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Central America

The Ancient World and Fashion > People of the Americas
A colossal stone head
A colossal stone head
The Olmecs and the Maya
The Olmecs and the Maya
This painting shows a range of Maya costumes
This painting shows a range of Maya costumes
A Maya warrior painted on a vase
A Maya warrior painted on a vase


The first major Central American civilization emerged around 1500 BCE in the humid, swampy lands around the Gulf of Mexico. Here, the Olmec people built a series of ceremonial sites on low hills. The two major sites were San Lorenzo and La Venta. Each contained a complex of temple platforms and pyramid mounds and a court for a sacred ball game. The Olmecs were the first of a series
of peoples that flourished in Central
America, and many aspects of their culture were adopted by later groups, including the Maya people (see pages 58 and 59).

Olmec Carvings

Olmec craftspeople created masks and figurines from jade, obsidian, and serpentine, which were possibly worn as pendants.These carvings featured eagles, serpents, and jaguars, and also semi-human figures with snarling jaguar faces. Olmec sculptors also carved a set of giant stone heads, which are probably portraits of leaders. Each of them wears a distinctive helmet-like headdress with straps around the ears. Some have a decorated badge at the center of the forehead.

Sacred Ball Game

As part of their religion, the Olmecs played a sacred ball game on a stone court. Players hit a rubber ball with their arms, hands, and hips, and at the end of the game one team was put to death. Carvings show that the Olmec ball-game players wore a protective helmet, similar to the headdress of their rulers. They also wore a large chest ornament and a high-cut loincloth with a wide, padded waistband. Later, the Maya also played a sacred ball game, and their players wore a similar costume.


Around 300 BCE the Maya people started building stone cities deep in the rainforests of Central America. Each Maya city was filled with temples and palaces and was ruled by a powerful king. The palaces and pyramids of the Maya cities were covered with sculptures of their gods and rulers. The Maya also produced painted pots and manuscripts, which offer a wealth of evidence about the waythey looked and dressed.

Maya Beauty

The Maya people had flattened foreheads that sloped backwards, giving their faces an oval, egg-like shape. This shape was achieved by binding the skulls of babies while their bones werestill soft. Maya nobles also filed their teeth into different shapes, and built up the bridge of their nose with clay to make a long ridge that extended right up to the middle of the forehead. Hair was sometimes worn over the forehead and cut in uneven, squared-off locks.

Kings and Queens

Maya kings and queens wore amazing costumes. The kings wore patterned tunics with elaborate belts and large pectorals featuring images of their gods. They also wore decorated armbands, tasseled leg bands, and pendulous earrings. On their heads theyhad a towering headdress that frequently featured an animal’s head. The Mayaqueens’ clothes were equally dramatic. They wore long cloaks and dresses, heavy golden neck collars, intricate earrings, and tall and elaborate crowns. Ordinary people wore a basic, cotton loincloth, and a simple cap on their heads. They also wore chunky beads, armbands, and earrings.

Maya Warriors

In battle, Maya warriors dressed to scare their enemies. They wore huge, spiky headdresses and went into battle shouting, blowing long trumpets, and pulling frightening faces. Warriors defended themselves with shields and fought with long spears, but they aimed to take their prisoners alive, rather than kill them. The fiercest warriors of all were the jaguar knights. Their tunics, headdresses, shields, and spears were all decorated with jaguar skin, and their headdresses were shaped like a jaguar’s head.

Imitating the Gods

The Maya worshiped dozens of gods and held many ceremonies to please them. As part of these ceremonies, priests and kings wore costumes and headdresses representing their gods. The most important of all the gods was the sun god, and when the Maya kings were buried, they wore a mask showing the sun god’s face. These royal burial masks wereusually made of jade, the Mayan’s most precious material, which they associated with everlasting life.

Quetzal Feathers

Most of the ancient peoples of Central America worshiped the serpent god Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl was half snake and half Quetzal bird, and the feathers of the Quetzal bird were considered sacred. Like other Central American peoples, the Maya used the long, green tail feathers of the Quetzal bird in the headdresses of their rulers and priests.

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