Difference Between Aztecs and Mayans

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: September 15, 2023


Difference Between Aztecs and Mayans

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The term Aztecs refers to the people who lived in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec civilization. Though the Aztecs were known for the giant pyramids they built, they had no form of transportation; they used footpaths to travel on foot. They worshipped the God Huitzilopochtli who represented war and the sun. The pipitlin (nobility) was the highest social class of the Aztecs, and it was acquired hereditarily. The next class was macehualtin, which consisted of peasants at first but gradually came to denote the working class. Then came the commoners and slaves.

The Mayans are best known for their writing system, which was highly sophisticated and well-developed. The Catholic Church (and most notable among its officials – Bishop Diego de Landa) destroyed all Maya texts they could find. Fortunately, four books from the pre-classic era escaped their wrath – the Madrid Codex, the Dresden Codex, the Paris Codex, and the Maya Codex of Mexico.

The Mayan Calendar is another noteworthy creation of the Mayans. The calendar had records of lunar and solar cycles and predicted accurately the time of eclipses and the movement of planets. However, the Mayans were also highly superstitious despite showing signs of being an advanced civilization. The Maya believed that heaven had thirteen levels and the underworld had nine. According to them, the mortal world was in between these two.

Aztecs Vs. Mayans

Aztecs and Mayans existed in different time periods. The Mayans were a more advanced civilization compared to the Aztecs. The former had developed a sophisticated writing system, whereas the latter only used glyphs. Aztecs worshipped Huitzilopochtli, and the Mayans worshipped Itzamna (the Creator, the cosmos, and the sun).

Difference Between Aztecs And Mayans In Tabular Form

Parameters Of Comparison Aztecs Mayans
Period Aztecs dominated Mesoamerica from the 14 – the 16th centuries. The archaic period of Mayan civilization was from 8000BC – 2000BC (as the precise start and end dates are not known, the period varies depending on the author). The Mayans occupied a vast area in Central America and Southern Mexico.
Today comprises of The Aztec civilization in Mesoamerica is part of present-day Mexico. The Mayans lived in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.
Religion and God Aztec religion – Aztecs had pantheons for Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, and Tezcatlipoca, but their main God was Huitzilopochtli. Mayan religion – the Mayans’ most significant God is Itzamna.
Language Nahuatl Before 2000BC – proto-Mayan. It diverged into Huastecan, Mamean, Yucatan, and so on in the pre-classic period. The classic Mayan texts were identified as written in the language Ch’olan.
Currency The Aztecs used Quachtli and cocoa beans as currency. The Mayans used salt, obsidian, cacao seeds, and gold as currency.
Writing System Glyphs (purposeful marks) or pictures. Mayans developed a full-fledged writing system.

Who Are Aztecs?

Aztecs are the people of a civilization that existed in the 14 – 16th centuries. Their capital was part of present-day Mexico. The Aztecs have an interesting myth about how the Earth was created. According to it, Tezcatlipoca (deity of night, magic, fate, and prophecy) and Quetzalcoatl (deity of wind, sky, and star) defeated a giant crocodile and made it become the Earth. It is believed that Quetzalcoatl and his twin brought bones from the underground, which another goddess ground and made into dough. The dough was given human form, and they came alive when imbued with the Quetzalcoatl’s blood (myths are weird but intriguing).

Men and women of the Aztec society could inherit and own property; however, gender roles did exist. Men were expected to work as farmers, craftsmen, tradesmen, or warriors. The women could work as priests, midwives, or doctors, and their work gained equal respect from society. The Aztecs produced crops like maize, beans, chilies, squashes, and amaranth. Artificial irrigation existed in this civilization. Besides farming, each family had a backdoor garden where they grew herbs and medicines. Their sources of protein were fish, shrimp, and other waterfowl.

Many people engaged in crafting and were not confined only to farming. Women used cotton and agave fibers to craft clothes, whereas men specialized in beadwork, featherwork, and the production of ceramics. Moreover, they excelled at creating obsidian and flint tools. Some smelted gold and combined it with precious stones (mostly jade). Sometimes, goods were used to pay taxes. When an altepetl (city-state) was conquered, taxes were collected from the defeated people in the form of their most treasured goods. The chosen mode of tax may be luxury goods or practical goods.

The Templo Mayor or the Great Temple was a large pyramid consisting of two shrines (one for Tlaloc – a storm deity and the other for Huitzilopochtli – a solar deity). Human sacrifices were made here, and the bodies were thrown down the pyramid’s stairs. These sacrifices were considered essential for the continued existence of the sun and the Earth’s fertility. The major deities of the Aztecs consisted of Coatlicue (earth deity), Xipe Totec (deity of fertility), Huehueteotl (fire god), Mixcoatl (tribal deity), and so on.

The Aztecs used two calendars simultaneously. One was a ritual calendar with 260 days, while the other was a solar calendar with 365 days. A new calendar cycle began every 52 years when both calendars reach their shared starting point. This day was celebrated with a New Fire Ceremony – all the fire in the Aztec empire is put out, and a new fire is created. The Aztecs feared that the star demons would descend and destroy the Earth on that night without fire.

Aztecs are also admired for their artistic works. They painted on animal skin and amate (paper made from bark), and the Templo Mayor was decorated with murals. They were skilled sculptors who carved realistic animals like jaguars, dogs, monkeys, and so on out of wood. Stone sculptures like the Stone of Tizoc and the Stone of Motecuzoma I are famous for the images of warfare carved on them.

