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Aztecs vs. Mayans: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on October 27, 2023
"Aztecs" refers to a Mesoamerican civilization in central Mexico, known for empire-building and human sacrifice, while "Mayans" describes a people in southern Mexico and Central America, noted for advanced writing, astronomy, and city-states.

Key Differences

"Aztecs" dominated central Mexico, building an empire based on military conquest and tributary states, while the "Mayans," independent city-states, thrived in the Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, and Belize, renowned for their sophisticated calendar and hieroglyphic writing.
"Aztecs" practiced human sacrifice as part of their religious rituals, a stark contrast to the "Mayans," whose religious practices, while complex, did not emphasize human sacrifice on the same scale.
The "Aztecs" ruled their empire from the city of Tenochtitlán, known for its complex social and political organization; the "Mayans," however, didn't form a single unified empire, but rather a network of powerful city-states, each with its distinct ruler.
"Aztecs" used a pictographic writing system, Nahuatl, not fully deciphered today; "Mayans" developed a complex writing system using hieroglyphs, recording detailed histories, astronomical observations, and religious texts.
"Aztecs" met their decline with the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century; "Mayans" experienced a classical period collapse but continued to thrive in post-classical times until Spanish colonization.

Comparison Chart

Geographic Location

Central Mexico
Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize

Political Structure


Writing System

Pictographic (Nahuatl)


Spanish conquest (16th century)
Classical collapse, then Spanish colonization

Notable Practices

Human sacrifice, empire-building
Advanced writing, astronomy

Aztecs and Mayans Definitions


"Aztecs were a Mesoamerican culture in Mexico."
The Aztecs were known for their intricate religious ceremonies.


"Mayans had a sophisticated hieroglyphic writing system."
The Mayans recorded their history and knowledge in codices.


"Aztecs had a powerful military tradition."
The Aztecs conquered various neighboring peoples.


"Mayans were an ancient civilization in Mesoamerica."
The Mayans created a detailed calendar system.


"Aztecs' capital was Tenochtitlán."
The Aztecs' floating gardens of Tenochtitlán were an agricultural innovation.


"Mayans' civilization declined before European colonization."
The Mayans' classical era ended, but their descendants persist today.


"Aztecs fell to Spanish conquerors in the 16th century."
The Aztecs were defeated by Hernán Cortés' forces.


"Mayans lived in city-states, not a unified empire."
Each Mayan city was ruled by a distinct sovereign.


"Aztecs were known for their massive human sacrifices."
Aztecs performed sacrifices to appease their gods.


"Mayans were advanced in astronomy and mathematics."
The Mayans made accurate astronomical observations.


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.


Who were the "Aztecs"?

The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican people who built a vast empire in central Mexico.

Did the "Aztecs" and "Mayans" coexist?

Their classical periods didn't overlap; the Aztecs rose after the Mayans' classical era decline.

Where did the "Aztecs" live?

The Aztecs lived in central Mexico, with their capital at Tenochtitlán.

Who were the "Mayans"?

The Mayans were an ancient civilization known for their art, architecture, mathematics, calendar, and astronomical system.

Were the "Aztecs" known for human sacrifices?

Yes, they regularly performed human sacrifices as religious rituals.

Did the "Mayans" perform human sacrifices?

Yes, but not on the scale practiced by the Aztecs.

Where did the "Mayans" live?

The Mayans occupied the Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.

What language did the "Mayans" speak?

They spoke various Mayan languages.

What caused the "Mayans" classical era to end?

It's unclear, but factors like famine, war, and political upheaval likely played parts.

How did the "Aztecs" write?

They used a pictographic writing system.

How did the "Mayans" write?

They used a hieroglyphic writing system.

What ended the "Aztecs" civilization?

The Spanish conquest led by Hernán Cortés.

Are the "Aztecs" and "Mayans" still around today?

Their descendants are, preserving many cultural practices.

What language did the "Aztecs" speak?

They spoke Nahuatl.

Were the "Aztecs" and "Mayans" advanced in astronomy?

The Mayans were, with less evidence of this for the Aztecs.

What are some achievements of the "Aztecs"?

They built monumental architecture and were skilled warriors and administrators.

Did the "Aztecs" have a calendar?

Yes, two: a 365-day agricultural calendar and a 260-day sacred calendar.

What are some achievements of the "Mayans"?

They excelled in art, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, and writing.

Did the "Mayans" have a calendar?

Yes, they had a complex calendar system, including the 365-day Haab' and the 260-day Tzolk'in.

What's the most significant difference between the "Aztecs" and "Mayans"?

The Aztecs were an empire-focused, militaristic society; the Mayans, known for intellectual achievements, were organized in city-states.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
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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