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The Mayan

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. Maize cultivation dramatically changed the Maya’s trajectory, literally fueling the explosion of their society and culture.

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. 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.

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. Suddenly, once wealthy city centers became deserted wastelands as some Maya died and others scattered to a variety of more fertile, mountainous lands to the south. As once massive cities like Chichén Itza fell, cities like Mayapán rose in prominence. Other Maya people abandoned cities altogether, settling into small villages instead.

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.

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.

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.

Source: NationalGeographic.org