Maya Technology

The technological advances of Maya engineers have been investigated by Jim O'Kon for forty years. His research has included a wide variety of technical developments of the Maya. We invite you to visit this website to review the unique technological/engineering achievements of the Maya engineers. These technological achievements include the fabrication of tools that are harder than iron; the invention of high strength durable materials of construction including the fabrication of hydraulic cement for producing cast-in-place concrete; the development of the Maya arch as a structural mechanism to create multi-story and clear span structures, elevated concrete paved roads; long-span bridges, and advanced water management methodologies that permitted the Maya urban civilization to survive in a seasonal desert environment.

Archaeologists consider the Maya to be a Stone Age Culture. They continue to focus on this cultural label because the Maya did not use tools of iron or bronze. Their use of specialized jade tools, which are harder than iron, should provide a positive rationale to provide a new nomenclature based on their technological achievements. The Maya should be given a new nomenclature: TECHNOLITHIC.

We invite you to assess this website and develop your own conclusions relative to the technological capabilities of the Maya as Americas first Civil Engineers and their status in the pantheon of human civilization.


At the end of the Pleistocene Era, North America was populated with a wide variety of animals that have now become extinct. The northern group of these animals, the equus, or modern horse, and the camelus, the modern camel, migrated to Asia where they became domesticated and supplied the power and transportation for all the great civilizations of Asia, Africa and Europe. The southern herds remained in North American and were victims of mass extinction at the end of the last ice age. Humans migrating to the continent did not find candidates for beasts of burden until they encountered llama or vicuna, all the way down in South America. When next seen in the Maya zone, the horse had a Spanish Conquistador on its back.


Read more: Transport


maya toolThe Maya civilization did not have the advantage of an available source of iron ore. In Mexico iron ore only is found over 1000 miles to the north in the state of Colima. Archaeologists have determined that the Maya used stone tools fabricated from chert and obsidian. They have overlooked the wide use of specialized tools fabricated from black jadeite. In lieu of the advantage offered by iron tools, Maya technicians discovered the advantage of jadeite as a material for making tools. The size and shape of the Maya tools are identical to the variety of steel tools used by modern artisans working in stone and wood. jade tool large in handThese jadeite tools were the principal tools used by Maya technicians: sculptors, stonecutters, wood carvers, and other artisans. These tools include various sizes and shapes of chisels, gouges, adzes, axes, and hoes.

Jadeite is a very tough mineral with a great resistance to breakage due to the intergrowth of prismatic crystals in its matrix. The green jade that is most popularly used in jewelry is sodium aluminum silicate. However, in “black jade”, the replacement of the AL (Aluminum) by Fe+3 (Iron) produces an isomorph of jadeite, an iron rich jadeite called chloromelanite. Chloromelanite is green/black in color and is referred to as "black jade." Jadeite is formed in few locations in the world. The tectonic plate in the Montagua Valley of Guatemala produces the jadeite the Maya used.

Jadeite is a very hard and durable material. On the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, where the maximum hardness is number 10.0 for a diamond, a steel knife blade has the hardness of 5.0; jadeite has a hardness number of 6.5 to 7.0. The Mohs scale indicates that the jadeite material from which Maya tools were fabricated is harder than iron or steel. Thus, the Maya tool making technology elevated the society out of the "Stone Age" and beyond the "Iron Age."

jade tool in useExamples of jadeite tools are not found in royal tombs. These tools belonged to the artisans and not the elite and they would have been passed down through families of artisans as would the techniques for producing them. They will not be found by archaeologists in contexts similar to other artifacts because they were not used or prized by the Maya elite.

Obsidian is a volcanic glass that is sourced in the ring of volcanos along the Pacific Coast of the Maya area. Maya technicians developed techniques for producing cutting blades that can be the sharpest on earth. The sharpened edge of an obsidian blade approaches molecular thinness. This Maya tool material is used for producing scalpels for heart and eye surgery in modern medicine.

C-29 Maya tools gouges chisels


thumb Sattelite map of YaxchilanThe Maya city of Yaxchilan is sited within a giant omega of the Usumacinta River. This circular bend in the river developed a 3.2 kilometer wide land mass within the inner curve of the river. This protected area, formed within the confines of the inner curve of the river, created a natural fortress for the city. However, the river is in a flood state for six months of the year, and during the rainy season the broad and swiftly flowing waters isolated the city from access to its domain across the river

Aerial of Pier 2In order to survive as a viable urban center, this ancient city required a dependable year-round way to cross the river. While the site had been studied by archaeologists since 1882, the need for a bridge crossing was not considered as a necessity by archaeological studies. The ancient ruins that were the clues to the existence of this lost landmark of Maya Engineering were hiding in plain sight (see picture on right). The need for a permanent lifeline to insure the survival of the city during the flood season was overlooked by archaeologists until James O'Kon carried out a series of expeditions, forensic engineering investigations, archaeo-engineering analysis, remote sensing, and computer modeling of this structure lead to the digital re-construction of the bridge. Constructed in the late 7th century, landmark three-span suspension bridge crossed from the city center over the Usumacinta River to the north side where the villages and farms were located.

H-2 BRIDGE computer Rendering

The rendering of the bridge indicates its design that supported the deck from shore to shore. The two tall bridge piers were located in the river with abutments on each bank. The geometry of the bridge extended 113 meters in three spans from the grand plaza of the city to the northern shore; the center span was 63 meters long.


