Who were the Mayans? Decipher the secrets of ancient civilization.

Evidence of a long-forgotten civilization was everywhere: Beneath a Spanish convent. Under a street. Most of it was covered in vines and vegetation, reclaimed by the jungle. But as a couple of British-American explorers roamed the Yucatan Peninsula in the 1830s and 1840s, they were quickly convinced that the mysterious sites were major archaeological treasures.

Discarded and abandoned, the function of these sites and artifacts – temples, pyramids, remains of art and even writing – was mostly unknown. Nevertheless, wrote John Lloyd Stephens in 1841, they all seemed to be the work of the same group of people.

“Who these races were, where they came from, or who their ancestors were, I didn’t undertake to say, nor did I know,” he added. conceded.

The ruins in question were the remains of the Maya, a towering Mesoamerican civilization that once covered much of Central America, from northern Belize to Guatemala and southern Mexico. Much more is known about the group responsible for some of the greatest feats of the genre: the Maya cultivated the region’s earliest cultures and domesticated its wildlife, built its first cities, and created or refined nearly every aspect of modern civilization. (Subscriber Exclusive: In Search of the Lost Mayan Empire.)

Although their descendants have preserved some of the traditions and traditions of their culture, much of the Maya remain as mysterious today as they were centuries ago, when their secrets were still hidden in plain sight.

Origins of the Maya

While the origins of the Maya culture remain murky, it is thought to have first emerged between 7000 BC and 2000 BC, when hunter-gatherers abandoned their nomadic ways and established more permanent settlements. Recent analyzes suggest that these early settlers has come from South America and probably developed their staple food, corn, in 4000 BC. The cultivation of maize radically changed the trajectory of the Maya, literally fueling the explosion of their society and their culture.

These newcomers not only planted maize, they also learned how to prepare it for human consumption with nixtamalization, a treat in which dried corn is soaked and then cooked in an alkaline solution which softens the corn and makes it more digestible. The Maya would continue to grow other important vegetables like squash, cassava, and beans.

The Maya seem to have developed alongside the neighboring Olmec civilization, which exchanged ideas with it. some consider one of the most influential societies of antiquity. Researchers believe this is when the Maya adopted the complex rituals for which they would become famous. Like the Olmecs, the Maya quickly focused on building cities around their ritual areas. These advances in agriculture and urban development are now known as the Preclassic Maya period between 1500 and 200 BC (This huge Mayan ceremonial complex was discovered “in plain sight”.)

As the Maya developed their society, they laid the foundations of complex trade networks, advanced irrigation, the water purification and agricultural techniques, warfare, sports, writing and a complex calendar. The complex calendar included three dating systems – one for the gods, one for civil life, and a third astronomical calendar known as the Long Count. The starting point of this third calendar was set at the legendary date of the creation of man, corresponding to August 11, 3114 BC. Date. (Despite urban legends and long-standing misinterpretations of Mayan lore, however, the calendar cycle shift did not bring about the apocalypse.)

Mayan society at its height

During the Classic Period (200-900 AD), the Maya civilization reached its peak. Its architecture too: the Maya refined its pyramid-shaped temples and grand buildings that appear to be palaces, though it’s unclear if they were actually used as elite residences or if they filled another function.

Among the most important Mayan cities were Palenque, Chichén Itzá, Tikal, Copán and Calakmul. But although the Maya shared a society, it was not an empire. Instead, city-states and local rulers vacillated between peaceful coexistence and a struggle for control. Some places, like the village of Joya of Ceren, appear to have been ruled by a collective ruler instead of an elite overlord. (Learn about Palenque, a Mayan city that was a glorious center of power.)

Maya architecture and art reflected deeply held religious beliefs. The Maya adopted the belief of Uh and k’uhul– that divinity could be found in all things, even inanimate objects. Again, corn was vital to these beliefs: among the most important Mayan gods was Hun Hunahpu, the corn godand Mayan tradition held that the deities created humans first out of mud, then wood, then corn.

The Maya worshiped their gods with a variety of rituals. Among them were both human sacrifice and bloodshed, customs that capture the modern imagination. The Mayan sport of Pitza precursor to football, had its own ritualistic implications: scholars believe that the losers of the game were sometimes sacrificed in recognition of the Maya sun and moon gods, who are said to have played the same game during Maya creation. myththe Popol Vuh.

How the Mayan Civilization Collapsed

Although some northern cities continued to prosper, the majority of Maya centers began to collapse during the 9th and 10th centuries AD. Intercity relations deteriorated, warfare increased, trade declined, and the death rate increased.

Theories about the demise of civilization vary. A hypothesis, supported by climate simulations, is that a long drought – combined with slash-and-burn farming techniques that destroyed the forests the Mayans relied on – are what brought disaster to their doorstep. Suddenly, the once wealthy city centers became deserted wastelands as some Mayans died and others dispersed into a variety of more fertile mountainous lands to the south. As massive cities like Chichén Itza fell, cities like Mayapán rose to prominence. Other Maya abandoned cities altogether, settling instead in small villages.

Although the Maya people persisted, the fall of the Maya civilization left those who remained vulnerable to the pressures of European colonization beginning in the 1500s. By the time Spain completely conquered the Maya around 1524, the majority of the most important cities of the Maya had already been abandoned.

Meanwhile, the newly arrived Spaniards explorers paid little heed to the ruins that lay scattered across their settlements even as they seized Maya lands and forced their native peoples to convert to Christianity.

Rediscover the Mayans

It wasn’t until the 1840s that the Maya were “rediscovered” by explorers and scholars intrigued by the clues of civilization they had left behind. American lawyer 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.

Although the existence of ruins in the area is known, many Europeans assumed that the natives of Central America were primitive and unintelligent and had not created the historical artifacts under their feet. Stephens and Catherwood wanted to prove them wrong and establish both the value of the sites and the identity of their creators.

Although convinced of the former glory of the Maya, the two researchers also tried to profit from what they found, even to attempt buy entire Mayan cities and transport them to a museum in New York. Nonetheless, their work forced the world to take notice of the Maya civilization and lay the groundwork for future archaeological discoveries.

Today, the field of Mayan archeology is thriving, and modern excavations have revealed everything from ruins to religious relics in the jungle that once recovered them. Researchers are still trying to learn more about the Maya, their ambitious rise and mysterious fall. (How researchers used lasers to discover a Mayan pyramid at Tikal.)

While archaeological relics may be all that remains of their past, the Maya still exist in the present. More than six million Mayan descendants live in modern Central America, where more than 30 languages from ancient Maya are still spoken. These descendants also retain many Mayan farmers, clerics, and clerics. land management living traditions, a sign of the resilience of their culture in the face of centuries of challenges and changes.