Why Were the Maya Such Excellent Warriors?

Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza, Mexico

The Pre-Colombian Maya culture of Central America is known today for being enigmatic and somewhat paradoxical. Unlike most of their neighbors, the Maya were a literate society that developed a religious, historical, and scientific corpus of texts, but unfortunately most of the writings have survived only as fragments, which have contributed much to their mystery. The Maya are also known for being a people who cherished and preserved many beautiful things such as the Temple of Kukulkan in Chichen Itza, the colorful murals discovered among the ruins of Bonampak, and the numerous statues, vases, and jewelry that are on display in many museums throughout the world. But the beauty of Maya culture is juxtaposed with extreme acts of violence that were an everyday part of life in their cities.

The Maya believed that their gods were appeased by the spilling of human blood, so numerous rituals were developed that ranged from bloodletting by individuals to human sacrifice conducted on an industrial scale. Central to the Maya blood rituals was the warrior class, who were largely responsible for procuring victims to be sacrificed high on pyramid-temples across the Maya lands. The Maya warriors were extremely effective in their tasks because they were driven by a strong set of religious beliefs, followed a strict code, and were extremely fit due to their training and diet.

A Brief Background of Maya Culture

Map Showing the Distribution of Maya Culture in Green

The people who spoke variations of the Maya language and were therefore considered to be part of the Maya culture, inhabited what are now the modern nation-states of southern Mexico, Guatamala, Honduras, and Belieze from about 1500 BC until AD 1600 with the highpoint being from about AD 250 until 925. [1] Although the Maya were the most sophisticated culture in their particular geographic region, they were just one of many advanced cultures in the region of Central America – referred to by scholars as “Mesoamerica” – before the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century. Before the Maya were dominant in Mesoamerica, the Olmecs developed a complex society and after the Maya influence waned, the Aztecs became the most powerful group in the region. Contemporary with the Maya was the Toltec culture, which was clustered around cities in what would today be central Mexico.

The high point of Maya culture is referred to as the “Classic Period,” which lasted from around AD 250 until the middle of the tenth century. [2] It was during the Classical Period that the Maya developed writing, monumental architecture, and made astronomical observations, resulting in the creation of fairly accurate calendars. [3] All of these factors contributed to make the Maya the most advanced of all the Pre-Colombian peoples, but with that said, they were not without their problems.

Unlike the later Aztecs, the Maya were never able to unify their entire culture under one government. Maya culture was essentially a collection of city-states – Tikal, Chichen Itza, and Bonampak were three of the most prominent Maya cities – that waged war on each other incessantly for the acquisition of resources. Among the most prized of all resources were human captives, who were used in elaborate human sacrifice rituals meant to appease the many Maya deities. No individual was safe from being a human sacrifice victim either, as demonstrated by the King of Copán, who was captured by a rival king and sacrificed in AD 738. [4] It was the religious beliefs that led to the institutionalization of human sacrifice in Maya society and also provided the core value system for the Maya warriors.

The Spiritual Beliefs of the Maya Warrior

Stela of a Maya Warrior

The Maya religion was very similar to many pre-modern cultures’ spiritual systems in that it was polytheistic and ritually based. The Maya pantheon had up to 166 deities with a few of the most important being the following: Itzamnaaj, the creator and god of writing and science; Kukulkan, who was the god of the nobles; and Hun Ixim, the maize/corn god. [5] One of the most common attributes among the Maya deities was a desire for human blood. Maya blood rituals took many forms – from the blood-letting that the nobles performed on themselves to the more well-known act of human sacrifice. Since the act of human sacrifice played such an important role in Maya society, those who captured the victims were given special status.

One of the Maya warriors’ primary functions was to capture sacrifice victims for their particular city-state. Raids were conducted on opposing city-states and when a successful war-band returned to their city with captives, they were showered with praise and material goods by the nobles. During large religious festivals, where mass human sacrifice was a public spectacle, the warrior elite would lead their captive to the priests to be ritually killed. [6] The nature of Maya religion clearly gave the warriors incentive to perform because the better one did, the more esteemed he was in the eyes of the nobility. Closely tied to Maya religion was the warrior code, which further propelled the Maya warriors.

