Who are the Maya?
The word Maya evokes images of mystery—ancient pyramids soaring above trackless jungle, giant carved stones covered with hieroglyphs, a sudden, mysterious demise. The great Maya civilization spanned more than two millennia and then faded, for reasons still not completely understood.
Archaeologists divide the Maya civilization into three main time periods:
Preclassic: Approximately 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250. Borrowing ideas from its neighbors and adding its own ingredients, a population in the Yucatán Peninsula rainforest creates one of the most brilliant civilizations of antiquity. Elaborate rituals arise, and with them ceremonial temples, notably at Nakbe and later El Mirador. A calendar, writing and kingship emerge. But around the first and second centuries A.D., great centers in the lowland forests collapse.
Classic: A.D. 250 to A.D. 900. The great city-states of the Maya thrive under rulers who trace their lineage to the gods. Wars between cities rage over political power and control of trade, and with them comes ritual procuring of captives for sacrifice. Palenque, Tikal and Calakmul are centers of power. By the ninth century A.D., Classic Maya lowland cities begin to creak under the weight of their populations, and surrounding natural resources apparently become inadequate. Dynasties collapse; populations decline precipitously.
Postclassic: A.D. 900 to A.D. 1521. While other regions are decaying or all but abandoned, centers of power like Chichén Itzá rule in the north, and trade expands. Nonetheless, Maya cities are beginning to decline as Spaniards arrive on the Yucatán Peninsula shores, ultimately bringing a violent end to this chapter of Maya civilization. Yet the Maya live on today: Millions of Maya descendants in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador still speak the Mayan language and observe its rituals.
Latest research on early Maya: Archaeologists are uncovering a sophisticated Maya culture from the Preclassic period that was thriving a full thousand years before the height of the Classic Maya civilization. Finds include:Guatemala's once-lost city of El Mirador, where archaeologist Richard Hansen has worked for more than 20 years. Perhaps a hundred thousand people once lived there. El Mirador's temple of Danta is probably one of the largest pyramids in the world, rivaling the great pyramids of Egypt.Sixty miles from El Mirador, at the Preclassic site of San Bartolo, archaeologist Bill Saturno has found one of only two great Maya murals known and by far the earliest intact mural. It contains a depiction of origin and creation—a Maya "Sistine Chapel." A network of cities thrived in the Preclassic era, including the Maya lowlands city of Cival in today's Guatemala. Cival dates to around 150 B.C. Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli has used satellite technology to locate and to determine that Cival is twice as big as initially believed.