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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.

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.

CaracolThe 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.

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
Xunantunich - Cayo District 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.

Belize is recognized as the epicenter of the ancient Maya world. And it was here in the "central lowlands" of western Belize and the Guatemalan Petén that the ancient Maya flourished during the Classic Period from 300 to 900 AD. Archaeologists now estimate that 2,000,000 Mayans once lived in what is now Belize.

In Cayo District, it is almost impossible to travel even a few miles without finding evidence of their former presence. Many landowners can point to ruins of ancient household groups, underground storage caches - called "chultuns" - and small temples. Many of Cayo's numerous caves, such as Chechem Ha and Actun Tunichil Muknall, were used for storage or ceremony, as evidenced by pottery and skeletal remains.

Visitors can catch a glimpse of this ancient civilization's accomplishments by visiting the Maya archaeological sites of Caracol, Xunantunich, El Pilar and Cahal Pech in Cayo District, and Tikal and Yaxhá in the Petén region of Guatemala. 

Maya numbers

Maya Count

Three excellent books that offer a wealth of information about the Ancient Maya:

The Maya, by Michael Coe
Forest of Kings, by Linda Schele
The Ancient Maya, by Robert Sharer


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