The Maya Warrior Code

Relief from Chichen Itza Featuring a Skull

In order to understand the Maya warrior code, it is helpful to first understand that their military was actually much more complex than most people may realize. Each city-state had its own army, but the structure and hierarchy in each city was fairly similar. At the head of each war band was a chief, known as a nacom, who was elected to a three year term by the other warriors. Most of the warriors were holcans, who were full-time, professionals. [7] Besides the actual system, and more important than it, were the actual values and beliefs that the average Maya warrior followed.

Among the most common Maya words known to modern scholars that relate to warfare is chuk, which means “to capture.” [8] To the Maya warrior, it was better to capture one’s foes than to kill them because wars were usually fought to acquire human sacrifice victims instead of the gain of new territory. Maya warriors gained status among their peers and in their cities with the more enemy warriors they captured and conversely, Maya warriors saw it as an honor to be captured in battle, as long as they fought valiantly. The Maya preferred to sacrifice the best of their enemies, which usually meant elite males. [9] Since being a sacrifice victim was an honorable way to die, Maya warriors usually went into battle with a fearless attitude – if they were successful and claimed captives, then they gained prestige in their city, but if they were captured then they would join the gods shortly! The Maya religion and military structure gave the Maya warriors purpose, but it was their diet and training regime that made them a physically fit fighting force.

Maya Diet and Training

The most effective armies throughout world history have all been fit, both mentally and physically. Modern science has seemingly given the edge to contemporary armies in terms of physical fitness, but pre-modern societies were much more effective in that regard than most people may think. In terms of the Maya military, their diet and physical training were closely intertwined and also connected to their religion. Protein, which is essential to build muscles and to stay physically fit, is usually consumed today in the forms of meat, fish, and poultry. Since there were no bovines in Mesoamerica and few animals of significant size, the Maya were forced to get their meet from a combination of deer, peccary, and dogs, but most of their proteins were consumed from beans and legumes. [10] But the intent of the diet and exercise regime of a Maya warrior was not to “bulk up,” it was meant to give the individual energy for long runs.

Since the Maya did not have horses or any other pack bearing animals, the warriors would usually have to go on 5k runs or longer just to attack a city. Because of their physical requirements, the diet of the Maya warrior was unusually high in carbohydrates. Since maize/corn was plentiful in the region, it was the food most consumed, giving the warriors plenty of energy to attack enemy cities. [11] The results of the Maya diet enabled the full-time warriors to train on a daily basis by practicing mock battles and jogging around their cities. The combination of the diet and training gave the Maya warriors sleek body types that enabled them to run long distances and fight on the same day. Maya warriors often surprised their enemies in stealth raids with light weapons, which required stamina more than strength. [12]


The Maya culture is known today for a combination of its beauty and violence. At the heart of the Maya culture, making it function on a daily basis, were the Maya warriors. The Maya warriors enjoyed a special place in their society because they were very effective in their craft. The warriors protected their city-states from invasions and constantly ventured out on behalf of their kings to bring back war captives to be sacrificed on altars for their gods. The effectiveness of the Maya warriors can be traced to several aspects of their society. Maya religion, which held human sacrifice as one of its most important rituals, formed the backbone of Maya warrior thought.

The warriors strove to capture enemies to appease their gods on a spiritual level, but they also gained the more mundane prize of increased status for being effective warriors. Maya religion was also closely tied to the Maya warrior code. In the Maya warrior code, fear was of little consequence because being captured by the enemy only meant that a warrior would see his gods that much sooner. Finally, the Maya warriors were extremely fit because of their diet and training, which was specifically geared towards running great distances to fight their enemies. All of these factors combined to make the Maya one of the most effective fighting forces of the pre-modern world.


  1. Coe, Michael D. The Maya. 7th ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2005), p. 10
  2. Webster, David. “The Not So Peaceful Civilization: A Review of Maya War.” Journal of World Prehistory. 14 (2000) p. 69
  3. Coe, p. 211
  4. Webster, p. 90
  5. Coe, p. 214-17
  6. Coe, p. 222
  7. Webster, p. 79
  8. Webster, p. 91
  9. Webster, p. 80
  10. White, Christin B, Paul F. Healy, and Henry P. Schwarez. “Intensive Agriculture, Social Values, and Maya Diet at Pacbitun, Belize.” Journal of Anthropological Research. 49 (1993) pgs. 351-2
  11. White, et el., p. 365
  12. Webster, p. 80