The ancient Maya were a group of American Indian peoples who lived in southern Mexico, particularly the present-day states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo, and in Belize, Guatemala,
and adjacent Honduras. Their descendants, the modern Maya, live in the same regions today, in both highlands and lowlands, from cool highland plains ringed by volcanos to deep tropical rain forests. Through the region runs a single major river system, the Apasion-Usumacinta and its many tributaries, and only a handful of lesser rivers, the Motagua, Hondo, and Belize among them. The ancestors of the Maya, like those of other New World peoples, crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia more than 20,000 years ago, during the last ice age. The Maya were the first people of the New World to keep historical records: their written history begins in 50 BC, when they began to inscribe texts on pots, jades, bones, stone monuments, and palace walls. Maya records trace the history of the great kings and queens who ruled from 50 BC until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. All Maya “long count” calendar inscriptions fall between AD 292 and AD 909, roughly defining the period called Classic. Earlier Maya culture is called Formative or Preclassic (2000 BC-AD 300), and subsequent civilization is known as Postclassic (AD 900-conquest). Protected by difficult terrain and heavy vegetation, the ruins of few ancient Maya cities were known before the 19th century, when explorers and archaeologists began to rediscover them. The age and proliferation of Maya writings have been recognized since about 1900, when the calendrical content of
Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions were deciphered and the dates correlated with the Christian calendar. For most of the 20th century, only the extensive calendrical data of Maya inscriptions could be read, and as a result, Maya scholars hypothesized that the inscriptions were pure calendrical records. Because little evidence of warfare had been recognized archaeologically, the Classic Maya were thought of as peaceful timekeepers and skywatchers. Their cities, it was thought, were ceremonial centers for ascetic priests, and their artwork anonymous, without concern for specific individuals. More recent scholarship changes the picture dramatically. In 1958 Heinrich Berlin demonstrated that certain Maya hieroglyphs, which he called emblem glyphs, contained main signs that varied according to location, indicating dynastic lines or place names. In 1960, Tatiana Proskouriakoff showed that the patterns of dates were markers of the important events in rulers’ lives. The chronological record turned out to serve history and the perpetuation of the memory of great nobles. Subsequently, major archaeological discoveries, particularly at Palenque and Tikal, confirmed much of what the writings said, and examination of Maya art has revealed not only historical portraiture but also a pantheon of gods, goddesses, and heroes–in other words, Maya religion and mythic history.
By 5000 BC, the Maya had settled along Caribbean and Pacific coasts, forming egalitarian fishing communities. Certainly by 2000 BC the Maya had also moved inland and adopted agriculture for their subsistence. Maize and beans formed the Maya diet then as today, although many other foodstuffs–squash, tomatoes, peppers, fruits, and game–were supplements. The word for maizewais synonymous with food itself, and the maize god was honored from early times.
Sometime around the end of the Classic Period, the Maya were split up into independent city-states. The nobles of these city-states intermarried and waged war on each other. This civil war, along with the recent change in their system of government, led to the decline of the great Mayan Empire and ultimately, its demise.