Who were the Maya? Decoding the ancient civilization’s secrets.
The evidence of a long-forgotten civilization was everywhere: Beneath a Spanish convent. Underneath a street. It was mostly covered in vines and vegetation that had been reclaimed from the jungle. But as a pair of British-American explorers combed through the Yucatan Peninsula in the 1830s and 1840s, they soon became convinced the mysterious sites were major archaeological treasures.
Discarded and abandoned, the function of these sites and artifacts–temples, pyramids, remnants of art and even writing–was mostly unknown. Nonetheless, wrote John Lloyd Stephens in 1841, they all seemed to be the work of the same group of people.
“Who these races were, whence they came, or who were their progenitors, I did not undertake to say, nor did I know,” he conceded.
The ruins were remnants of the Maya civilization, a Mesoamerican empire that once covered large swathes of Central America from Guatemala to Belize. The Maya, a Mesoamerican civilization that cultivated the region’s first crops, domesticated its wildlife, and built its first cities, are just a few of the many remarkable feats it accomplished. (Subscriber exclusive: In search of the lost empire of the Maya. )
Though their descendants have preserved some of their culture’s traditions and lore, much about the Maya remains as mysterious today as it did centuries ago when their secrets were still hiding in plain sight.
Origins of the Maya
While the origins of Maya culture remain murky, it’s thought to have first emerged between 7000 B.C. and 2000 B.C., when hunter-gatherers abandoned their nomadic habits and created more permanent settlements. Recent analyses suggest that those first settlers came from South America and likely developed their staple food, maize, by 4000 B.C. The Maya’s history was changed dramatically by maize cultivation.
These newcomers didn’t just plant corn: They also learned to prepare it for human consumption with nixtamalization, a process in which dried maize is soaked, then cooked in an alkaline solution that softens corn and renders it more digestible. The Maya would also grow other important vegetables, such as beans, cassava, squash, and cassava.
The Maya seem to have developed alongside, and traded ideas with, the neighboring Olmec civilization, which some consider one of the most influential societies of ancient times. Researchers believe that this is when the Maya adopted their ritual complexes, which would make them famous. The Maya, like the Olmecs, soon began to build cities around their ritual areas. These advancements in agriculture and urban development are now known as the Maya’s Preclassic period between 1500 and 200 B.C. (This massive Mayan ceremonial complex was discovered in “plain sight. “)
As the Maya built out their society even further, they laid the foundations for complex trade networks, advanced irrigation, water purification and farming techniques, warfare, sports, writing, and a complex calendar. The complex calendar had three different dating systems: one for the gods, another for civil life, and a final astronomical calendar called the Long Count. The starting point of this third calendar was set at the legendary date of humans’ creation, corresponding to August 11, 3114 B.C. The Long Count calendar began a new cycle on December 21, 2012, leading to a myth that the world would end on that date. Despite urban legends and misinterpretations in Maya lore, the shift to a new calendar cycle didn’t bring doomsday. )
Mayan society at its peak
During the Classic period (200-900 A.D.), the Maya civilization reached its peak. Its architecture also improved: The Maya developed pyramid-like temples that look like palaces and grand buildings that look like palaces. However, it is not clear if these structures were used as elite residences or if other functions were served.
Among the most important Maya cities were Palenque, Chichen Itza, Tikal, Copan, and Calakmul. Although the Maya had a society, it wasn’t an empire. Instead, local rulers and city-states alternated between peaceful coexistence and fighting for control. Some places, such as the village of Joya de Ceren, seem to have been run by collective rule instead of an elite overlord. (Read more about Palenque, a Mayan city that was a glorious center of power. )
Maya architecture and art reflected deep-seated religious beliefs. The Maya embraced the belief of K’uh and k’uhul–that divinity could be found in all things, even inanimate objects. Once again, corn was vital to those beliefs: Among the most important Maya gods was Hun Hunahpu, the maize god, and Maya tradition held that the deities created humans first out of mud, then wood, then corn. The Maya worshipped their gods using a variety rituals. Among them were both human sacrifice and bloodletting–customs that capture modern imaginations. The Maya sport of pitz, a forerunner of soccer, had its own ritual implications: Researchers think losers of the game were sometimes sacrificed in recognition of the Maya sun and moon gods, who were said to have played the same game in the Maya creation myth, the Popol Vuh.
How the Maya civilization collapsed
Although some northern cities continued to flourish, the majority of Maya centers began to collapse during the ninth and tenth centuries A.D. Inter-city relations soured, warfare increased, trade declined, and the death rate rose.
Theories as to the civilization’s demise vary. One hypothesis, backed by climate simulations, is that a long drought–combined with slash-and-burn farming techniques that destroyed the forests upon which the Maya relied– are what brought disaster to their doorstep. As a result, once prosperous cities became deserted wastelands and some Maya fled to more fertile, mountainous lands further south. Cities like Mayapan rose to prominence as once large cities like Chichen Itza collapsed. Other Maya people moved to small villages and abandoned cities.
Though the Maya people persisted, the downfall of Maya civilization left those who remained vulnerable to the pressures of European colonization beginning in the 1500s. By the time Spain fully conquered the Maya around 1524, the majority of the Maya’s most important cities had already been abandoned.
Meanwhile, the newly arrived Spanish explorers paid little attention to the ruins that lay scattered throughout their colonies even as they seized Maya lands and forced its Indigenous people to convert to Christianity.
Rediscovering the Maya
It wasn’t until the 1840s that the Maya were “rediscovered” by explorers and researchers who were intrigued by the hints of the civilization they had left behind. American attorney and diplomat John Lloyd Stephens and English artist and architect Frederick Catherwood led a series of archaeological expeditions to Central America, where they mapped and documented Maya sites.
Though the existence of ruins in the area was known, many Europeans assumed that Indigenous Central Americans were primitive and unintelligent and had not created the historic artifacts beneath their feet. Stephens and Catherwood sought to prove them wrong, and establish the value of the sites as well as the identities of their creators.
Despite being convinced of the former glory of the Maya, the two researchers also tried to profit from what they found, even attempting to purchase entire Maya cities and transport them to a New York museum. Their work made the Maya civilization more visible and laid the foundation for future archaeological discoveries.
Today, the field of Maya archaeology is flourishing, and modern excavations have revealed everything from ruins to religious relics in the jungle that once reclaimed them. Scholars continue to explore the Maya’s ambitious rise and mysterious fall. (How researchers used lasers to discover a Mayan pyramid in Tikal. )
While archaeological relics may be all that’s left of their past, the Maya still exist in the present. More than six million Maya descendants live in modern Central America, where more than 30 languages stemming from ancient Mayan are still spoken. These descendants also keep many Mayan agricultural, religious, and land management traditions alive–a sign of their culture’s resilience in the face of centuries of challenge and change.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.