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Who Were The Mayans, Incans, and Aztecs?

Top of mayan temples at Tikal National Park, Guatemala
Diego Grandi/Shutterstock

The Maya, Inca, and Aztec people make up three great ancient civilizations of our world. They each existed in Mexico and across South America many hundreds and thousands of years ago.

The Mayans

The oldest of the three, the Mayans inhabited the Yucatan Peninsula. Their name comes for the city of Mayapan, which once stood in the Yucatan in ancient times. From farming villages to city-states, the Mayans lived in Central America almost 3000 years ago (beginning in about 250 A.D.). They built great pyramids (yes, Egypt isn’t the only place where pyramids have stood) and plazas of great stone columns.

The material the Mayans used to build all of their amazing buildings, now relics when they’re excavated, came from the limestone-rich quarries of the Yucatan Peninsula. The volcanoes located in the southern part of the lands created nutrient-rich volcanic soil, which was excellent for farming. Their lands stretched from Mexico into Central America.

Though an ancient civilization, there are still Mayans in the present day, still living in the same areas their ancestors lived. Many of them still speak the Mayan language of ancient times as well. There were rumors at one time that the Mayan civilization completely disappeared, but that just isn’t true. While life may be different now, many of the Mayans of modern-day still practice the same rituals as their ancestors.

You’ve probably heard talk of the mysteries of Mayan culture, often revolving around the end of their calendar system, which happened on December 21, 2012. Lots of people thought that was a sign that the world was going to end, but we’re still here. The thing is, the Mayan calendar didn’t actually end.

The Mayans have their own belief system, which begins with the idea that nothing is born and nothing dies. When you “died,” you still lived, just moved on. They have their own pantheon of gods and ideas of the underworld and the “higher world.”

Mayans had a government and were ruled by kings. The civilization was broken up into city-states. They had laws, but no prisons. Instead of being imprisoned for your crimes, you would stand trial and be punished in one of the following ways:

  • Forced to pay a fine
  • Put into slavery
  • Shamed
  • Put to death

The Incans

The Inca people had an empire in Peru around the year 1200, and they expanded over the next 300 years. While there are no more Incans, their modern-day ancestors in Peru still practice many of the cultural lessons learned from their predecessors.

A visit to Peru will feel like you’re stepping into the time of the Incans while you look at their buildings made of rock and explore the textile culture passed down from ancient generations. While the Spanish conquered the Incans in 1523, their stories and ways wouldn’t be wiped from history. The Spanish didn’t wipeout the art, culture, and celebrations of the Incan people, though.

Speaking of visiting Inca history, Machu Picchu is a desired vacation destination. It is the citadel and former royal estate of the Inca ruler Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui. It is found in a mountain and was built in the 15th-century, and wasn’t discovered until 1911. The Incans may be the largest empire ever to exist in the Americas.

The Incans had a strong military and practiced governance over their people. Much like modern society, they passed laws to be lived by. They had their own calendar and language. Many people of Peru still speak Quechua, the original language of the Incans.

While we often think of roads as a modern-day thing, the Incan empire had thousands of miles of roads, as well as bridges and tunnels. To keep their people fed, the Incans developed irrigation to get water to their farm throughout a mountainous terrain.

The Aztecs

The Aztecs may be the most colorful (I’m talking about their statues and art) of these three ancient civilizations. They were at the heart of Mexico throughout the 14th through the 16th centuries. Now Mexico City, heir capital was Tenochtitlan.

Like the Mayans and Incans, the Aztecs had an abundance of agriculture. They farmed corn but also built magnificent temps like the Mayans and Incans. Like the Incans, the Aztecs had warriors. Their warriors were conquerors, with skills that won battles.

While we refer to them as Aztecs, the Aztec people called themselves Mexica. They spoke Nahuatl, and in their native language, the word Aztec described someone who came from the mythical Aztlán, which was located in northern Mexico.

While royals sat upon thrones in the time of the Aztecs, it was an empire quite the same as those seen in European history. While the people were ethnically diverse, their government was less governing and more a system of tribute. They conquered their neighbors and then gave them better lives. However, they also sacrificed people at all 18 of their annual holidays (the Incans also practiced human sacrifice, but not as often).

Spain conquered the Aztecs in 1521, wiping out the Aztecs as they had been known. However, the Nahuatl language is carried on by Mexican Indians, and Aztec culture lives on in descendants. Spanish conquistadores stole Aztec treasure, which was later found in the ruins of the Aztecs major city, or modern-day Mexico City.

What These Civilizations Left Us

From treasure hunts and ancient gods to beautiful art and cities of ruin (and much great architecture still gorgeous to view), these ancient cultures left behind so much for the modern world to enjoy and learn. They may have passed some of their road-building, building erecting, and agricultural skills to modern man as well.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »