They were alive thousands of years ago, in a time of frequent war, where people were still sacrificed to the gods.
But, incredibly, Mayan civilisations may still have used the same facial expressions we have today.
A study by researchers from California has found that modern-day people can still recognise the emotions of those living up to 3,500 years ago.
Shown only the face of a captured warrior from a Mayan sculpture, people can still figure out that he probably looked sad.
Presented with nothing but the facial expression of a grandmother with a child from a Mayan ceramic, they can guess that she appeared joyful and amused by the infant.
Even seeing the face of someone having to carry a heavy deer over his shoulders, it is possible for 21st century people to work out without context that he’s pretty annoyed about it.
A study by experts from California has found that modern-day people can still recognise the emotions of Mayans living up to 3,500 years ago as depicted by their sculptures, pictured
Researchers asked 325 people to assign emotions to 63 sculptures of ancient American people.
They wanted to see if facial expressions are natural and unchanging, or if they vary hugely across time and place, and are learned by different societies.
The results appear to suggest that at least some of the feelings on our faces stay largely the same over the centuries.
Dr Alan Cowen, co-author of the study from the University of California, Berkeley, said: ‘Although an ancient Mayan could scarcely imagine the way we live today, they would still recognise the pain, love, determination, sadness, and anger in our faces.
‘That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it.
‘It’s crazy to think that I could make roughly the same face when my wifi freezes as an ancient Mayan warrior who was just taken prisoner by an enemy battalion.’
The researchers, whose study is published in the journal Science Advances, trawled through tens of thousands of ancient sculptures to find a range of human emotions.
The 63 they ended up with presented people in eight contexts – holding a baby, in fighting stance, playing sport, playing music, embracing someone, being held captive or tortured, and carrying a heavy object.
Some participants were asked to look only at the faces in the sculptures, without knowing the situation they were in, and match them to a list of 30 emotions.
Others identified the emotions from the context, such as someone being tortured.
It emerged that five emotions seemed to echo across the centuries.
On average, people could work out if someone was in pain, usually because they were being tortured, and if they were angry, often in the context of war.
Dr Alan Cowen, co-author of the study from the University of California, Berkeley, said: ‘Although an ancient Mayan could scarcely imagine the way we live today, they would still recognise the pain, love, determination, sadness, and anger in our faces. ‘That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it’
It was possible to see sadness in the faces of warriors who had been captured and joy in the faces of family members or people touching each other in sculptures.
Sculptures of people showing determination – or simply lifting something heavy like a large stone or a deer – were clearly identified by people as showing effort in their faces.
Previous studies which have tried to determine if facial expressions are universal tended to ask people in remote communities, such as cut-off African villages, to identify the emotions of people from western countries.
The problem with this approach is that these people may have had contact with western people or media, so have a clue to the answer.
They may also have figured out what they were expected to say from the western scientists doing the experiment.
Ancient Mayans and modern humans have never met, so if people can recognise their facial expressions today, that really suggests facial expressions are largely natural and stay the same through history.
WHO WERE THE MAYANS? A POPULATION NOTED FOR ITS WRITTEN LANGUAGE, AGRICULTURAL AND CALENDARS
The Maya civilisation thrived in Central America for nearly 3,000 years, reaching its height between AD 250 to 900.
Noted for the only fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, the Mayas also had highly advanced art and architecture as well as mathematical and astronomical systems.
During that time, the ancient people built incredible cities using advanced machinery and gained an understanding of astronomy, as well as developing advanced agricultural methods and accurate calendars.
The Maya believed the cosmos shaped their everyday lives and they used astrological cycles to tell when to plant crops and set their calendars.
This has led to theories that the Maya may have chosen to locate their cities in line with the stars.
It is already known that the pyramid at Chichen Itza was built according to the sun’s location during the spring and autumn equinoxes.
When the sun sets on these two days, the pyramid casts a shadow on itself that aligns with a carving of the head of the Mayan serpent god.
The shadow makes the serpent’s body so that as the sun sets, the terrifying god appears to slide towards the earth.
Maya influence can be detected from Honduras, Guatemala, and western El Salvador to as far away as central Mexico, more than 1,000km from the Maya area.
The Maya peoples never disappeared. Today their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Maya area.
They maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs that are the result of the merger of pre-Columbian and post-Conquest ideas and cultures.