Mayan Temple of Kukul Can, Chichen Itza, Mexico, 1925

Historical Context
The Maya were one of the most important ancient civilizations in North and Central America.  Mayan civilization began around 2000 B.C., but it flourished from around A.D. 300-900.  During this time, about ten million Maya lived in southern Mexico and in parts of Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize.  The Maya had sophisticated architecture, art, astronomy and mathematics.  They were one of only a few civilizations in the world at the time that used the number zero.  Religion was important to the Maya, and priests were important members of their society.  After A.D. 900, the Mayan civilization declined, but more than four million descendents of this great civilization are living today.

One of the most important Mayan cities was Chichen Itza, a religious center located in the Yucatan Peninsula of modern day Mexico.  The Temple of Kukulcan (also called “El Castillo”) in the photograph is a stepped pyramid at the center of Chichen Itza.  Standing 79 feet high, the pyramid is a monument to Kukulcan, the Feathered Serpent God.  The pyramid has 91 steps on each of the four sides, with the step to the top platform making a total of 365 steps, one for each day of the year.  Twice a year, at the spring and fall equinoxes, the setting sun casts a shadow on the Temple of Kukulcan that gives the appearance of a serpent crawling down the steps of the pyramid.
Essential Question
How does geography influence the development of culture?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain how geography influenced the development of this culture.
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Document Description
The Temple of Kukul Can, also known as the Castle or El Castillo, at the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. Photograph taken in 1925.
  1. Where is Chicen Itza?
  2. Who built the city?  When did people live there?
  3. What kind of structure is shown in the photograph?
  4. What other ancient cultures built structures like these?
  5. Why do you think people visit Chichen Itza today?
Historical Challenge
Create a map of Mayan civilization at its height.
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: What contributions did the Maya make to mathematics?
Math: What number was Mayan math based on? What number is our math based on?
Science: What contributions did the Maya make to science?
English Language Arts: Write a poem from the point of view of a Mayan child about the shadow of the Feathered Serpent descending the steps of the Temple of Kukulcan.
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  2. Heinrichs, Ann. Mexico (A True Book). Danbury: Children's Press, 1997.
  3. Jermyn, Leslie, and Mary-Jo Reilly. Mexico (Cultures of the World). New York: Benchmark, 2002.
  4. Baquedano, Elizabeth. Aztec, Inca & Maya (DK Eyewitness Books). New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.
  5. Bell-Rehwoldt, Sheri. Amazing Maya Inventions You Can Build Yourself. White River Junction, VT: Nomad, 2006.
  6. Coulter, Laurie. Secrets in Stone: All About Maya Hieroglyphs. Boston: Little Brown, 2001.
  7. Fisher, Leonard, Everett. Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient Maya. New York: Holiday House, 1999.