The Maya were an advanced Mesoamerican civilization living in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and northern Honduras. Unlike the Inca or the Aztecs, the Maya were not one unified empire, but rather a series of powerful city-states that often allied with or warred upon one another.
Maya civilization peaked around 800 A.D. or so before falling into decline. By the time of the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, the Maya were rebuilding, with powerful city-states rising once again, but the Spanish defeated them. The descendants of the Maya still live in the region and many of them continue to practice cultural traditions such as language, dress, cuisine, and religion.
The Maya Preclassic Period (1800-300 BCE)
People first arrived in Mexico and Central America millennia ago, living as hunter-gatherers in the rain forests and volcanic hills of the region. They first began developing cultural characteristics associated with the Maya civilization around 1800 BCE on Guatemala's western coast. By 1000 BCE the Maya had spread throughout the lowland forests of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras.
The Maya of the Preclassic period lived in small villages in basic homes and dedicated themselves to subsistence agriculture. The major cities of the Maya, such as Palenque, Tikal, and Copán, were established during this time and began to prosper. Basic trade was developed, linking the city-states and facilitating cultural exchange.
The Late Preclassic Period (300 BCE-300 CE)
The late Maya Preclassic Period lasted roughly from 300 B.C. to 300 A.D. and is marked by developments in Maya culture. Great temples were constructed: their facades were decorated with stucco sculptures and paint. Long-distance trade flourished, particularly for luxury items such as jade and obsidian. Royal tombs dating from this time are more elaborate than those from the early and middle Preclassic periods and often contained offerings and treasures.
The Early Classic Period (300 CE-600 CE)
The Classic Period is considered to have begun when the Maya began carving ornate, beautiful stelae (stylized statues of leaders and rulers) with dates given in the Maya long count calendar. The earliest date on a Maya stela is 292 CE (at Tikal) and the latest is 909 CE (at Tonina). During the early Classic Period (300-600 CE), the Maya continued developing many of their most important intellectual pursuits, such as astronomy, mathematics, and architecture.
During this time, the city of Teotihuacán, located near Mexico City, exerted a great influence on the Maya city-states, as is shown by the presence of pottery and architecture done in the Teotihuacán style.
The Late Classic Period (600-900)
The Maya late Classic Period marks the high point of Maya culture. Powerful city-states like Tikal and Calakmul dominated the regions around them and art, culture and religion reached their peaks. The city-states warred, allied with, and traded with one another. There may have been as many as 80 Maya city-states during this time. The cities were ruled by an elite ruling class and priests who claimed to be directly descended from the Sin, Moon, stars, and planets. The cities held more people than they could support, so trade for food, as well as luxury items, was brisk. The ceremonial ball game was a feature of all Maya cities.
The Postclassic Period (800-1546)
Between 800 and 900 A.D., the major cities in the southern Maya region all fell into decline and were mostly or completely abandoned. There are several theories as to why this occurred: historians tend to believe that it was excessive warfare, overpopulation, an ecological disaster or a combination of these factors that brought down the Maya civilization.
In the north, however, cities like Uxmal and Chichen Itza prospered and developed. War was still a persistent problem: many of the Maya cities from this time were fortified. Sacbes, or Maya highways, were constructed and maintained, indicating that trade continued to be important. Maya culture continued: all four of the surviving Maya codices were produced during the Postclassic period.
The Spanish Conquest (ca. 1546)
By the time the Aztec Empire rose in Central Mexico, the Maya were rebuilding their civilization. The city of Mayapan in Yucatán became an important city, and cities and settlements on the eastern coast of the Yucatán prospered. In Guatemala, ethnic groups such as the Quiché and Cachiquels once again built cities and engaged in trade and warfare. These groups came under the control of the Aztecs as a sort of vassal states. When Hernán Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire in 1521, he learned of the existence of these powerful cultures to the far south and he sent his most ruthless lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, to investigate and conquer them. Alvarado did so, subduing one city-state after another, playing on regional rivalries just as Cortes had done. At the same time, European diseases such as measles and smallpox decimated the Maya population.
Colonial and Republican Eras
The Spanish essentially enslaved the Maya, dividing their lands up among the conquistadors and bureaucrats who came to rule in the Americas. The Maya suffered greatly in spite of the efforts of some enlightened men like Bartolomé de Las Casas who argued for their rights in Spanish courts. The native people of southern Mexico and northern Central America were reluctant subjects of the Spanish Empire and bloody rebellions were common. With Independence coming in the early nineteenth century, the situation of the average indigenous native of the region changed little. They were still repressed and still chafed at it: when the Mexican-American War broke out (1846-1848) ethnic Maya in Yucatán took up arms, kicking off the bloody Caste War of Yucatan in which hundreds of thousands were killed.
The Maya Today
Today, the descendants of the Maya still live in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and northern Honduras. Many continue to hold to their traditions, such as speaking their native languages, wearing traditional clothes and practicing indigenous forms of the religion. In recent years, they have won more freedoms, such as the right to practice their religion openly. They are also learning to cash in on their culture, selling handicrafts at native markets and promoting tourism to their regions: with this newfound wealth from tourism is coming political power.
The most famous "Maya" today is probably the Quiché Indian Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. She is a well-known activist for native rights and occasional presidential candidate in her native Guatemala. Interest in Maya culture was at an all-time high in 2010, as the Maya calendar was set to "reset" in 2012, prompting many to speculate about the end of the world.
Aldana y Villalobos, Gerardo and Edwin L. Barnhart (eds.) Archaeoastronomy and the Maya. Eds. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2014.
Martin, Simon, and Nicolai Grube. "Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya." London: Thames and Hudson, 2008.
McKillop, Heather. "The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives." Reprint edition, W. W. Norton & Company, July 17, 2006.
Sharer, Robert J. "The Ancient Maya." 6th ed. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006.