Belize is recognized as the epicenter of the ancient Maya world. And it was here in the “central low-lands” of western Belize and the Guatemalan Petén that the ancient Maya flourished during the Classic Period from 300 to 900 AD. Archaeologists estimate 2,000,000 Mayans were living in the area now known as Belize (pop. 350,000).
In many parts of Cayo District, it is virtually impossible to travel even short distances without finding evidence of their former presence. Small fragments of pottery called shards are scattered everywhere. Many landowners can point to the remains of individual house-mounds and household groups and even underground storage caches – called “chultuns”.
The Ancient Maya
To some the jungle may seem an inhospitable place. It was here the Mayans transformed the elements of their environment into one of the world’s great civilization. From around 300 BC, at a time when Persian armies were fleeing before Alexander the Great, the Mayan world was ruled by a handful of immensely powerful kings, regarded as living gods by their subjects.
The species-rich tropical forest supplied fruit, construction materials, game and medicines. Good soils for cultivation yielded corn, beans, squash and cotton. The river systems provided fish for food and transportation for trade. Extensive limestone formations supplied building blocks along with chert and flint for stone tools.
Pyramids were erected by peasant farmers and slaves without the aid of beasts of burden or the wheel. The cities they built were inhabited by the ruling family, nobility, priesthood and warriors, while the masses lived in agricultural villages in the hinterland.
This was the environment that the Maya adapted to their needs and way of life for a span of nearly 20 centuries, during which time they developed a rich cosmology, an arithmetic system that included the concept of zero, a complex calendar system based on a solid understanding of astronomy, and a system of writing which included both hieroglyphic and phonetic representation.
The Mayan Golden Age ended abruptly around 900 AD. Eventually, the crumbling cities were engulfed by the jungle and forgotten. It wasn’t until the 18th century that intrepid explorers began to discover them.
Modern-day archaeologists following in their footsteps have unearthed thousands of sites throughout the Mayan World and satellite photos indicate that there are many more to be discovered.