The Maya were a largely agricultural civilization that rose to dominate the areas of Guatemala and southern Mexico between the years 250 and 900 BCE. Like most pre-modern civilizations, the majority of Mayans were farmers. However, it was the royal family and their nobles that ruled and managed Mayan society. The elites were the ones who ruled the government and waged war. But their responsibilities also included religious and intellectual pursuits, like serving as priests, studying astronomy, and maintaining the Mayan calendar.
Below the Mayan nobles were commoners. And the division between these two social classes was very rigid. The nobles maintained their privileges by claiming descent through specific family lineages. In other words, one was born a noble. Commoners could work in any number of different trades. As we have already indicated, many commoners were farmers or agricultural workers. But there were also artisans and merchants. Some of these artisans and merchants grew to be quite wealthy and powerful. This wealth and power gained them influence certainly, but it did not make them noble. In fact, the nobles guarded their elite status by forbidding commoners from wearing the cloths of a noble.
Review the images below to learn more about what art and archaeology tells us about elite status in classical Mayan civilization. Then complete the associated worksheet.