2012 Winter Solstice in Belize

The 2012 Winter Solstice celebrations at Caracol. Photo via facebook by NICH Belize

Often misunderstood for savages, the ancient Maya were a fascinating civilization. At the height of their empire, they had the five fundamentals aspects of culture: food, art, customs, language and religion. A few of their achievements are the creation of massive architectural wonders, extensive travel and trade routes, and usage of an advanced system of writing and mathematics.


Here are a few interesting facts about the ancient Maya:


1. The Maya would drastically enhance their features in search of beauty. They were known to flattening their forehead, sharpen their teeth pointy, create holes in their teeth and fill them with jade, and deliberately crossing their eyes.

2. The Maya loved getting high. According to mayanist Mark Van Stone, ingesting hallucinogenic drugs was an important part of many ancient American indigenous religious ceremonies. Interestingly enough, in preparation for rituals, one of the favorite ways the Maya got into trance was by licking the back of Cane toads (bufo marinus).

3. Branded as the three sisters; Maize, Beans and Squash were the most important foods. In addition to providing the essential nutrients for maintaining a healthy diet, rotating these crops allowed for the continuous productive use of lands.

4. They were expert traders. Based on supply and demand, traded items included foods such as corn, fish and chocolate, manufactured goods such as clothing, carvings and toys, and raw materials such as jade, gold and copper.

5. Practicing human sacrifice was a main aspect of Maya religion. It was usually done with prisoners of war and predominantly in times of trouble since it was considered to make the Gods happy.

6. The Maya rulers and priests acted as intermediaries to the Gods. They coaxed their followers by predicting weather patterns and claiming to speak to the Gods when eclipses occurred.

7. Mayan healers/ doctors were known as Shamans. They used a wide assortment of medicinal plants as remedies. Many of the plants used by them are still used presently to heal illnesses.

Ixchel, Maya goddess of medicine and fertility

Ixchel, Maya goddess of medicine and fertility

8. They played a game of life and death known as the Mesoamerican ball game. It is also called the Maya ball game or Pitz.

9. They had saunas. These sweat baths, also known as “temezcal” were an important purification element for priests and rulers.

10. The Maya practiced advance writing and mathematics. The Maya writing system consisted of sophisticated hieroglyphs which were etched onto stone slabs called Stelae, painted as murals on monumental buildings or drawn on books made of tree bark. Maya mathematics used a base 20 system identified as vegesimal – the symbol of a shell corresponded to zero, a dot represented a one and a bar stood for a five. (Learn more michielb.nl/maya/math.html)

11. The Maya were excellent astronomers and created their own calendars. The Tzolkin consisted of 260 days was used to track religious and ceremonial events. The Haab was the annual solar calendar consisting of 365 days and is the most similar to our modern day calendar.

12. Caves were considered the entrance to the underworld – Xibalba. Particularly during epochs of peril, the Maya would journey deep inside caves and perform rituals and sacrifices hoping that the death gods would bring better times. Ceremonies inside caves are still presently done by some modern Maya of the Yucatan.

skeleton in belize's atm cave

Skeletal remains found in a cave

13. The Ceiba tree, known as Yaaxché in Mayan, is the sacred tree of life. In ancient Maya mythology, by means of the Ceiba’s branches and trunk, the heavens and the underworld were connected.

14. The exact reason for the collapse of the ancient Maya is uncertain. However, the most widely accepted thought is self induced ecological disaster. They consumed their natural environment and when the droughts came and their Gods didn’t bring rain, the people abandoned the big cities.