Deep within the jungles of Mexico and Guatemala and extending into the limestone shelf of the Yucatan peninsula lie the mysterious temples and pyramids of the Maya. While Europe was still in the midst of the Dark Ages, these amazing people had mapped the heavens, evolved the only true writing system native to the Americas and were masters of mathematics. They invented the calendars we use today. Without metal tools, beasts of burden or even the wheel they were able to construct vast cities across a huge jungle landscape with an amazing degree of architectural perfection and variety. Their legacy in stone, which has survived in a spectacular fashion at places such as Palenque, Tikal, Tulum, Chichén Itzá, Copan and Uxmal, lives on as do the seven million descendants of the classic Maya civilization
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 in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras. Building on the inherited inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations such as the Olmec, the Maya developed astronomy, calendrical systems and hieroglyphic writing. The Maya were noted as well for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools. They were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater. The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.
Around 300 B.C., the Maya adopted a hierarchical system of government with rule by nobles and kings. This civilization developed into highly structured kingdoms during the Classic period, A.D. 200-900.
Their society consisted of many independent states, each with a rural farming community and large urban sites built around ceremonial centers. It started to decline around A.D. 900 when - for reasons which are still largely a mystery - the southern Maya abandoned their cities. When the northern Maya were integrated into the Toltec society by A.D. 1200, the Maya dynasty finally came to a close, although some peripheral centers continued to thrive until the Spanish Conquest in the early sixteenth century.