The bridge construction consisted of a wooden deck suspended from rope cables made from henequen, a common Maya construction material. The cables spanned between cast-in-place concrete and stone towers topped by a Maya arch. The three-span bridge structure was elevated 22 meters above the river at low water levels. The height of the deck was established by the elevation of the approach structure, Structure 5, on the Grand Plaza. This elevation maintained the bridge deck well above the 15-meter high water level reached by the wild river during the flood season.


The bridge is considered to be the longest bridge in the ancient world until this record was broken by Italian engineers constructed a longer span in 1377. The discovery of the bridge was published in Civil Engineering Magazine and in National Geographic Magazine. The History Channel produced a video with an account of this unique feat of Maya engineering.

Civil Engineering coverNational Geographic Oct 1995 cover   HISTORY CHANNEL FILMING

Pusilha bridge drawing

Medium span bridge structuresPusalha River bridgeMaya engineers constructed numerous bridges with spans up to 50 feet long with timber beams. This figure shows a cross section of the Classic Period Maya bridge over the Pusilha River.

CHICANA bridgeShort span bridgesBECAN bridge
Maya short span bridges crossed streams, canals and moats in urban environments. Figure xx indicates a Maya bridge over the Otulum River at Palenque and the figure to the right shows the Maya bridge over the moat surrounding the city of Becan.


Maya Arch

Maya engineers developed a unique structural mechanism that enabled the construction of long span interior spaces, multi-story structures and unique circular structural geometries. This structural mechanism is known as the Maya arch. This is the basic building module for all Maya structures. The structural geometry of this system utilizes a linear inverted "V" shape to develop clear span interior spaces.

Read more: MAYA ARCH


Maya wall sectionThe Maya invention of hydraulic cement and the construction of cast in place concrete structures enabled the Maya to build their great high-rise cities. This durable material enabled the structures to withstand the ravages of time and the environment. They resisted the forces of earthquakes, hurricanes, and prying jungle growth to enable their survival after 2000 years. The grand buildings towering over the rainforest, the infrastructure of the large cities, water reservoirs, paved roads and long span bridges were made possible through the use of cast in place concrete in unique structures constructed by creative Maya engineers.

Read more: CEMENT


A major part of the natural environment of Yucatán is a paucity of rain for six months a year and a thin layer of soil that was insufficient for supporting agriculture using traditional methods. To feed the growing population Maya technology combined agricultural technology with water management to enhance the yield of their agriculture, a yield that satisfied the needs of the population with a surplus for trade. The Maya had a wide variety of cultivars; many of which constitute our basic agriculture products sold in modern super markets. Maya agricultural products include corn, squash, beans, tomatoes chili peppers, avocado, papaya, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, vanilla, peanuts pineapple, chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon and many others. They developed creative methodologies to enhance the agricultural yield included raised field methods and terraced fields.


Water Management

The homeland of the Maya civilization was mainly in the Yucatán Peninsula. This tropical peninsula is controlled by a fickle and difficult natural environment. Geologically the landmass of the Yucatán Peninsula is porous karstic limestone platform covered with a thin layer of soil. Meteorologically, the environment is a seasonal dessert with six months of torrential rain and six months of a drought-like dry season. Storm water falling on the ground surface is absorbed by the thin soil layer and flows into the porous limestone and into the aquifer resulting in the almost complete absence of surface water in the Yucatán.

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The well-worn trails between Maya city-states presented difficult traveling conditions. They were dark and deep within shadows of the rainforest, with treacherous, slippery slopes and tangled jungle roots. During the rainy season travel was impossible. To solve the problems of traveling between city-states the Maya developed an engineering solution.

Maya engineers constructed broad concrete paved roads elevated above the tangled, flooded jungle floor. These elevated roadways or “sacbeob” enabled Maya commerce, governmental and military activities to travel between cities during all seasons of the year and on a 24-hour basis. The rough tangled jungle trails were flooded for six months a year and the elevated paved roads were the solution for the efficient and transport of personnel and material between cities.

thumb 9-2 sacbe detailThe construction of the sacbeob or "white roads" featured a design that was superior to Roman roads and paralleled our modern highway system. The sacbeob were constructed in widths up to 10 meters and paved with white cast-in-place concrete pavement. The pavement was elevated from one meter to three meters above the jungle floor. The roads featured traffic intersections, drainage features and rest stops complete with water supply.

9-1 sacbe cross section

1934 SCABE SURVEY TEAMThe most prominent sacbe explored by archaeologists lies between the Maya cities of Cobá and Yaxuna. This road extends for 100 kilometers in an east/west line. This sacbe was surveyed by the Carnegie Institution in 1934 and a survey was carried out by James A. O'Kon, P.E. in 1995, 2001, and 2002. The initial survey by the Carnegie Institution was carried out using a magnetic compass. The O'Kon survey utilized satellite and remote sensing, aerial photography and ground based GPS studies. The O'Kon expedition confirmed the design and configuration of the classic sacbe.

thumb C-19D sacbe aerial line of sacbe 1thumb C-20 sacbe aerial yaxuna end  thumb C-27 COBA sacbe terminus GPS SURVEY OF COBA-YAXCUNA


The Maya economy depended on trading partners, not only in Mesoamerica but across the shining seas that border the Yucatan Peninsula. Large Maya seagoing vessels plied the open seas and ventured across the Caribbean to the islands extending from Cuba to Antigua. Maya sea traders traveled afar and encountered trading partners with valuable resources that could be traded for products unique to the Maya world.