mayans.

Mayans: Present-day Contributions

In addition to the arts and other notable creations of the Mayans, surviving discoveries were of a numbering system which included a “zero” – reportedly developed by the Mayans in 36 BC. Separately, the Mayans had a system that was based on 5s (with 1 denoted by a dot and 5 denoted by a single dash). The Mayans also developed a calendar which contained 365 days in a year (hence not allocating for a leap year, so every 4 years an error of 1 day occurred, which meant about 25 days in a century).

Astronomy was predicted by careful documentation of movements of stars and planets, with ability to correctly predict eclipses. Also, the “zenial passage” of the sun directly overhead, occurring twice a year given their equatorial location, was noted.

Their agricultural system, in place presumably for centuries, remains in place today to a good extent – canals for permanent fields are utilized to grow crops – with “raised fields, terracing, forest gardens, and wild harvesting” have been a part of the culture.

Mayans: Future

While much has been stated, and deservedly so, about the Mayan culture, there are certain practices which Mayans presently engage in, that bode for a deleterious future.

On a recent visit to the highlands of Guatemala, visitors from the United States and other developed nations have noted a markedly poor practice of burning items – whether indoors to create heat (with poor ventilation, trapping smoke, carbon monoxide, and other waste indoors), or in the fields (e.g. burning garbage, so that the air constantly smells of smoke, even at 8,000-feet elevation while the scenery is spectacular otherwise). On a personal visit on a medical mission, I personally noted (as detailed under “”) that while the people were very friendly, giving, and impoverished but hard-working, they frankly were not educated or did not realize the deleterious effects of constant exposure to smoke. While meaningful groups such as Michigan HELPS have gone to try and install stoves to allow smoke to escape, for many otherwise healthy citizens during medical mission-based surgery, oxygenation problems are noted due to likely scars from chronic smoke inhalation.

With proliferation of technology needs to be an active effort of education to help this culture – which has survived over a millennium of natural insults including droughts and wars – to continue to persist.

(Information above has been acquired from numerous sources, including,, and


Ravish Patwardhan, MD