How the Maya built their pyramids, buildings

  • People attend the spring equinox in front of the Kukulkan Pyramid in Chichen Itza, Mexico.

    People attend the spring equinox in front of the Kukulkan Pyramid in Chichen Itza, Mexico. Associated Press, 2009

Posted5/2/2016 12:11 PM

You wanted to know

"How did the Maya people make Chichen Itza if there were no vehicles to carry the rock?" asked a young patron from the Vernon Area Public Library in Lincolnshire.


Beginning in 2,000 B.C., people who became the Maya farmed corn, beans and chilies in the Central America regions that now comprise southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Large city-states developed with glistening limestone-stepped pyramids and other precisely designed buildings and ball courts. Over time, the Maya created a highly developed culture that included a written language, as well as sophisticated astronomy and mathematical skills.

The city-states in the southern regions declined around 900 A.D. The communities in the northern regions fell in the 1500s to the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries who fought and eventually conquered the Maya with the advantage of guns, horses and the transmission of diseases that wiped out more than half the population.

The victors burned the ancient Mayan text books and records. The jungle reclaimed the cities that have slowly been excavated during the past 75 years. In addition to the remains of hundreds of ancient Maya sites, three Mayan texts survive that include almanacs, horoscopes, calendars, mathematical and astronomical calculations.

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One of the largest Maya cities is Chichen Itza, located on the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico. The area has underground rivers that come to the surface as cenotes, large natural wells.

Chichen Itza is Mayan for "at the mouth of the Itza well."

Archaeological digs have uncovered jade, pottery, incense and human remains, most likely from human sacrifices, found inside the cenotes.

The focal point of Chichen Itza is El Castillo, a grand stepped-pyramid with a band of smooth limestone bisecting each of the four pyramid faces. Temples, palaces, ball courts and platforms are covered in designs featuring skulls, eagles, jaguars and human hearts.

These monumental structures were built without use of metal tools or wheels to transport large limestone blocks from the quarry to the building sites.

The Maya didn't have access to ores used to forge iron, so instead they devised chisels from black jadeite and obsidian used by artisans to create facade designs and to chunk out the stone blocks that supported awe-inspiring buildings and bridges.


A base-20 math system allowed architects to calculate higher level construction methods, including open span interiors using arches for support and a long-span bridge.

The Maya people of Central America did not have pack animals to carry rocks or other heavy items.

"The Maya did not use the wheel nor draft animals, so they transported the building materials using person-power from the quarries to the building site," Tulane Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology Judith Maxwell said of the Maya method for transporting heavy materials.

Large building blocks were rolled on logs. Roads, called sakbe (singular) or sakbeob (plural), were made of rock base covered in cement mixed from heated limestone. Most roads connected neighborhoods within cities and some connected the city-states. Today, many ancient Maya pyramids still stand and some sakbeob remain intact.

The Maya people today live in the same general area as their ancestors. Some speak Mayan as their primary language.