Warfare among the ancient Maya was as confrontational as any other civilization

Although war among the ancient Maya was strongly ritualized, the ultimate purpose of warfare was often to control basic resources and subordinates.

Warfare among the ancient Maya was as confrontational as any other civilization
Detail of the board in the Palace of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. Image: INAH

During the discovery of the Maya culture in the 19th century and its subsequent study, researchers defined the Maya as peaceful beings living in stone cities, governed by wise priests dedicated to astronomy, believing they had found the utopian society described by Thomas More. Nothing could be further from the truth. From the end of the 20th century onwards, the study of archaeological remains, as well as the accounts of Spanish chroniclers, describe communities as belligerent as any other civilization.

David Webster defines 'wars' as planned confrontations by groups organized into combatants, who share, or believe they share, common interests and are willing to pursue their interests using forms of intimidation and armed confrontation that may involve deliberate killing. This definition is the most accurate when we speak of ancient Maya warfare, although some have a sadistic view of Maya society, which they think only conducted raids to obtain captives for their sacrifices, dismissing the idea that they could sustain large-scale wars.

This vision of war as simple incursions is completely absent during the Postclassic when people like the Quichés, under the command of Quicab the Great, carried out an expansionist war, occupying an extensive terrain in the highlands of Guatemala. In the cities taken by the Quichés, the rulers were replaced by new lords who imposed the cult of the god Tohil. This idea could be maintained during the Classic period, where the main reason for war was to dominate the neighboring city to obtain tribute and captives. Thus, the ruler obtained a rapid increase in wealth and prestige for his leadership in war.

However, confrontations that lasted for long periods are known, such as the wars declared between Palenque and Toniná, Calakmul and Tikal or Quiriguá and Copán, among many others. As well as alliances between different cities, as in the case of Calakmul with El Perú, Dos Pilas, Cancuén, and Caracol, the first being the most influential. All of them sought to control the trade routes that supplied luxury goods to the cities.

Although the war was strongly ritualized both in its preparation and during the campaigns or the celebration of victory, the ultimate goal of the war was always to control the basic resources and subordinates of these territories, eliminate enemies, seek strategic advantages, and expand their political system, giving rise to a marked social stratification.

Development of the war

Likely, warfare occurred seasonally, before or after the harvest season, so that levies of the population could be carried out, prioritizing dry seasons over rainy ones. Like the climate, the terrain influenced the war practices, using the dense forests for defensive tactics, while the clearings were used for offensive maneuvers and ambushes.

Regarding the weapons used, knives, spears, axes, clubs, etc., predominated in the short range. They used obsidian, quartz, and flint for edged weapons, and stone and wood for blunt weapons, as well as shells and fish teeth as cutting elements. Throwing weapons such as bows, slingshots or blowguns became more important during the Classic and Postclassic periods.

Sometimes they used animal venom or threw insect nests whose sting was very painful. They also used psychological warfare tactics using instruments that produced intimidating sounds such as drums, conch shell trumpets, or their voices. To attack coastal cities or cities with navigable rivers they took their canoes for faster displacement, they were also good points where to place the best indigenous archers.

The warriors

Were there only elite warriors or were there population levies? Were there centers where they were instructed in the art of war? What was the organization of the armies? How many soldiers made up the armies? These and many other questions remain an enigma for researchers. However, we know better the function of the high positions in the army since the ancient Maya were a warlike society, the elite warriors were part of the nobility and therefore left epigraphic records.

Some of the titles we know are b'aah pakal "the first shield" and b'aah tok' "the first flint", both were minor titles related to war. Lakam may have had a decisive function when carrying out levies. B'aahte' has been identified as a kind of captain that sometimes the rulers themselves added to their title of ajaw, b'aahte' ajaw.

Together with the B'aahte', the nacón planned the military strategy, was an elected figure every three years and during this period he had to keep celibacy, not eat meat or get drunk. The yajawk'ahk' was a figure linked to the priesthood but with an important role in the acts of war. Maybe he was the warrior priest in charge of carrying the images of the gods to the battlefield.

The figure of the ruler in war

The Maya ruler was the k'uhul ajaw, the "sacred lord", therefore the spiritual leader, the link between gods and humans who could communicate both worlds through different rites to propitiate good omens in wars or harvests. Likewise, he was the maximum military leader who commanded his warriors towards victory. Success in military ventures would legitimize him as the guardian of order and balance. Although the truth is that he normally delegated military functions to family members and vassals designated in strategic places.

The path to becoming a ruler began at a very young age. Once he was 6 years old, his first bleeding of the penis was performed, a rite in which he left the feminine world, symbolized by the mother's care, to enter the masculine world, entering the "boys' house" where he would be prepared together with other young men of the lineage for his future position.

Generally, the crown prince (b'aah ch'ok) would be the ruler's first-born son. However, in the event of death, a younger son or brother of the ruler could take his place. The crown prince had to demonstrate his fierceness in battle and at least take one prisoner before coming to power. In Palenque we find representations in which the crown prince is recognized as such utilizing a ceremony in which his father gives him a helmet and his mother the shield and the flint point, emphasizing the function of defender of the kingdom.

His enthronement finally came after the death of his father and the corresponding funeral ceremonies. The crown prince would become ajaw or k'uhul ajaw depending on the rank of the city.

Captives (b'aak)

After the conquest of a city or town by the Maya, they captured hostages who served as war trophies and became the property of their captor or the ruler of the victorious city. The captives were of great importance in the exercise of war at the ritual, diplomatic and artistic levels. They were elements of great prestige for both the rulers and the warriors themselves.

Once captured and taken to the city, they were stripped naked and stripped of all their ornamental elements. In the case of the earmuffs, they were replaced by strips of paper, as a symbol of humiliation and submission. After this, they were exposed naked and tied up publicly while they were humiliated. They were also tortured before their final task, the sacrifice.

The captives of the highest status were the generals or the rulers themselves. The capture of one of them could put an end to the battle. These prisoners with noble status, lived in the courts as personal property of the ruler or their captor, expressing a certain status.

The end of their captivity could come in two ways; fulfilling a practical function and returning to their city of origin as lord (ajaw) subordinate to their k'uhul ajaw. Or fulfilling a ritual function, in this case, he was sacrificed in some special ceremony. When one of these rulers was captured they were referred to as "no creation, no darkness" (ma' ch'ab ma' ak'ab) which meant that they were stripped of their ritual and creation powers.

There was also a type of captive that could not be sacrificed, such as scribes or artists who would become part of the group of specialists of the winning side, fulfilling a purely practical function. As well as the quality, the number of captives acquired was important as this gave access to different titles. These captives could be sacrificed or employed as servants. Normally prisoners taken in battle became slaves and high-ranking prisoners were sacrificed.

It can be said that there were different types of captives depending on their position or their knowledge within the conquered society. Despite this, they all had usefulness, both from a ritual and symbolic point of view as well as from a practical point of view.


If we review each of the elements of war among the Maya, we observe that neither the motivations that move them nor their development varies too much from those of other civilizations. War is an economic engine that unites society in times of internal crisis and serves as a tool to justify the power of the elites. The anecdotal differences appear when it is the medium that influences, i.e. the materials for the manufacture of weapons and the terrain of combat; tools and tactics.

Therefore, we should ask ourselves, is war one of the elements that define human beings in society, are these consequences of the search for and accumulation of power, is there a direct relationship between war and power? Or is war simply evidence of the wickedness of our species and strips us of our false goodness? These questions would give rise to the eternal debate as to whether human beings are evil by nature or whether it is a society that corrupts them.

By Julio Cruz, Source INAH