19 Astonishing Secrets You Didn’t Know About The Ancient Mayans

Image: LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images / via Latin American Studies

The Mayan people of Central America created an amazingly advanced civilization with sophisticated knowledge of math, astronomy and medicine in addition to a highly developed system of religious rituals and cultural practices. For reasons still not clearly understood, Mayan civilization began to decline from around the ninth century, just over 1,000 years ago. But they left behind an amazing set of secrets. So here are 19 of them…

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19. Cross-eyed was prized

Strange though it may seem, the Mayans prized crossed eyes – a condition often corrected by surgery or glasses in the modern era. In fact, the Mayans were so keen on the look that they tried to induce it by waving objects in front of the eyes of their babies. It’s said this was done to imitate the cross-eyed sun god, Kinich Ahau.

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18. They had tattoos before hipsters

Modern-day hipsters may be covered in tattoos but they certainly didn’t invent them. The Mayans were very keen on body art, which they applied to various parts of the anatomy including the face and hands as well as the arms and legs. Both men and women had tattoos, although it’s said that men didn’t indulge in body art until after they were married.

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17. Mayan sport could be deadly

The Mayans had their own deadly form of sport, a ballgame played in a stone-walled court. In fact, the court at the Chichen Itza site in modern-day Mexico is more than double the size of an American football pitch. Archaeological evidence from the later Mayan period suggests that the game could even involve human sacrifice.

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16. They tripped on toads


The Mayans, it seems, liked to get stoned. Indeed, they consumed a variety of mind-altering substances including a drink called “balché” made from bark, honey and sometimes even dried toad skin. In fact, they drank this particular intoxicant to contact spirits who they hoped could help them to divine the future.

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15. They did a disappearing act

One of the biggest secrets of Mayan civilization is, in fact, the question of how and why exactly it declined. One thing we do know, however, is that many of the sophisticated cities in the southern lowlands went into terminal decline from the eighth or ninth century onwards. Competing theories to explain this include gradual environmental degradation, a destructive culture of unending warfare and prolonged drought.

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14. They loved chili chocolate


The cacao seed is, of course, where we get chocolate from and the Mayans were some of the earliest consumers of a chocolate drink. For them, chocolate had spiritual significance. Indeed, they believed it to be the drink of Kon, the god of rain. The Mayans liked to add chili peppers and cornmeal to their chocolate to create a thick, foamy beverage.

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13. They sweated it out

A dig in northern Belize by archaeologists from Boston University in 2000 uncovered an ancient sweat house, dating from 900 B.C. Lead archaeologist Dr. Norman Hammond told the New York Times that the sweat house would have been used for “simple cleansing of the body, the purging of nasty things in the body and opening of communications with the supernatural.”

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12. Mayans invented nothing. Literally.


We’re so familiar with the concept of zero in math that it’s hard for us to imagine the world before its invention. But it did have to be created and although the Babylonians are thought to have invented it first, the Mayans then came up with it 600 years later, seemingly completely independently.


11. They could lay down some rubber

We may think of rubber as a relatively modern invention, but in fact the ancient Mayans had refined rubber-making techniques as long ago as 3,000 years. They did this by taking sap from rubber trees then combining it with the juice of other plants. Varying the proportions of the ingredients produces different grades of rubber and it may be that the Mayans used rubber balls in their sports.

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10. Mayan teeth were bling


If you thought blinging your teeth was a modern-day phenomenon, think again. The ancient Mayans created some impressive dental decorations using precious stones such as jade to ornament teeth. It’s believed they also had a sound knowledge of basic dentistry and used drills made from materials such as obsidian, a hard volcanic stone.

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9. Ixtab was the goddess of suicide

While it may seem shocking to us, the Mayans actually had a goddess of suicide. In certain circumstances, the ancient Mayans regarded suicide – particularly by hanging – as an acceptable practice. This, of course, is in stark contrast to modern Western sensibilities. Ixtab, the goddess in question, was believed to escort such people to paradise.

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8. Ritual enemas were a thing


Ritual enemas might sound a bit extreme, but evidence from illustrations on pottery indicates that this was indeed something the Mayans got up to. It’s theorized that they may have used intoxicating mixes for these enemas and that the physiological properties of taking the liquid rectally may have boosted the hit. Of course, it’s a practice that’s unlikely to catch on at your local bar.

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7. The Popol Vuh documented their history

We would know a lot less about the amazing secrets of the Mayans were it not for a Dominican priest, Francisco Ximénez, who transcribed the ancient texts of the Popol Vuh in 1701. Indeed, the Popol Vah, which can be translated as “Book of the People,” records many Mayan myths, including a creation story, lineages of key historic figures and the founding of cities.

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6. Mayans were adept surgeons


The Mayans were ahead of their time in many ways. In fact, their advanced science included some surprisingly sophisticated surgical techniques. For example Mayan shamans apparently knew how to stitch up wounds using human hair as thread. Meanwhile, they also knew how to set broken bones effectively. Furthermore, they developed the alarming technique of trephining, the cutting of holes into the skull. However, this may have been performed for ritual rather than medical reasons.

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5. Cranial deformation was fashionable

The Mayans certainly had their own ideas about physical beauty and one of the most peculiar was a flattened, sloping forehead. But they didn’t just leave it to chance that a child would have this feature. They actively intervened by tying a board to the young child’s head to mould the shape of the skull.

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4. Ritual bloodletting was widespread


One of the more gruesome Mayan cultural practices was the custom of ritual bloodletting. In the illustration here, taken from a stone carving, we see a nobleman using the spine from a stingray to puncture his penis while the woman on the right cuts her tongue with thorns. Just an ordinary day, then. This ritual bloodletting, assumed to have religious significance, was practiced by all classes, not just the ruling elite.

Image: Jami Dwyer

3. Roman noses were admired

The Mayans, of course, had their own very distinctive ideas about personal beauty and they had particular feelings about the ideal nose. For a Mayan, the perfect nose was large and hooked, somewhat similar to what we would call a Roman nose. And it seems that if the nose given by nature wasn’t ideal, some Mayans would resort to a false nose to get the right shape.

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2. There were three Mayan calendars


The Mayans’ proficiency at complex math and astronomy meant that they were able to come up with short and long-term calendars at a very early date – as long ago as the fifth century B.C, in fact. The Mayan calendar actually consisted of three separate calendars that ran together. These were the 365-day Haab, the 260-day Tzolkin and the Long Count, which runs on a 2,880,000-day cycle.

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1. Mayans led the space race

One thing the Mayans definitely didn’t have was telescopes but despite this, they were able to build a surprisingly accurate knowledge of astronomy. Indeed, when the Spanish came to South America, the Mayans had a more accurate calculation of the length of the solar year than did their ultimate conquerors. The building pictured here, at Chichen Itza in Mexico, is believed to be an observatory.