Maya WomanThe Maya still occupy the same parts of Central America that were theirs in ancient times; the lowlands of Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo, Belize, parts of El Salvador and Honduras, and much of the States of Chiapas and Tabasco in Mexico. Their terrain varies from humid, semi-tropical forest with heavy annual rainfall, to semi-arid scrub bush, to mountains and upland plateaux. Much of it, especially in the north, has very few permanent water sources such as rivers and lakes.Maya Area Map


View of Flores

When Spanish adventurers began to arrive in Central America, around 1500, the Maya were the first native people they encountered - and the last to be conquered. It was not until 1697 that the Itza Maya of central Peten, in Guatemala, were finally defeated after several abortive entradas.


The island town of Flores in LakePeten was the site of the last independent Maya center. The church, at the top of the island, occupies the site of the Major temple, built by the Itza Maya, the last remaining independent group by the 17th Century.

Venus figure   The Maya were never a single culture. They developed as a group of related cultures, something like city states, constantly either at war or in fragile alliances with each other. Devotion to warfare may have been one of the causes of a cultural collapse some six hundred years before the Spanish appeared (around AD 850). The great inland cities that had flourished much earlier had all been long abandoned by 1500 and most Maya centers at the time of the conquest were relatively minor, coastal communities, although some still maintained monumental temples and plazas (Tulum, for example). Painted books containing centuries of accumulated lore were still in use. This Venus image from page 49 of the Dresden Codex is a redrawn example of the imagery found in these books.

T I, TikalAt present four or five million Maya live in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. Twelve hundred years ago, at the height of the Late Classic Period (AD 600-900), the total Maya population may have been as high as twenty million. They were agriculturalists, but lived in towns, villages, and cities clustered around paved plazas dominated by  high pyramidal temples, as for example,Temple I, Tikal.

Present-day Maya live in cities, towns and villages set up by the Europeans after  the conquest and dominated by churches. Ancient Maya customs survive in many of   these communities, often in tragic conflict with the policies of national governments. Temple I, Tikal was the centre of a city of 50,000 or more people at about AD 750.

While the centers of ancient Maya cities contained large scale monumental structures, many of the residential parts might have looked quite similar to present-day communities.


Chichicastenangoprofessional Maya prayer-sayers burn incense on the steps of the church at Chichicastenango, Guatemala. They continue an ancient tradition in a new mode.

The book to read is: Time and the Highland Maya, Barbara Tedlock, University of New Mexico Press, 1982.

   The earliest known human presence in the Maya lands is dated at close to 10,000 B. P. but artifacts can not be recognized stylistically as "Maya" until about 1500 B.C. This is the early end of the period known as the Preclassic when we begin to see small village settlements. At the minor site of Cuello in Belize a small temple dates to 1200 - 1000 B.C. and post-dates evidence of elaborate ceremonial activity involving sacrificial rites. From 1000 to 500 B.C. similar evidence has been found at many centres. By about 250 B.C. we have large scale monumental temples and plazas at numerous locations.

   The Classic Period conventionally begins at A.D. 200, a date that mainly refers to writing in the form of inscriptions cut into stone monuments. This is the time of greatest development, urbanism, growth of population, and production of very impressive artifacts of many different types. Agriculture provided the subsistence base and the technology remained lithic (stone) with very limited use of some metals. The Maya Classic is the only instance of a stone age society with writing and urbanism. This period is considered to end at A.D. 910, the date of the last known inscription in the Long Count form. The last dated monument may be one from the site of Mayapan, not in Long Count form, and only by inference datable to A. D. 1263. Cessation of Long Count date inscriptions more or less coincides with abandonment of the Classic Period cities such as Tikal, Palenque, Copan, Calakmul, Coba, and many others, and initiates the Post Classic Period which extends to the time of the conquest, taken as 1524, when Cortez defeated the Aztec forces at Tenochtitlan, but which extended all the way to 1697 in the Maya area when the last independent Maya were finally overwhelmed at Tayasal in the Peten district of Guatemala. During the Post Classic, the Maya settled in coastal sites and did not undertake monumental construction except for centres such as Tulum and Comalcalco in the lowlands, though a whole series of cities such as Iximche, Zaculeu, Utatlan and others flourished in the highlands of Guatemala, where many Maya communities preserve ancient traditions to this day.

Maya civilization is particularly famous for relatively highly developed writing.

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