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HomeTravel articles & guidesThe Maya, the Incas and the Aztecs

The Maya, the Incas and the Aztecs

11 February, 2020
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Maya Temple

Three great cultures and peoples ruled South and Mesoamerica before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Their ruins, buildings and culture can still be experienced on many of our tours.

Read on and learn more about these fascinating peoples.

Comparison of the 3 civilisations

The Mayans The Incas The Aztecs
When Circa 800 BC to 1530 AD From 1100 to 1530 AD 15th and 16th centuries
Where Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador Most of western South America from Chile in the south to Colombia in the north Much of Mexico
Language 30 different languages Up to 700 different languages Nahuatl
Gods Nature gods Nature gods Fertility gods and war gods
Constructions Temple pyramids and entire cities such as Palenque and Tikal l Machu Picchu Pyramid temples
Fun fact The Mayans lived according to four different calendars A cone-shaped head meant upper class, power and respect The people used cocoa drinks in human sacrifices
Today The people still exists to this day and can be found in the indigenous communities of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán The Inca Empire fell when the Spanish arrived, bringing diseases with them The culture is extinct but lives on through the descendants of the indigenous people

Who were they?

Who were the different peoples? Who built Machu Picchu and who lived according to several different calendars at once?

We’ve put together everything you need to know below.

The Maya people – terrifying human sacrifices and advanced architecture

Maya Temple

The Maya were a Native American people who lived in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador from around 800 BC to 1530 AD Unlike the Aztecs and the Incas, the Maya people were not a united empire governed from one central city. Despite residing in the same geographical area, the people spoke 30 different languages – all of which are still spoken today. The Maya had a complete written language which they used to write books.

Farming was really important to the Maya, and they therefore worshipped the nature gods in particular. They did this, among other things, by sacrificing people, so that their blood-hungry gods were nourished by the human blood. In return, the gods gave the Maya fertility and good harvest. At a sacrificial ceremony, the Maya tied down their sacrifice on top of a selected temple pyramid, while a high priest cut a hole in his chest and tore out his still-beating heart with his bare hands.

The Maya were both skilled engineers and mathematicians. They managed to create great temple pyramids, magnificent art and entire cities, such as Palenque and Tikal, which you can experience on our tours to Mexico and Guatemala. And they did all this without metal tools. The Maya were a particularly creative and innovative people in everything that they did.

The people lived according to four different calendars, each with its own purpose. This way, the Maya knew exactly when religious ceremonies were to take place and when it was the best time to grow crops.

Unlike the Inca and Aztecs, the Maya still exist.

Today, the Maya live in Guatemala and Mexico, and you can experience the authentic Mayan culture in two different Native American villages, San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán, on our tours to Mexico.

Discover the Mayan culture on these tours:

The Inca people – architectural treasures and deformed skulls

Machu Picchu

The Incas were also a Native American people. From 1100 to 1530 AD, they conquered most of western South America from Chile in the south to Colombia in the north. In its heyday, the Inca Empire consisted of no fewer than 10 million people, although only the Inca emperor and his huge family of 40,000 people were original Incas. The capital of the Inca Empire was the now multicultural and pleasant city of Cusco, where you can still experience many of the Inca buildings on our tours to Peru.

The majority of the Inca Empire consisted of people who the original Incas had forced to be part of the Inca dominance. This also meant that there were many different languages – up to 700! Despite the many languages spoken, the Incas had no written language, unlike the Maya and the Aztecs.

The upper class was keen to set itself apart from the rest of the population. New-born children therefore had a cloth tightly bound around their heads to make their skull cone shaped. The deformed skull thus radiated power and respect.

Like the Maya people, the Incas were farmers and worshipped the nature gods. The Incas were also fans of human sacrifice. They sacrificed particularly healthy and beautiful children, as it had to be the most precious gift that they offered the gods.

There is no doubt that the Incas were skilled engineers and architects. Machu Picchu in Peru and the terraces on the steep mountainsides is proof of this. When the ruins were rediscovered in 1911 by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham, it was cleahttp://www.llamatours.co.uk/blog/machu-picchu.htmr that the Incas had a phenomenal understanding of building construction.

When the Spanish took over the empire, it also signalled the end of the Inca Empire. The Spanish took the Incas as slaves, while those who escaped slavery died from the illnesses the Spanish brought with them. Today, you have the opportunity to experience the ruins of the Incas’ impressive buildings on our tours to Peru.

Discover the Inca culture on these tours:

The Aztecs – giant pyramids and sacrifices with cocoa

Aztec Temple

The Aztecs, like the Maya and the Incas, were a Native American people. The Aztecs ruled large areas of Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries. Unlike both the Maya and Inca people, the Aztecs only had one language, Nahuatl. On the other hand, they had a wealth of dialects and also an alphabet consisting of symbols and hieroglyphics.

The Aztecs were not one unified nation, but consisted of seven different tribes. The seven tribes never perceived themselves as one people, and this gave rise to internal strife.

The Aztecs were also skilled architects, and they built, among other things, a huge pyramid temple in the middle of their capital, Tenochtitlan, known as Mexico City today. Like the Maya and Incas, the Aztecs sacrificed people. Their human sacrifices took place at the top of the Aztec pyramid temples, where more than one human being could be sacrificed at a time.

The Aztecs also worshipped several fertility gods, but their main god was the war god, Huitzilopochtli. At sacrifices and ceremonies, the Aztecs used a very special cocoa drink made of dried and crushed cocoa beans as they believed the cocoa tree was sacred and therefore worthy of the gods.

Today, the Aztec culture and practices are extinct, but their history lives on through the descendants of the Indians, and their language is still spoken by more than a million Mexican Indians. On a tour to Mexico, you will discover how the Aztec spirit lives on in and around the country.

Discover the Aztec culture on these tours:

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