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The ancient Maya were a group of American Indian peoples who lived in southern Mexico, particularly the
present-day states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo, and in Belize, Guatemala,
and adjacent Honduras. Their descendants, the modern Maya, live in the same regions today, in both
highlands and lowlands, from cool highland plains ringed by volcanos to deep tropical rain forests.
Through the region runs a single major river system, the Apasion-Usumacinta and its many tributaries, and
only a handful of lesser rivers, the Motagua, Hondo, and Belize among them. The ancestors of the Maya,
like those of other New World peoples, crossed the BERING LAND BRIDGE from Asia more than 20,000 years
ago, during the last ice age.
The Maya were the first people of the New World to keep historical records: their written history begins
in 50 BC, when they began to inscribe texts on pots, jades, bones, stone monuments, and palace walls.
Maya records trace the history of the great kings and queens who ruled from 50 BC until the Spanish
conquest in the 16th century. All Maya "long count" calendar inscriptions fall between AD 292 and AD
909, roughly defining the period called Classic. Earlier Maya culture is called Formative or Preclassic
(2000 BC-AD 300), and subsequent civilization is known as Postclassic (AD 900-conquest).
Protected by difficult terrain and heavy vegetation, the ruins of few ancient Maya cities were known
before the 19th century, when explorers and archaeologists began to rediscover them. The age and
proliferation of Maya writings have been recognized since about 1900, when the calendrical content of
Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions was deciphered and the dates correlated with the Christian calendar. For
most of the 20th century, only the extensive calendrical data of Maya inscriptions could be read, and as
a result, Maya scholars hypothesized that the inscriptions were pure calendrical records. Because little
evidence of warfare had been recognized archaeologically, the Classic Maya were thought of as peaceful
timekeepers and skywatchers. Their cities, it was thought, were ceremonial centers for ascetic priests,
and their artwork anonymous, without concern for specific individuals.
More recent scholarship changes the picture dramatically. In 1958 Heinrich Berlin demonstrated that
certain Maya hieroglyphs, which he called emblem glyphs, contained main signs that varied according to
location, indicating dynastic lines or place names. In 1960, Tatiana Proskouriakoff showed that the
patterns of dates were markers of the important events in rulers' lives. The chronological record turned
out to serve history and the perpetuation of the memory of great nobles. Subsequently, major
archaeological discoveries, particularly at PALENQUE and TIKAL, confirmed much of what the writings said,
and examination of Maya art has revealed not only historical portraiture but also a pantheon of gods,
goddesses, and heroes--in other words, Maya religion and mythic history.
HISTORY OF THE ANCIENT MAYA
By 5000 BC, the Maya had settled along Caribbean and Pacific coasts, forming egalitarian fishing
communities. Certainly by 2000 BC the Maya had also moved inland and adopted agriculture for their
subsistence. Maize and beans formed the Maya diet then as today, although many other foodstuffs--squash,
tomatoes, peppers, fruits, and game--were supplements. The word for maize--wa--is synonymous with food
itself, and the maize god was honored from early times.
During the Early Preclassic (2000-900 BC), civilization began to take shape in parts of MESOAMERICA. By
1200 BC, the OLMEC of the Gulf Coast had risen to preeminence, dominating trade routes that extended from
the modern Mexican state of Guerrero to Costa Rica, passing through Maya regions. At COPAN, Honduras,
and Cuello, Belize, around 1000 BC, local Maya leaders began to imitate Olmec styles of pottery and jades
and adopted orthodox Olmec religious symbols for their own use. Identif...
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