A History of Education: The Olmecs and the Maya

[Editor’s Note: This is the 9th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

Unlike in the other three areas of the world where writing arose independently, writing in Mesoamerica didn’t start as a means of accounting, but rather, it served religious, political, and historical purposes. Whoever knew how to read and write and leveraged it properly attained a higher social status than the average person. The knowledge, then, passed on only to sons of the ruling elite, served to reinforce their claim to power.

The highly elaborate yet conventionalized symbol system was widespread throughout Mesoamerica and can be reliably dated as far back as 1500 BCE, when the Maya civilization rose. Because the symbols were conventionalized, a knowledgeable person like a priest or shaman in one region could interpret those carved in another, and the two had a system to share complex ideas.

Because the scripts across the region are so similar, many scientists believe the Olmecs, an earlier civilization, had themselves invented a writing system that was the progenitor of all subsequent scripts for which we have artifacts. However, if there were such a system, nothing from it survived to this time. As a result, we’ll look at the education system of the earliest civilization for which we do have data in that area — the Maya.

By 1500 BCE, the Maya had settled in villages and established agriculture as one of the primary vocations. The nobles believed a commoner didn’t need a formal education; therefore, a child’s job was to help their parents, and since most people were farmers, they learned how to be a farmer themselves or a farmer’s wife. If the father had another profession, his sons learned that skill as their trade, even if they had no aptitude for it. Girls learned from their mothers how to keep the house.

By the time the children reached 15, they were considered adults and fully trained for what they would do for the rest of their lives. There was no upward movement, either. Jobs were hereditary, and a person’s status in the society was determined by their parents’ status. Only very rarely, if a child demonstrated an incredible talent, usually in the arts, would they be taught another profession.

The Maya as a whole, though, were extremely knowledgeable, especially in the areas of writing and astronomy. They used a hieroglyphic system to keep written records and created codices, collections of documents written on paper, cloth, or animal skin; examples demonstrating this unique script have been unearthed by archaeologists.

The Maya also developed a counting system based on the number twenty, which was written using blocks and dots, and a 365-day astronomical calendar, which was remarkably accurate. These subjects were taught to high-ranking boys by a special class of priest who also instructed them in math and medicine.

The Aztecs, the great empire that followed the Maya, established two schools, one for the nobility and the other for commoners. Boys from noble houses received training to become military or political leaders or priests in the calmecacs attached to their temples. The Aztecs dedicated each calmecac to a different deity, so training varied from school to school, but officials in all the calmecacs meted out harsh punishments for infractions, which they believed helped train future political and military leaders to endure pain in battle or in their ritual bloodletting ceremonies.

By the time they were 15, sons of commoners were provided a military education in the telpochcalli, or “young men’s house.” They were trained to use weapons and capture victims because, if needed, every young adult male headed into battle. These young men also performed manual labor to strengthen their bodies and help them develop stamina and self-discipline.

The Aztecs insisted that all children, including girls, between 12-15 train in the cuicacalli, or “house of song” for a few hours each evening. They memorized songs and poetry that told of their past and imparted information about what their relationship with their various gods should be. Girls also learned how to dance for the various festivals.



Next week: The Islamic World, Basics


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.



[1] Google Sites. “Ancient Maya.” Retrieved from https://sites.google.com/site/ancientmayarebeccap/lifestyle/education-and-culture.

[2] Donn, Lynn. (nd). “Maya Empire for Kids: Kids and School.” Retrieved from https://mayas.mrdonn.org/school.html.

[3] Beck, Elias. (August 15, 2018). “Aztec Education.” History Crunch (historycrunch.com). Retrieved from https://www.historycrunch.com/aztec-education.html#/.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

17 thoughts on “A History of Education: The Olmecs and the Maya”

Leave a Reply