Difference Between Aztec and Mayan

The main difference between Aztec and Mayan is that Aztec civilization was in central Mexico from 14th to 16th century and expanded throughout Mesoamerica, while the Mayan empire branched all over a vast territory in northern Central America and southern Mexico from 2600 BC.

Aztec and Mayan are two empires or civilizations that spanned over the American continent hundreds of years ago. The Aztec civilization belongs to the Pre-Columbian era, whereas the Mayan civilization belongs to the Pre-classic Period.

Key Areas Covered

1. What is Aztec 
   – Definition, History, Characteristics
2. What is Mayan
     – Definition, History, Characteristics
3. Similarities Between Aztec and Mayan
     – Outline of Common Characteristics
4. Difference Between Aztec and Mayan
    – Comparison of Key Differences

Key Terms

Aztec, Empire, MayanDifference Between Aztec and Mayan - Comparison Summary

What is Aztec

“Aztec” refers to a civilization of people who lived in Tenochtitlan, which is modern Mexico City. The Aztec Empire bloomed as a result of an alliance between Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan in order to defeat Azcapotzalco. However, Tenochtitlan turned into the most powerful and dominant city. in the alliance. This led the Aztec empire to expand in both military power and trade. The Aztec Empire reached its peak in 1519 CE, just before the arrival of the Spanish in Tenochtitlan in 1521. As a result of the Spanish conquest, the city fell down along with its civilization.

Aztec Civilization

The Aztecs built giant pyramids. Although Tenochtiltan fell, some of these pyramids still remain today in the Valley of Mexico. For instance, the ruins of the Templo Mayor.

The Aztec civilization was basically built around corn cultivation. All the children were given education until they turned 14.  During the Aztec era, the empire was ruled by an Emperor. There was a huge socio-economic gap between the “pipiltin” (nobles) and “macehualli” (commoners). The Aztec civilization also practiced slavery where the individuals become slaves due to debts, as war captives, or punishment for criminals.

In addition, there was no mechanism of travel and transportation using animals or wheeled vehicles during Aztec civilization. Therefore, there were only footpaths for travel on foot. Focusing on their religious beliefs, The Aztecs venerated Huitzilopochtli, the symbol of the war and sun, and practiced human sacrifice as a form of devotion.

What is Mayan

The general belief is that the Mayan empire branched out from southern Mexico to Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and northern El Salvador during the 1800BCE. However, the southern Mayan empire fell down during the 8th and 9th centuries due to overpopulation, revolt, foreign invasion, and the collapse of trade routes, whereas the Northern Mayan cities continued to flourish until the Spanish conquest.

During 250 and 900 CE, the Mayans built lots of city-states, temples, stepped pyramids, and castles and developed a hieroglyphic writing system. Furthermore, they commenced long-distance trading activities with other Mesoamerican communities. There are many major Mayan sites which are still existing today including, Altun Ha, Cancuen, Coba, Copan, Caracol, El Mirador, Naranjo, Tikal, and Yaxha.

Aztec vs Mayan 

The Mayans had a system of separate city kingdoms which were ruled by a monarch. Similar to the Aztecs, the Mayans also lacked work animals, wheel-based travel and transportation, and metal apparatus. However, unlike the Aztecs, the Mayas used a writing system, a combination of phonetic symbols and logograms, and a base5 and base 20 numbering system. They also invented a 365-day calendar based on the solar movement. The Mayans believed in Earth, heavens above, and the underworld below them. Similar to the Aztecs, the Mayans also practiced human sacrifice as a mode of venerating their gods.

Similarities Between Aztec and Mayan

  • Neither Aztecs nor Mayans used work animals or wheeled vehicles for travel and transportation.
  • Monarchy was common in both civilizations.
  • Both Aztecs and Mayans built pyramids.
  • Human sacrifice was practiced as a mode of veneration during both civilizations.
  • Both civilizations highly depended on agriculture. The main crop they grew was corn

Difference Between Aztec and Mayan  


Aztec civilization inhabited central Mexico from 14th to 16th century while the Mayan empire widened all over a vast landscape in northern Central America and southern Mexico from 2600 BC.


The Aztecs used to speak the Nahuatl language while the Mayans spoke several languages, including Yucatec Maya, K’iche’, Kaqchikel, Sacapultec, Chol, Teco, and Tojolabal. However, Yucatec Maya was the most commonly spoken the Mayan language. Moreover, the Aztecs did not use a written language; they only portrayed their ideas in pictures or glyphs. In contrast, the Maya people had a fully developed written language.


The Aztec civilization belongs to the Pre-Columbian era, while the Mayan civilization belongs to the Pre-classic Period.


The Aztecs practiced the Aztec religion, while the Mayans practiced the Maya religion.


The Mayans used Cacao seeds, Salt, Obsidian, or Gold, whereas the Aztecs used Quachtli and Cocoa Beans as currency.


The main difference between Aztec and Mayan is that Aztecs lived in central Mexico from 14th to 16th century, whereas the Mayan empire expanded all over an enormous terrain in northern Central America and southern Mexico during 2600 BC. Furthermore, the Mayans had a more advanced written linguistic system, while the written mode of expression of the Aztecs was only the pictures and symbols.


1. “Aztecs.” History.com, A&E Television Networks.
2. “Maya.” History.com, A&E Television Networks.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Aztec Empire c 1519” By Badseed based on work by historicair which in turn was based on Madman2001’s work. – (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Commons Wikimedia
2. “676352” (CC0) via Pxhere

About the Author: Anuradha

Anuradha has a BA degree in English, French, and Translation studies. She is currently reading for a Master's degree in Teaching English Literature in a Second Language Context. Her areas of interests include Arts and Literature, Language and Education, Nature and Animals, Cultures and Civilizations, Food, and Fashion.

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