The Indigenous Maya Genetic Traits: Physical Attributes and Other Characteristics

Page content

The Mayan People

The Mayan people are the large group of early Native Americans living in regions of northern Central America to Mexico. Based on recent surveys, there is an estimated 7 million descendants of Mayan people living in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and the Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco, and Quintana Roo. However, there remain very few groups of indigenous Mayan people.

The Mayan people are known for their well-developed written language, the only one of its kind in the pre-Columbian Americas. This Mesoamerican civilization is also recognized for its astronomical systems, unique architecture, arts and mathematical systems.

Aside from these accomplishments, the indigenous Mayan people have also a distinctive set of genetic traits, so it can be deduced that these people came from an isolated origin with a minimal number of individuals. This is clearly shown with nearly 100 percent of the indigenous Mayan population having blood type O. Even up to the modern times, the genetic traits of indigenous Mayan people are distinct enough to allow the easy identification of their descendants.

Traits and Physical Attributes

Without necessarily stereotyping the Maya people and the rest of the Native Americans, there are certain physical attributes that are expressions of the distinct indigenous Maya genetic traits.


One of the distinct physical attributes of the Maya is the presence of melanin on the retina, near the back of the eye. This pigmentation is also coupled with peculiarly heavy eyelids. The extra fold in the eyelids is the distinctive look that makes the Maya appear to have lazy eyes.


This group of people has a set of teeth that have a ledge on the backside, making them look like the shape of a shovel. They also have large front teeth with slight gap. Interestingly, the majority of pure native Maya do not have the Carrabelli cusp on the maxillary first molars.

Other Features

There are many distinctive features of a typical Maya native. One of these features is the inverted breastbone that can make an indentation in one’s chest. Crooked fingers, specifically the pinky, and an extra ridge of bone along the outside of the foot can also be quite common. Large and heavy earlobes are also characteristic features of a Maya.

Native Diseases

Aside from the physical attributes that serve as the expressions of genes, there are also distinct genetic diseases common in indigenous Mayan people. Based on studies, there are five major diseases that can be associated with the genetic makeup common to the indigenous Maya. On the top of the list are fibromyalgia and arthritis. The genes also make the indiginous Maya people prone to diabetes, heart disease and kidney stones. Thyroid problems are also a concern with both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism.


Alcoholism is another complex disease that occurs in Mayan people. In the majority of ethnic Native American populations, including the indigenous Maya, very high rates of alcoholism can be observed. This can be attributed to the lack of the enzyme responsible for alcohol metabolism in the bloodstream. Based on linkage analysis, the specific regions on chromosomes 4 and 11 may harbor genes linked to the absence of the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme. In the case of susceptibility to alcoholism, however, both genetic and environmental factors have been implicated as causes. Hence, the occurrence of such health ailments and conditions cannot be exclusively attributed to the unique features of the Mayan gene pool.

Other Complex Diseases Under Study

There are other conditions with possible genetic causes that are highly researched by clinicians and medical experts. These diseases are highly prevalent among Mayan people. They include congenital hip dysplasia, familial Navajo arthropathy and congenital adrenal hyperplasia.

From the same blood type for the whole population to peculiar physical features, the Maya is an isolated group that retained their own genetic makeup almost unaltered. This makes it a homogenous population with little influences from other cultures. This is the main reason why researchers proclaim interes in studying this group of people.


Restall, Matthew (1997). The Maya World. Yucatecan Culture and Society, 1550-1850. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Sunflower, Cones Kupwah (1996). Let’s Get Physical.

T.L. & M. Genealogy. Talbot Library and Museum P. O. Box 349 Colcord, Oklahoma 74338.