'Inca' vs 'Aztec' vs 'Maya': What's the Difference?

By Katie Moore, updated on September 30, 2023

‘Inca’ vs ‘Aztec’ vs ‘Maya’: What’s the difference? This article covers three of the most influential empires in the western hemisphere. While their history is complex, we’re here to give you an overview of the difference between ‘Inca’ vs ‘Aztec’ vs ‘Maya’

In a rush? Here’s a preview of what’s to come:

  • ‘Inca’ refers to the largest empire of the Pre-Colombian era, located in modern-day Peru
  • ‘Aztec’ refers to the central Mexican empire of the 1300s belonging to the Nahuatl speakers
  • ‘Maya’ refers to the ancient Central American empire that dissolved in 900 AD

What’s the Difference Between ‘Inca’ vs ‘Aztec’ vs ‘Maya’?

There are a number of basic differences between these three civilizations, so let’s get a sense of them before diving into the empires individually.

Let’s start with location:

  • The ‘Inca’ Empire was located in modern-day Peru but stretched along the South American Pacific border from Ecuador to Chile.
  • The ‘Aztec’ Empire was located in central Mexico, with the empire’s formal capital now being a part of Mexico City. 
  • The ‘Maya’ Empire stretched from southern Mexico through all of Guatemala and Belize and into El Salvador. In essence, it was the Central American empire. 

Placing these terms on a map helps you separate them visually, but how do we separate them on a timeline? 

  • The ‘Maya’ civilization was the most long-lasting, existing from 2000 BC to 1697 AD.
  • Meanwhile, the ‘Inca’ and ‘Aztec’ empires existed for shorter periods and at roughly the same times — from around the 13th through 16th centuries.

Finally, before investigating the full history of these civilizations, let’s give an overview of the people.

  • The ‘Inca’ Empire was home to the Incas or Inkas, whose official language was Quechua.
  • The ‘Aztec’ Empire was home to the Aztecs, whose official language was Nahuatl.
  • The ‘Maya’ Empire was home to the Mayans, who primarily spoke Ch’olan.

These three key differences between the empires are just the beginning of their rich history, so let’s take a closer look individually at ‘Inca’ vs ‘Aztec’ vs ‘Maya’.

Definition of ‘Inca’: What Does it Mean?

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Inca’ is a noun that means: 

  • A member of a South American people living in the central Andes before the Spanish conquest
  • The supreme ruler of the Inca
  • A South American hummingbird having mainly blackish or bronze-colored plumage with one or two white breast patches

History of ‘Inca’ and its Empire

The ‘Inca’ established their empire when they expanded their capital at Cusco, after fighting off rivals under the leadership of the famous Pachacuti. The empire rose to power very quickly and was known as the most dominant of its time. 

Those who spoke the official ‘Inca’ language of Quechua were given noble government status, which helped increase the empire's power.

  • Incas were known for their architecture and built impressive stone structures, including one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Pichu. 

The fall of the Incan Empire actually began when two sons of an Inca king started a civil war over the right to rule, which made the empire vulnerable. Then, in the 1530s, a group of Spanish conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizzaro, arrived in Peru searching for gold. Pizzaro discovered Cusco, stole its gold, and killed King Atahualpa, which ended the ‘Inca’ empire. 

‘Inca’ Quick Facts

  • The ‘Inca’ state was also called Tawantinsuyu, which meant “Land of the Four Quarters.”
  • The ‘Incas’ had an elaborate roadway system that stretched around 3,250 miles long.
  • At its peak, the ‘Inca’ empire had 11 million citizens 
  • The ‘Incas’ believed that all kings came from their god Inti, who was the sun god and patron god of Cusco 
  • They made earthquake-proof architecture without mortar
  • The ‘Incas’ believed in human sacrifices to appease their gods 

Definition of ‘Aztec’: What Does it Mean?

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Aztec’ is a noun that means:

  • A member of the indigenous people dominant in Mexico before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century 
  • The extinct language of the Aztecs, a Uto-Aztecan language from which modern Nahuatl is descended. 

As an adjective, ‘Aztec’ can also mean:

  • Relating to the Aztecs or their language

History of ‘Aztec’ and its Empire

The ‘Aztec’ Empire was founded in 1325 when the ‘Aztec’ or sometimes Tenoch people established their settlement at Lake Texcoco. The city became their capital, Tenochtitlan, which later became known as Mexica. 

The ‘Aztecs’ thrived under the rule of Montezuma (Moctezuma) I, who was known as the father of the ‘Aztec’ empire. Tenochtitlan flourished under Montezuma and became the most densely populated city in Mesoamerican history. The city remained a place of power due to the ‘Aztec’ alliance with neighboring cities and peoples. 

The fall of the ‘Aztec’ empire came when Hernan Cortes marched on Tenochtitlan in 1519.

  • Though he was originally received as an honored guest, Cortes and his army, with superior weaponry, quickly overtook Montezuma II.

The empire then crumpled due to Cortes’ attacks and the introduction of European diseases like smallpox. 

‘Aztec’ Quick Facts

  • The ‘Aztecs’ saw an eagle perched on a cactus at Lake Texcoco, which is what prompted them to build their city on its bank.
  • The dominant ‘Aztec’ language was Nahuatl, whose words are still used today (for example, avocado, coyote, and chocolate)
  • At its peak, Tenochtitlan had over 140,000 inhabitants
  • Many temples were built for Huitzilopochtil, who was the chief ‘Aztec’ god of the sun and war
  • The Day of the Dead originated in ‘Aztec’ culture
  • The ‘Aztecs’ were the first to discover chocolate

Definition of ‘Maya’: What Does it Mean?

