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Mayapan (Mexico)

Mayapan, A Late Maya Capital in the Yucatan Peninsula


Maya Site of Mayapan, Yucatan, Mexico

Maya Site of Mayapan, Yucatan, Mexico


Mayapan is one of the largest Maya sites on the north-west part of the Yucatan peninsula, about 24 miles southeast of the city of Merida. The site is surrounded by many cenotes, and by a fortified wall which enclosed more than 4000 buildings, covering an area of ca. 1.5 square miles.

Two main periods have been identified at Mayapan. The earliest correspond to the Early Postclassic, when Mayapan was a small center probably under the influence of Chichén Itzá. In the Late Postclassic, from AD 1250 to 1450 after the decline of Chichén Itzá, Mayapan rose as the political capital of a Maya kingdom that ruled over northern Yucatan.

Excavations at Mayapan

The ruins at Mayapan were always known by local inhabitants, and colonial sources, such as Bishop Diego de Landa mentioned them in his Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan.

In 1940 the Carnegie Institute of Washington carried out the first long-term archaeological project at the site. In the 1960s the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) started a project that is still going on in conjunction with other international investigations.

Mythical Origins and Development of Mayapan

The origins and the history of Mayapan are strictly linked to the those of Chichén Itzá. According to different Maya and colonial sources, Mayapan was founded by the culture-hero Kukulkan, after the fall of Chichén Itzá. Kukulkan fled the city with a small group of acolytes and moved south where he founded the city of Mayapan. However, after his departure, there was some turmoil and the local nobles appointed the member of the Cocom family to rule, who governed over a league of cities in northern Yucatan. The legend reports that because of their greed, the Cocom were eventually overthrown by another group, until the mid-1400 when Mayapan was abandoned.

Archaeological investigations support this version of the story, since there is evidence that the ceremonial center of the city was destroyed around AD 1450. Deliberate destruction and marks of fire are visible in the excavation. Mayapan was eventually abandoned and had become a ruin by the time of the European arrival.

Site Layout and Architecture at Mayapan

Almost all the buildings now visible at Mayapan date to the Late Postclassic period. The administrative and ceremonial area counts about 120 structures with elements such as colonnaded halls, serpent-like columns, use of balustrades and circular temples more similar to Central Mexican architectural style than to their Classic Maya predecessors.

The main temple is the Pyramid of Kukulkan, which sits over a cave, and is similar to the same building at Chichén Itzá, El Castillo. The residential sector of the site was composed of houses arranged around small patios, surrounded by low walls. House lots were clustered and often focused on a common ancestor whose veneration was a fundamental part of everyday life.

Artifacts at Mayapan

Artifacts recovered from Mayapan included pottery effigy censers with attached molded body parts that resemble images of Central Mexico gods. In general, the Mayapan art style seems influenced by the Mixteca-Puebla style of central Mexico, visible in many painted murals and stucco reliefs on the temple of Kukulkan.

Gold and copper artifacts such as bells and rings have also been found at Mayapan indicating a long-distance trade connection. Other materials include obsidian tools, whose raw material was imported from Guatemala along with jade.

Importance of Mayapan

Mayapan is a key site to understand Late Postclassic Mesoamerica and the early Colonial time. Not only it was the last capital of a Maya kingdom in the Yucatan, but its art and architecture reflect a long process of pan-mesoamerican trade, communication and stylistic exchange that included all Mesoamerica, from central Mexico to the Yucatan peninsula.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Maya Civilization, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Adams, Richard E.W., 1991, Prehistoric Mesoamerica. Third Edition. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

McKillop, Heather, 2004, The Ancient Maya. New Perspectives. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California.

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