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Aztec vs. Mayan: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Published on November 13, 2023
The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican civilization based in central Mexico, while the Mayans were an earlier Mesoamerican civilization located in the Yucatán Peninsula and surrounding areas.

Key Differences

The Aztecs and Mayans are both significant ancient civilizations from Mesoamerica, yet they have distinct histories, geographies, and contributions. The Aztecs, with their capital at Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City), rose to prominence in central Mexico between the 14th and 16th centuries. On the other hand, the Mayans, scattered across modern-day southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador, had their major developmental phase between the 3rd and 10th centuries.
While both the Aztecs and Mayans are known for their impressive architectural feats and detailed calendar systems, they had unique approaches and styles. The Aztecs constructed massive stone structures like the Templo Mayor and are often remembered for their militaristic nature and human sacrifices. The Mayans, on the contrary, are celebrated for their astronomical observatories, such as the one in Chichén Itzá, and their complex hieroglyphic writing system.
Religiously and mythologically, the Aztecs and Mayans had overlapping deities and concepts due to cultural diffusion in the region. However, the Aztecs primarily worshipped Huitzilopochtli, the sun god and god of war, whereas the Mayans had a diverse pantheon with gods like Kukulkan and Chaac. Both civilizations believed in cyclical time, but their calendars, though similar, had distinctions.
The decline of the Aztecs came after the Spanish conquest led by Hernán Cortés in the early 16th century. In contrast, the Mayan civilization experienced a more mysterious decline around the 10th century, with factors like environmental changes, warfare, and internal strife possibly playing roles. However, many Mayan city-states continued to resist Spanish conquest until the late 17th century.

Comparison Chart

Geographical Location

Central Mexico
Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, parts of Honduras & El Salvador

Time Period

14th to 16th century
3rd to 10th century

Notable Structures

Templo Mayor
Chichén Itzá's observatory

Writing System

Nahuatl pictographic & ideographic scripts
Hieroglyphic script


Conquest by Spanish in the 16th century
Gradual decline around the 10th century, later Spanish conquest

Aztec and Mayan Definitions


The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican civilization known for their complex sociopolitical structures.
The Aztec empire was vast and well-organized, encompassing many diverse peoples.


The Mayans had a diverse pantheon of gods and intricate religious rituals.
The Mayan god Kukulkan is often represented as a feathered serpent.


The Aztec language, Nahuatl, remains spoken by some in Mexico.
Many Aztec words, like chocolate, have been integrated into English.


The Mayans built impressive city-states with monumental architecture.
Tikal is one of the most significant Mayan archaeological sites.


Aztec refers to the cultural and historical attributes of this civilization.
Aztec architecture and art continue to fascinate historians.


Mayan pertains to the cultural, linguistic, and historical aspects of this civilization.
Mayan glyphs provide insights into their history and beliefs.


Aztec society was hierarchical with a dominant warrior class.
The Aztec elite controlled politics, religion, and the economy.


The Mayans were an ancient Mesoamerican civilization celebrated for their advances in mathematics and astronomy.
The Mayan calendar's accuracy rivals modern astronomical calendars.


The Aztec calendar was intricately designed and had religious significance.
The Aztec calendar stone is a testament to their advanced astronomical knowledge.


Mayan languages are still spoken by indigenous communities in Central America.
The preservation of Mayan languages is crucial for cultural heritage.


A member of a people of central Mexico whose civilization was at its height at the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century.


A Maya.


The Nahuatl language of the Aztecs.


A linguistic stock of Central America that includes Quiché and Yucatec.


Of or relating to the Aztecs or their language, culture, or empire.


Of or relating to the Maya, their culture, or the Mayan linguistic stock.


Of or relating to one of the early races in Mexico that inhabited the great plateau of that country at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1519.


Designating, or pertaining to, an American Indian linguistic stock occupying the Mexican States of Veracruz, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, and Yucatan, together with a part of Guatemala and a part of El Salvador. See 2nd Maya.


A member of the Nahuatl people who established an empire in Mexico that was overthrown by Cortes in 1519


Of or pertaining to the Mayas.


A member of an American Indian people of Yucatan and Belize and Guatemala who had a culture (which reached its peak between AD 300 and 900) characterized by outstanding architecture and pottery and astronomy;
Mayans had a system of writing and an accurate calendar


A family of American Indian languages spoken by Mayan peoples


When did the Aztec Empire fall?

The Aztec Empire fell in 1521, after being conquered by Spanish conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés.

What does "Aztec" refer to?

The "Aztec" refers to a group of Nahuatl-speaking peoples who established an empire in central Mexico between the 14th and 16th centuries.

What is the Aztec language called?

The Aztec language is called Nahuatl.

What is the Aztec calendar called?

The Aztec calendar is often referred to as the "Aztec Sun Stone" or simply the "Sun Stone".

How did the Aztec society organize itself?

Aztec society was hierarchical, with a ruling elite, warrior class, priests, commoners, and slaves.

What were key features of Mayan architecture?

Mayan architecture is characterized by its pyramid temples, palaces, ball courts, and stelae (stone monuments).

What were the Aztecs known for?

The Aztecs were known for their advanced engineering, architecture, art, calendar system, and religious practices, especially human sacrifice.

Did the Mayan civilization disappear?

No, while many of their cities were abandoned at the end of the Classic period, Mayan communities persisted and still exist today.

What's the significance of the Mayan Popol Vuh?

The Popol Vuh is a K'iche' Maya mythological text, detailing the creation story and the adventures of the Hero Twins.

Where did the Aztecs primarily live?

The Aztecs primarily lived in the Valley of Mexico, with their capital at Tenochtitlán, present-day Mexico City.

When did the Mayan civilization peak?

The Mayan civilization peaked during the Classic period, roughly from AD 250 to 900.

Were the Mayans known for their calendar system?

Yes, the Mayans are famous for their complex calendar system, which included the Tzolk'in (260-day ritual calendar) and the Haab' (365-day solar calendar).

What is the Mayan language?

The Mayans spoke various Mayan languages, with the K'iche' and Yucatec Maya being among the most prominent.

Who were the main Aztec gods?

Some main Aztec gods include Huitzilopochtli (sun and war god), Quetzalcoatl (feathered serpent deity), and Tlaloc (rain god).

What's the significance of the Aztec eagle in their culture?

The eagle was a symbol of the sun and represented power and strength. It features prominently in the foundation myth of Tenochtitlán.

What does "Mayan" refer to?

"Mayan" refers to the indigenous people of Mesoamerica who established a civilization in present-day southeastern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Did the Aztecs practice human sacrifice?

Yes, the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice as part of their religious rituals.

What is the Mayan script?

The Mayan script is a logosyllabic writing system known for its detailed inscriptions on monuments and codices.

What are the major Mayan cities?

Major Mayan cities include Tikal, Calakmul, Copán, Palenque, and Caracol.

Did Mayans practice human sacrifice?

Yes, similar to other Mesoamerican cultures, the Mayans occasionally practiced human sacrifice in religious ceremonies.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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