The Maya are probably the best known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica. Originating in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C., they rose to prominence around A.D. 250.
Mesoamerica spans five countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. They inherited a lot of their ideas from the Olmec. The Maya developed astronomy, calendrical systems, and hieroglyphic writing. The Maya were also known for their decorated architecture, which included temples and palaces. They were also skilled farmers, weavers, and potters.
Around 300 B.C., the Maya adopted a system of government ruled by nobles and kings. Their society consisted of many independent states, each with a rural farming community and large urban sites built around ceremonial centers. They started to decline around A.D. 900, however.
The geography consists of tropical rain forests, a series of rivers, and good, rich soil. The tropical rain forest stretches from northwestern Honduras, through the Peten region, and into Belize and the Chiapas. This became the heart of the Classic Maya Civilization.
The rivers originate in the mountains ands flow towards the Pacific Ocean on the west coast, and towards the Gulf of Mexico in the southern lowlands. These rivers serve as transportation from city to city. The best soils are found in the southern highland valleys where volcanic eruptions have enriched the earth.
The Maya today number about six million people, making them the largest single block of indigenous peoples north of Peru. Some of the largest groups are found in Mexico.
In spite of modernization and intermarriage between the Spanish immigrants, many Maya communities have succeeded in preserving their identity and their ways. The Maya face greater challenges, however, than those presented by tourism. Maya regions have also been subjected to intense political upheaval in recent decades, with significant loss of life.
The maya also face problems of their own creation. Particularly in the forest areas where the timber is being cut down to make room for crops.
The Maya have faced formidable challenges, some of which continue today, but the traits that held the maya together, their devotion to their community and belief system, will help them survive into the next millennium.