Close your eyes and imagine you are hiking through a thick jungle. You use a sharp machete to cut away the vines and leaves blocking your path. You step through deep mud and cross a busy stream, then cut through another wall of trees until you reach the clearing and see it — the tallest stone pyramid you’ve ever seen. You gaze and wonder at its size and move toward it touching the intricate carvings in the stone. From the symbols, you know you’ve discovered a temple of one of the great civilizations of the ancient world, the Mayas…
Who were these ingenious people? How did they build these gigantic pyramids? And what caused their advanced civilization to suddenly disappear? Where did the Mayas go?
The earliest Mayan villages started in 1,800 B.C., almost 4 thousand years ago! They lived in what is now the region of Mexico and Central America, which includes countries like Guatemala and Belize — also called Mesoamerica. The climate there is tropical, which means it’s filled with dense jungles and is very wet like a rainforest. The Mayas were very skilled farmers and grew corn, beans, and squash. This allowed their communities to grow larger. Over the next 2000 years, the Maya civilization slowly began to grow further into the highlands of Mesoamerica.
From 250 A.D. to 900 A.D. the Maya civilization was at its strongest also called the Classic Period. This was their Golden Age, their best years as they grew and expanded and became more advanced. During this time the Maya civilization included over 40 cities, and each city included anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 people, totaling over 2 million — which is huge for a civilization at that time!
Each city-state was independent of the other, had its own kings, priests, and other rulers, but was very similar in other ways. They had the same language, religion, and culture. Usually, these different Maya cities got along and traded and worked together but sometimes they went to battle over different problems.
In order for civilizations to thrive, they have to be able to share resources with each other. Resources are things like food, building materials, and other items people want and need to buy. Sometimes they are crafted goods like jewelry or nice clothing. The Mayas made trade easier by building roads between each of the cities. These highways were called “white ways” because they were covered in stucco or plaster that made them easier to travel on. With better trade routes, cities moved goods faster and were able to prosper as they worked together.
One of the cities that did the most trading is one we now call Tulum. It was built on cliffs along the Caribbean Sea and protected by huge walls. The walls are 16-24 feet thick in some places to keep out invaders. Long ago, Mayas from all over Mesoamerica came to Tulum by land, river, and sea to trade with each other. We know this because of all of the artifacts which have been found there that come from a very distance. These artifacts include gold, feathers, and copper items. The ancient people called this beautiful city “Zama” which means “Dawn” because it faces the sunrise. The city leaders lived inside the walled city, while the peasants and other citizens lived and worked outside the city. In the center of Tulum is a pyramid called El Castillo which served as a temple for the city’s priests. Tulum was one of the last cities to be lived in by Mayas who were there even when Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s.
In their largest cities like Tikal, the Mayans built gigantic buildings of stone. Some of these were temples, others were palaces and plazas where the city people met together to buy and sell and hold sporting events. Their favorite sport was a game called ulama, where the players bounced a rubber ball back and forth across the court. Ulama was very tricky because players weren’t allowed to use their hands or feet, but instead used their knee and hip, and other body parts to hit the ball.
The step pyramid-shaped temples that towered over the city were magnificent and many of them can be visited today. Chichen Itza includes one of the largest of the pyramids in Mexico. Copan and Palenque, along with Tulum, are among the most visited ruins today.
Anciently, the Mayas used these temples to worship their gods. Some of these gods were Kukulcan, the Feathered Serpent God, who ruled the winds and water and who they believed created humans and taught them the rules of law, literacy, medicine, architecture, farming, and how to run a civilization. Then there was Itzamna, God of the Sky, the founder of Maya culture and protector of the sciences, such as astrology and writing. Ix Chel was the Mayan Moon Goddess who represented love and marriage. The Maya priests made offerings to these gods of food and other objects to stay in their good favor.
The Mayas were also very gifted artists. They decorated their pyramids and other stone buildings with beautiful pictures and hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics are symbols that represent words and their ruins which you can still see today are covered in them. They made beautiful jewelry using shells from the ocean, bright green feathers from the quetzal bird, and precious stones like gold and jade. The Mayas were also very skilled at math, which they used to build their magnificent temples. From the temples, their priests watched the sun, moon, and stars, so were advanced astronomers. Their buildings were often designed with their understanding of astronomy in mind. For example, the Pyramid of El Castillo has 365 steps to represent the different days of the year. The Maya calendar is still known today for its accuracy.
By the end of the Classic Period, something began to change in the Maya Civilization that slowly caused their power and influence to slow down. Over the next few hundred years, their cities became smaller and there were fewer people, the population declined. No one knows for sure what happened to the Mayan Empire, but some archeologists think it was because they had used up all of the land and other precious resources. Others also think there may have been a drought, which means not enough water, which people needed to survive. There may also have been fighting between the different cities and its powerful families which caused the downfall of the Maya Civilization. But even though the cities were empty, the Maya people spread throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and the surrounding area, turning to other ways of life like farming and fishing and living in smaller villages instead.
In 1839, an American traveler and writer named John Lloyd Stephens visited some of the Maya sites with a friend. Together, they wrote and sketched the amazing cities and ruins and sparked interest in the ancient Mayan people and their civilization. Archeologists visited to research the sites and try to better understand who the Maya were. Others deciphered the hieroglyphics to understand their history. People all over the world finally learned about this advanced civilization that once ruled Mesoamerica.
Today, the descendants of the Maya still live in Central America, which includes parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
If you get the chance, be sure to look up documentaries about the Maya or books at your local library. You can also find many amazing photos of their cities and buildings which still stand today.