Who were the Mayans and how did they disappear?

The Mayan civilization of Mexico and Central America are one of the ancient world’s most fascinating, prolific, and mysterious civilizations. They left their mark on the region’s culture, architecture, cuisine, and language – and left an indelible impression on the imagination of the modern world. Who were they? How were they able to build such an impressive civilization of towering temples and sophisticated artwork in the middle of the harsh rain forests of Mesoamerica? And why did they vanish?

The earliest Mayans lived along the Pacific coast of what is now Guatemala and can be dated to about 1800 BC; by 1000 BC they were also living in Guatemala’s southern lowlands. The period from about 1800 BC to about AD 250 is referred to as the Pre-classic, a time when the early Mayans lived as farmers in small villages along rivers and other bodies of water, hunting game, tending gardens, and making use of the abundant natural foods found in the region’s marshes and seasonal swamps. In time, strong rulers began wielding power over these communities, and the Mayan culture grew in complexity. Cities rose from the forest floor, boasting stone temples with stuccoed and painted facades created at the behest of elite rulers. People in the new power centers communicated over long distances, and traders using the same route carried luxury goods such as cacao beans, jade ornaments, quetzal feathers, and jaguar pelts.

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The Classic period, AD 250 – 900, is the time of the civilization’s greatest glory – and of the greatest depths of political intrigue between rival cities. During these centuries, the Mayans erected countless stelae, stone monuments inscribed with portraits and hieroglyphs that recorded dynastic histories – the births, marriages and conquests of the ruling families. There were dozens of important regional capitals at the time, and among the most important were Tikal in Guatemala and its fierce rival Calakmul in Mexico, Palenque in southern Mexico, Caracol in Belize, and Copán in Honduras.

The Classic period is known for artistic and intellectual splendor. The Mayans developed a complex religious and ritual system that considered rulers divine beings and called for blood sacrifices. They also grasped the numerical notion of zero, created agricultural timetables and sophisticated calendars to track the heavens, and made beautiful polychrome pottery as well as exquisite ornaments, murals, and carved decorations.

But the Classic Mayans were also known for their rancorous political fighting and for being extremely bellicose – warfare was always on the horizon. One by one, the cities in the southern Mayan lowlands fell to each other, their downfall often recorded on stelae in the conquering city. By AD 900 most of the important Classic period cities had collapsed, and their remaining populations had scattered into the surrounding forests. The last date recorded on stelae that archaeologists have found so far is from 909 in Toniná, in southern Mexico. Among the factors that help explain why the civilization collapsed were the endemic warfare, overpopulation, degradation of the environment, and drastic climate change and drought.

While the cities and ceremonial centers of the southern lowlands were being reclaimed by the jungle, the Mayans living to the north were gaining prominence, rising to amazing heights during the post-classic period (900-1502). Wonderful and wealthy cities in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula flourished, most famous among them being Chichén Itzá. Yet it too fell victim to political infighting and by 1200 had collapsed.

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El Castillo, Chichen Itza, also known as Temple of Kukulcan

The Mayans never truly disappeared. Centuries after the major cities were abandoned, small groups of Mayans continued to live in the area. It was they who met and resisted the Spanish conquistadors after the first contact, in 1502. And today, more than six million Mayans live in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, speaking 28 languages, and blending ancient and modern ways.

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