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Maya Empire

One of the great cultures of Mesoamerica, Maya civilization thrived during the third to
10th centuries A.D. and extended throughout southern Mexico and northern Central
America. The territory of the Maya included what are now the southernmost Mexican
states of Yucatn, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, and Chiapas, as well as all of
Belize and Guatemala and the westernmost parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
The history of human occupation in the Maya area stretches back at least 12,000 years, as
shown by the scattered remains of hunting camps. A culture based on hunting and
gathering lasted for millennia, but evidence suggests that by about 2000 B.C. there were
farming villages in some parts of the Maya area and that by 1000 B.C., most of the Maya
region was inhabited by village agriculturalists.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the earliest development of more complex cultures
in the Maya area began in both the southern highlands and southern lowlands. In northern
Guatemala, excavations at such sites as Nakbe and El Mirador have uncovered the
remains of huge temple-pyramids that may date as far back as 600 B.C. By about the first
century B.C., there were numerous cities with massive public architecture in the southern
Maya lowlands. By about the second century A.D., Maya society was becoming
increasingly stratified under hereditary rulers.
According to archaeologists, the Classic Period of the Maya Empire occurred between
A.D. 250 and 900 and was centered in the Maya lowlands. During that time, such Maya
cities as Tikal boasted populations of close to 50,000. The Maya had a wide range of
agricultural techniques, including intensive "raised-field" agriculture, agricultural
terracing, and extensive backyard gardens. Pyramids and ceremonial temples were
erected and still stand today as testimony to the engineering genius of the Maya. The
Maya calendar was highly accurate and was based on complex mathematical and
astronomical calculations, including the concept of zero as a numerical unit.
One of the greatest features of Maya civilization was its hieroglyphic writing system.
Inscriptions were carved on stone and wood, modeled in stucco, and painted on murals
and ceramics; several thousand inscriptions survive, most of them from the Classic
Period. The inscriptions address a variety of subjects. Most of the stone monument texts
are framed in the political history of the various city-states and detail the exploits of the
kings and momentous events in the history of the state. Other inscriptions describe
various rituals and ceremonies conducted, in most cases, by the kings.
One of the most debated aspects of Maya archaeology is the collapse of classic Maya
civilization. During the ninth century, city after city in the southern Maya lowlands
collapsed. Monuments ceased to be carved, building construction was stopped
(sometimes in mid-project), and there is evidence of a massive population drop in some
cities. Recent research has revealed that the collapse was probably the result of a
combination of factors that snowballed to the point at which they overwhelmed classic

Maya society. Ecological problems, including deforestation and changing rainfall

patterns, in the Maya lowlands during the eighth and ninth centuries likely led to an
inadequate supply of food resources that couldn't support a growing population. In
addition, there is evidence that warfare was endemic in the Maya lowlands, especially
during the second half of the Classic Period.
In late-classic times, the city of Chichn Itz came to dominate most of the northern part
of the Yucatn Peninsula. Sometime between the 10th and 12th century, Chichn Itz was
invaded by unknown foreigners, and the city went into decline. A new city called
Mayapan arose to dominate the area and flourished between about 1280 and 1450.
Following the collapse of Mayapan, which may have been due to internal revolt, the
peninsula again reverted to petty competing kingdoms. That unstable situation made it
easy for the Spanish to conquer the Yucatn when they arrived in the early 16th century.
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ID: 601277
Further reading

Castaeda, Quetzil E., In the Museum of Maya Culture: Touring Chichn Itz, 1996;
Hutchinson Dictionary of World History, 1993; Murray, Tim, Encyclopedia of
Archaeology: History and Discoveries, 2001; Slayman, Andrew, "Seeing with Maya
Eyes," Archaeology, May-June 1996; Taube, Karl, Aztec and Maya Myths, 1995;
Williams, Brian, The Kingfisher Reference Atlas: An A-Z Guide to Countries of the
World, 1993.
Citation: MLA style
"Maya Empire." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web.
24 Feb. 2010. <>.