Ancient Mayan Civilization in Copan,Honduras

The Mayan Civilization in Copan

  Copan Ruins Mayan map of Honduras

The Maya civilization in its pre-Columbus era was a great civilization noted for the only known fully developed written language in America, spectacular Mayan art, monumental architecture, and sophisticated  mathematical and astronomical systems.

“Los Mayas”  as they’re called in spanish, established their first foundations around 1,000 Mesoamerica, which comprehends the actual Yucatán Península, south east Guatemala, Belice & west of Honduras. At its peak, it was one of the most densely populated and culturally dynamic societies in the world.

Because of its greatness and beautiful monuments 3 cities stood up from the rest : Chichen Itza in Mexico, Tikal in Guatemala and Copan in Honduras.

Copan was called Xukpi by the ancient mayan  and is often called in modern times “Alexandria of the Americas”, it is known for its beautiful temples,altars & stelae. It’s peak  was at the “Delayed Classical period” around 600 A.D. and declined around 900 A.D. so when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th Century Copan had been abandoned long time ago.

Copan Ruins  

 Copan Ruins in the 19th century before its discovery

The actual Ruins of Copan are located in the municipalities of Santa Rita & Copan Ruinas which are located 60 kilometer from the southern Guatemalan border.

It remained covered by dense forest for centuries, known only to a few local tribes that had no means of comunication to tell  the world of this marvelous Lost world.

It was only when Juan Galindo , a Central American army officer who ventured these lands in the 19th century and wrote about the ruins, this interested the explorer & travel writer John Lloyd Stephen and English architect Frederick Catherwood. They visited a total of 44 sites of the Mayan world and mapped locations accurately , describing in great detail not seen before, they published 2 books with illustrations by Catherwood.  These books sparked the world’s interest to start deep investigations & uncovering of secrets set in stone  by the maya in their mysterious cities which continues today as part of several large investigations on different sites.

Social Structure

The Maya of Copan  were divided in 4 different social classes : Nobles, traders, plebeians & slaves. Which lived in 4 different Living zones with the main zones for the Nobles in the center & from there out for the other classes; It was a monarchyst dynasty which means the Throne was passed along  from fathers to sons; The king or “Halach Uinic” plus a Council of Nobles ruled Copan nad in some adjescent towns there was a deputy or “Batab”.

The first ruler of Copan was Yax Kuc Mo and the last one, 16th, was Yax Pac, other famous rulers were “Humo Jaguar” & “18 Rabbitt”  

Mayan Religion 

Mayan Gods sculptures in Copan Ruins, Honduras

Farmers as they were, they adored several Gods related to agricultural activities such as :

  • “Kinich Ahau”…King of the Sun
  • “Ixchel”………..King of the Moon
  • “Chaac”………..King of the Rain
  • “Yum Cax”…….King of Corn
  • “Kukulcan”…….King of Wind
  • “Itzamna”………King of The Sky
  • “Ek Chua”……..King of Cocoa
  • “Ah Puch”……..King of Death

Their temples & plazas are believed to had been ceremonial centers.



Mayan Architecture and sculptures : The Hyerogliphic Stairway

Copan is known for its monumental architecture & sculpture, amongst the most famous pieces are :

  • “Hieroglyphic Stairway”  built by the 15th ruler of Copan, Smoke Shell, who pushed for a renaissance period never seen before, The Stairway is made of 1,250 stone blocks and measures 50 feet wide, 72 steps of 1.5 foot each… contains 2,500 hieroglyphs which is  principally a dynastic record of the kings of Copán — a sort of text version of what we see on Altar Q.
  • “Altar Q”. It defines the dynasty line of Copan, it was built by the 16th ruler  Yax Pac.
  • The Great Plaza. Built by 18 Rabbit located at the north part of the Acropolis, it has numerous stelae & altars.
  • Temple “Rosa Lila”. It was built in 571 A.D. and buried intact (opposite to Mayan costume in which  new dynasties  would built upon old structure burying old monument which would be severely damaged), it’s a 14 mts. Stucco monument of 13 by 19 mts. Stained in red which means life,blood & sunrise. It was dedicated to  Yax Kuk Mo as divinity of the Sun.
  • Rosa Lila Temple in Copan Ruins, Honduras

  • The Ball Court . One of the most famous structures.

  • Mayan Ball court in Copan Ruins, Honduras
    Copan’s Great Ballcourt was apparently dedicated duríng the reign of the ruler 18 Rabbit. The Great Ballcourt is located southwest of structure lOL-26 and constituted a transition between the public space of the  Great Plaza to the north and the forbidden temples and palaces of Copan’s rulers in the Acropolis to the south. The date of its dedication is recorded on the eastern structure, and has been read as, only 113 days before 18 Rabbit’s capture and executíon by Cauac Sky of Quírigua.


Great knowledge is believed had been achieved by the Mayan scientists.

In Math, they knew  the concept of  zero 1,000 years before Europeans did. They used a vigecimal system where a dot “.” Was equivalent to 1, a short line “-“  was equivalent to 5. they knew how to add, sustract, multiply & divide.

In Astronomy, they studied the Sun, Moon & Venus…..they measured the revolution of the moon: 29.5 days + a fraction….also measured the revolution of the Sun : 365.25 days….the revolution of Venus : 584 days – small fraction.

The Mayan Calendar.

They actually developed 2 calendars : 1 ritual calendar called Tzolkia of 260 days and the Civil calendar called Haal which consisted of : 18 months(huinal) of 20 days(kin) plus 5 days which were considered of bad luck and were devoted to fast or rest…in mayan day is kin, month = uinal, 360days = tun, 20 years = katun, 400 years = baktun.


Writing. They used hieroglyphs which are basically symbols.

Decline of Ancient Mayan

There are several theories that try to explain the decline of the Maya Civilization in Copan, among the most know are the following :

  • Ground Exhaustion. Because the maya cultivated extense corn fields which is known to exhaust the ground severely.
  • Corn based diet. A solely corn diet is known to lead to undernourishment, this combined with cause #1 caused the mayans to  grew weaker  year after year.
  • Illneses. Paludism amongst others…this is a weak theory.
  • Earthquakes & hurricanes…not a popular thory given the Copan area is not near volcanoes nor near shores.
  • Overpopulation.
  • Demographics. Its been determined that in certain time there were more women than men.
  • Rebelions.
  • Foreign invations. (Mexicans?). uncertain, is they were this foreign force did not leave signs of their existence.
  • The most popular theory is that its decline was a combination of several factors.

By the 16th Century when the Spaiards came to Copan, the ceremonial site had been abandoned long ago.

In my next article I’ll try to describe the actual situation of Copan Ruins as a one of the most important touristics locations in Honduras & Central America.


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