Locating the Maya
Early Maya, 1800 B.C. to A.D. 250
Cities of Stone: The Classic Maya, A.D. 250-900
The Classic Period, which began around A.D. 250, was the golden age of the Maya Empire. Classic Maya civilization grew to some 40 cities, including Tikal, Uaxactún, Copán, Bonampak, Dos Pilas, Calakmul, Palenque and Río Bec; each city held a population of between 5,000 and 50,000 people. At its peak, the Maya population may have reached 2,000,000 or as many as 10,000,000.
Excavations of Maya sites have unearthed plazas, palaces, temples and pyramids, as well as courts for playing the famous Maya ball game ulama, all ritually and politically significant to Maya culture. Maya cities were surrounded and supported by a large population of farmers. Though the Maya practiced a primitive type of “slash-and-burn” agriculture, they also displayed evidence of more advanced farming methods, such as irrigation and terracing.
The Maya were deeply religious, and worshiped various gods related to nature, including the gods of the sun, the moon, rain and corn. At the top of Maya society were the kings, or “kuhul ajaw” (holy lords), who claimed to be related to gods and followed a hereditary succession. They were thought to serve as mediators between the gods and people on earth, and performed the elaborate religious ceremonies and rituals so important to the Maya culture.
Maya Arts and Culture
The Classic Maya built many of their temples and palaces in a stepped pyramid shape, decorating them with elaborate reliefs and inscriptions. These structures have earned the Maya their reputation as the great artists of Mesoamerica. Guided by their religious ritual, the Maya also made significant advances in mathematics and astronomy, including the use of the zero and the development of complex calendar systems like the Calendar Round, based on 365 days, and later, the Long Count Calendar, designed to last over 5,000 years.
Serious exploration of Classic Maya sites began in the 1830s. By the early to mid-20th century, a small portion of their system of hieroglyph writing had been deciphered, and more about their history and culture became known. Most of what historians know about the Maya comes from what remains of their architecture and art, including stone carvings and inscriptions on their buildings and monuments. The Maya also made paper from tree bark and wrote in books made from this paper, known as codices; four of these codices are known to have survived. They are also credited with some of the earliest uses of chocolate and of rubber.
Life in the Rainforest
One of the many intriguing things about the Maya was their ability to build a great civilization in a tropical rainforest climate. Traditionally, ancient peoples had flourished in drier climates, where the centralized management of water resources (through irrigation and other techniques) formed the basis of society. (This was the case for the Teotihuacan of highland Mexico, contemporaries of the Classic Maya.) In the southern Maya lowlands, however, there were few navigable rivers for trade and transport, as well as no obvious need for an irrigation system.
By the late 20th century, researchers had concluded that the climate of the lowlands was in fact quite environmentally diverse. Though foreign invaders were disappointed by the region’s relative lack of silver and gold, the Maya took advantage of the area’s many natural resources, including limestone (for construction), the volcanic rock obsidian (for tools and weapons) and salt. The environment also held other treasures for the Maya, including jade, quetzal feathers (used to decorate the elaborate costumes of Maya nobility) and marine shells, which were used as trumpets in ceremonies and warfare.
Mysterious Decline of the Maya
From the late eighth through the end of the ninth century, something unknown happened to shake the Maya civilization to its foundations. One by one, the Classic cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned, and by A.D. 900, Maya civilization in that region had collapsed. The reason for this mysterious decline is unknown, though scholars have developed several competing theories.
Some believe that by the ninth century the Maya had exhausted the environment around them to the point that it could no longer sustain a very large population. Other Maya scholars argue that constant warfare among competing city-states led the complicated military, family (by marriage) and trade alliances between them to break down, along with the traditional system of dynastic power. As the stature of the holy lords diminished, their complex traditions of rituals and ceremonies dissolved into chaos. Finally, some catastrophic environmental change–like an extremely long, intense period of drought–may have wiped out the Classic Maya civilization. Drought would have hit cities like Tikal–where rainwater was necessary for drinking as well as for crop irrigation–especially hard.
All three of these factors–overpopulation and overuse of the land, endemic warfare and drought–may have played a part in the downfall of the Maya in the southern lowlands. In the highlands of the Yucatan, a few Maya cities–such as Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Mayapán–continued to flourish in the Post-Classic Period (A.D. 900-1500). By the time the Spanish invaders arrived, however, most Maya were living in agricultural villages, their great cities buried under a layer of rainforest green.
Do The Maya Still Exist?
Descendants of the Maya still live in Central America in modern-day Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and parts of Mexico. The majority of them live in Guatemala, which is home to Tikal National Park, the site of the ruins of the ancient city of Tikal. Roughly 40 percent of Guatemalans are of Mayan descent.
This article originally appeared on history.com