Ancient Mayan warfare

Maya warfare | Open Access articles
March 16, 2021 – 07:21 pm
Mayan Warfare Weapons - Resepi

Although the Maya were once thought to have been peaceful (see below), current theories emphasize the role of inter-polity warfare as a factor in the development and perpetuation of Maya society. The goals and motives of warfare in Maya culture are not thoroughly understood, but there are several kinds of archaeological clues. These include fortified defenses around structure complexes, artistic and epigraphical depictions of war, and weapons such as obsidian blades and projectile points. Warfare can also be identified from archaeological remains that suggest a rapid and drastic break in a fundamental pattern due to violence.

Like the city-states of ancient Greece, Maya polities engaged in violent warfare for political control of people and resources. Some scholars have suggested that the capture of sacrificial victims was a driving force behind warfare. Among the most critical resources were water and agricultural land. Economic control of resources such as obsidian also increased competition among polities. As polities became more successful, they also became more complex. This led to improved efficiency in acquiring and holding valued resources, especially through military force. Population growth increased the competition between polities, resulting in increased levels of violence.


Warfare was likely a driving force of cultural change. Although warring leaders undoubtedly benefited materially, one of the main goals may have been to acquire sacrificial victims. Sacrifice not only legitimized the ruler by intimidating rivals and awing the citizens, but was also associated with concepts of sacred fluids and the passage of time. Warfare is alluded to in to the mythology of the, which describes sacrifice through decapitation. Certain events such as the death of a leader or birth of an heir may have required sacrifice.

Tactics and organization

Little can be known about how the ancient Maya planned and coordinated their attacks. However, it has been noted that the Maya cities kept some distance between themselves and their enemies with an estimated mean distance of 55 km (about two to eight day's travel) between major settlements.

This seems to support the theory that war was fought by and for elites; that is, the Maya and non-Maya nobility. This may be because of the long distances that had to be traveled between cities. One estimate puts about 500-1000 men on the battlefield on each side of the conflict at maximum based on estimates about the logistics of the journey, such as amount of weight carried and how much food was needed on the journey.

It is thought that enemies would project missiles at long range, then as they advanced on each other, discipline probably declined, allowing individuals to attempt to personal feats of bravery The main body of the population does not appear to have been active in most conflicts unless it involved the overthrow of a ruler.

Military organization is somewhat unclear. Leadership seems to have been embodied mostly in the Halach Uinic, the or lord of each geopolitical unit, known as a batab. The was responsible for calling troops together and organizing the military effort.


Although the Maya had projectile technology, such as the atlatl and spear, much of the actual fighting was done at close range with "thrusting, stabbing, and crushing". Weapons were crafted mostly from obsidian and chert, obsidian being the sharpest (but more brittle). Knapping chert or obsidian into bifacial projectile points and attaching them to atlatl darts, spears, and arrows was the dominant technology. Although bows and arrows were used, spears and Macuahuitl remained much more common. As well, chipped flint was common in close range combat knives.


Located in the Mexican state of Yucatán, Mayapan is considered to be one of the last major Pre-Columbian Maya settlements. The site had a defensive wall surrounding the structure, and a violent fire was the cause of downfall as evidenced by burnt remains.


Aguateca is a Classic Maya site located in the south-western Petén department of Guatemala. Aguateca was a member of the among which included such polities as Seibal, Itzan, Dos Pilas, Cancuén, Tamarindito, Punta de Chimino, and Nacimiento.

The city was built on a 90 m. escarpment with defensive fortifications surrounding the city. Archaeological remains, along with epigraphy and iconography at the site reveal an expansion of power and military influence from Aguateca by the ruling dynasty during the 8th century, a period noted for endemic warfare in the region. During this time, 4 km. of defensive walls were hastily constructed concentrically around the site.

Among the weapons found at the site are chert and obsidian bi-facial points, and chert small points which were probably used as arrowheads. Obsidian spear tips, which were found extensively throughout the site, were the primary weapon used based on the number found at the site. other weapons included darts and atlatl darts.

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