According to Merriam-Webster, ‘Maya’ is a noun that means:

  • A Mayan language of the ancient Maya peoples recorded in inscriptions
  • A member of a group of indigenous peoples chiefly of Yucatán, Belize, and Guatemala, whose languages are Mayan
  • The Mesoamerican Indians occupied nearly continuous land from Southern Mexico to Belize

History of ‘Maya’ and its Empire

The ‘Mayan’ empire was the longest-lasting in Central America, with its early cities being built in 2000 BC, but its true power rose during the Classic Period (250 to 900 AD).

  • ‘Mayan’ cities grew during this period and included plazas, pyramids, and even sports courts. 

The ‘Maya’ were deeply religious and regarded their kings as gods on earth. The ‘Maya’ were also sophisticated writers and had one of the most advanced pre-Colombian hieroglyphic writing systems.

  • In fact, most of ‘Mayan’ history was learned from stone carvings on their monuments. 

Unlike the younger empires in Latin America, the decline of the ‘Mayan’ empire wasn’t due to conquest. Instead, the ‘Mayans’ slowly abandoned each of their cities without much of a known reason. However, historians suspect their land was either overworked or that there was too much endemic warfare, leading to a breakdown in civilization. 

‘Maya’ Quick Facts

  • The ‘Mayans’ built another one of the Seven Wonders of the World: Chichén Itza.
  • The 'Maya’ civilization had a long count 5,125-year calendar
  • Itzamná was the creator god of the ‘Maya,’ but Kukulkan, the serpent-headed god, was one of the more widespread gods 
  • ‘Mayans’ played a ball game called Pok-Ta-Pok or pitz that resembles modern soccer
  • There were 40 total ‘Mayan’ cities, each with between 10,00 to 50,00 inhabitants
  • The ‘Mayans’ had advanced medicinal practices and had shaman healers

Pronunciations: How to Pronounce ‘Inca’ vs ‘Aztec’ vs ‘Maya’

Now that you have a better understanding of the meaning behind these new words, let’s make sure you can say them aloud correctly. Reference the guides below to gain a better understanding of how to pronounce ‘Inca’ vs ‘Aztec’ vs ‘Maya’.

Use this phonetic spelling of ‘Inca’ as a guide:

  • ‘Eeng-ka’ (the ‘i’ is wide as in “ink,” an the ‘nc’ sound, when spoken, quickly adds an ‘ng’ sound)

Use this phonetic spelling of ‘Aztec’ as a guide:

  • ‘Az-teh-k’ (the ‘a’ is wide as in “apple,” and the ‘e’ is low as in “red”)

Finally, use this phonetic spelling of ‘Maya’ as a guide:

  • ‘Mai-yuh’ (the ‘ay’ sounds like “high,” but the second ‘a’ is flat as in “ago”)

How to Use ‘Inca’ vs ‘Aztec’ vs ‘Maya’ in a Sentence

Learning the definition of words is important, but the last step to truly mastering them is being able to use them on your own terms. Take a look at the sample sentences below to see how these words may appear in contexts outside of history books. 

‘Inca’ Example Sentences

  • Due to its location in the mountains, the Inca city of Machu Pichu was largely untouched by Spanish conquistadors. 
  • The Inca used a system of ropes and knots called the quipu to keep track of numbers

‘Aztec’ Example Sentences

  • The Aztecs also called themselves the Mexica, which led to the modern name for their location — Mexico. 
  • I learned about the Aztecs in my fifth-grade social studies class, and it was my favorite empire to read about. 

‘Maya’ Example Sentences

  • Since the Maya never officially disbanded, many Mayan languages are still spoken today in Latin America. 
  • The Mayans had an extensive library of written books using their advanced system of hieroglyphics.

‘Inca’ vs ‘Aztec’ vs ‘Maya’ Example Sentences

  • The Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs all practiced human sacrifices as part of their individual religions.
  • The Mayan god Kukulkan is very similar to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, but the Incas don’t have an overlapping deity. 

Final Advice on ‘Inca’ vs ‘Aztec’ vs ‘Maya’

It is difficult to cover so much history in a brief article, but we hope this article has provided a good summary of these three majorly influential empires. Remember that the difference in location and time period can be an easy way to quickly distinguish between these civilizations. 

Need a recap? Here’s a quick review of what was covered:

  • ‘Inca’ is a noun that refers to the empire in Peru from the 13th to 16th century
  • ‘Aztec’ is a noun that refers to the empire of central Mexico for whom the country was named
  • ‘Maya’ is a noun that refers to the longest-lasting empire in Mesoamerica that still has surviving members

Want to learn more vocabulary and history at the same time? Be sure to check out other confusing word articles that give you both historical context and dictionary definitions. Remember that learning new words can be a great way to explore other cultures.

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Written By:
Katie Moore
Katie is a recent graduate of Occidental College where she worked as a writer and editor for the school paper while studying linguistics and journalism. She loves helping others find their voice in writing and making their work the strongest it can be. Katie also loves learning and speaking other languages and wants to help make writing accessible for everyone.

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