Featherwork is the art of creating intricate mosaics of feathers and using them to decorate garments, suits, weapons, and banners. The skilled craftsmen, called amanteca, who created these were exempted from paying tax. A wide variety of bird feathers were used in featherwork. The feathers were obtained locally or from faraway sources; moreover, they may be the feathers of wild or domestic birds. The craftsmen got their hands on the finest feathers through either tax (the losing altepetl had to pay using their most valuable resource) or trade.

Today, several Aztec artifacts are displayed in museums, and several excavation sites are open to the public. Many people are curious to know more about the Aztec civilization, as Mexicans considered it a point of national pride in the 19th century.

Who Are Mayans?

Mayans are the people of a civilization that occupied a third of Mesoamerica. Trade played a key role in the development of the Mayan civilization. The rulers controlled the long-distance trade of luxury and utilitarian goods. Moreover, wars were fought to establish control over certain trade routes. Luxury goods were exclusive to the royals; however, they were gifted to potential allies to secure alliances and vassals to ensure loyalty.

The Maya or Mayans favored the color green or blue-green. Unfortunately, only a scarce amount of Mayan art survived; however, they cover a wide variety of subjects. Many carvings were made out of bones, and the human bones are speculated to be that of ancestors. The Mayans built their cities using stone and some perishable materials. The stone type varied according to locality; some used limestone, some favored volcanic tuff, some preferred sandstone, while others had to make do with fired bricks. Wood, thatch, and adobe played a significant role in their masonry structures.

Based on ink analysis of codices, the scribes were surmised to have used brushes with a tip made of pliable hair to write. They possessed inkpots made out of conch shells (awesome, right?). Scribes were always chosen from the elite, as the commoners were illiterate. They were referred to as aj tz’ib (the one who writes).

The Mayans were exemplary astronomers who meticulously observed and recorded the movement of celestial bodies, the sun, the moon, and the stars. The data was used to make predictions (astrology). The priests who made these observations believed that under the same astronomical conditions, similar events would occur (that is, the past events may re-occur). They believed that solar and lunar eclipses could cause catastrophes. The solar eclipse is depicted as a serpent devouring a hieroglyph representing the day.

According to the Maya, God’s will can be interpreted by observing the alignment of planets and stars. They built observatories (underground chambers with a hole in the ceiling) to observe the sun that passes directly above twice a year (zenithal passage days – a zenith is the highest point directly above a location). The astronomers identified thirteen constellations and associated each one with different animals.

Knowledge of musical instruments like trumpets, flutes, whistles, and drums was prevalent in the Mayan era. The Maya played these instruments at various rituals. Several types of Mayan trumpets existed; the ones made of clay were short compared to those made of wood. Clay whistles shaped like human heads were also discovered in burial sites. Music played an invaluable role in dance, rituals, theatrical events, and even wars. Mayans believed music could guide their dead rulers through the underworld and be reborn; therefore, they buried musical instruments along with their deceased ruler’s body.

The Mayans used slash-and-burn techniques in agriculture. According to this method, the trees and woody plants in a specific area are cut down and left to dry. Later, they are burned which results in the production of nutrient-rich ash that acts as a soil fertilizer. However, after some years the soil productivity decreases, and the farmers abandon the area to move on to other plots of land. The Mayans produced several crops like maize, chilies, squashes, beans, and prestigious crops like cotton, vanilla, and cacao.

The Mayans used cotton to weave valuable textiles and extracted cooking oil from the cottonseeds. Cacao facilitated the creation of xocolati (a drink made by mixing cacao with chili peppers, cornmeal, and honey), which the elites favored and indulged in. Tamales made out of corn dough, a mix of veggies, and meat were highly popular in the Mayan era, and the freshly made ones were often sold in exchange for cacao seeds. The people considered cacao the sacred gift from God – which shows that people will always love chocolate beverages irrespective of era, civilization, or culture.

Main Difference Between Aztecs And Mayans In Points

  • The Aztecs predominantly produced maize, beans, chilies, amaranth, and squashes, whereas the Mayans cultivated all these and other crops like cotton, cacao, manioc, sunflower, and vanilla.
  • The Mayans penned and fattened turkeys and possibly deer for eating, whereas the Aztecs were content with fish, shrimps, and ducks.
  • Though the Aztec and Mayan calendar seem similar, the Mayan astronomers made much more accurate predictions based on the movements of celestial bodies.
  • The Aztecs only used glyphs and pictures, whereas the Mayans used a well-developed writing system.
  • The Mayans believe that the Monkey Brothers Hun-Batz and Hun-Choven sculpted humankind and gave it life, whereas the Aztecs believe that Quetzalcoatl gave life to human forms made out of ground underworld bones.
  • The Aztecs worshipped Huitzilopochtli (the sun God) and believed that he created the Earth, whereas the Mayans worshipped Itzamna (the Creator and the cosmos).
  • Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs. Ch’olan was the most popular language of the Mayans.


Loan words from the Aztec language Nahuatl (spoken by 1.5 million people today) have spilled over to the Mexican language, and the Aztec eagle is present in the flag and coat of arms of Mexico. Even Mexican cuisine is influenced by elements of Aztec cuisine such as corn, chili, squash, and tomato. Over 250 museums spread throughout the world display Maya artifacts. Many foods in the 21st century originated from Mayan cuisine (chocolate, avocado, tortillas, and tamales). Therefore, the impact of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations is felt centuries after the empire fell and shows no sign of becoming less influential.


  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aztecs
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_civilization
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_cuisine
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slash-and-burn
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_mythology
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_astronomy
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_music


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"Difference Between Aztecs and Mayans." Diffzy.com, 2024. Fri. 23 Feb. 2024. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-aztecs-and-mayans-1299>.

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