The Mayans (or Maya) lived in the areas now known as southern Mexico and Guatemala. Although it is commonly thought that the Mayans no longer exist, lots of Mayan people still populate these regions and speak Mayan languages. The peak of the Mayan civilization was between c. 250BC - AD900, but they were in existence from as long ago as 2000BC.
The Mayans were very good at farming. Over the course of several centuries they drained wetlands and developed effective systems of irrigation. Consequently, they could support a sizable population. Between 300BC - AD300 many Mayan cities were built. The cities were uniquely ornate and contained temple pyramids, marketplaces, workshops and a fortified palace, as well as living accommodation.
The class system of the Mayans meant that nobles, rulers, priests, officials (and their servants) resided in the cities. Ordinary Mayans, on the other hand, worked on the land. They visited cities for religious festivals and the markets.
As well as being successful farmers, the Mayans were also very advanced in their studies of mathematics, astronomy and systems of calendars. Their alphabet consisted of 800 hieroglyphs. Their hieroglyphs included both ideograms and phonetic symbols. Mayan hieroglyphs can be seen on their ancient monuments. They also made books from bark paper. As far as is known, the Mayan written language was the only fully developed one in the pre-Columbian Americas.
The Mayan cities were independent of each other (city-states) and they often feuded. They took prisoners and exacted tribute (payment as a from of respect) from other Mayan city-states.
A volcanic eruption in the south around AD230 blew Mount Ilopango apart. The southern Mayan cities were abandoned because of the ash fall-out from this eruption. This brought the 'pre-classic' Mayan period to an end.
The classic period (the peak) of Mayan civilization was between c. AD250 - AD900. Lots of new Mayan cities were constructed in Yucatan, the main one of which was Tikal. This period also saw much artistic and intellectual development, especially in the Mayans that populated the southern lowlands.
The Mayans were skilled craftspeople. They made sculptures from stone, decorated pottery, paintings, jade carvings, tools and objects from copper and gold. The Mayans also encouraged trade by building roads and shipping lanes.
The Mayan mathematical system was based on units of 20. It used three symbols. A bar symbol stood for '5', a dot stood for '1' and a shell stood for '0'. The Mayans (or possibly their predecessors, the Olmecs) used the concept of 0, or zero, centuries before other civilizations. Mayan inscriptions also depict them working with sums that involve numbers up to hundreds of millions.
The Mayans produced remarkably accurate astronomical observations and the accuracy of their solar year calculation was better than that of the Gregorian Calendar.
Most Mayan cities were large, planned in grids and built around ceremonial centers. They had many shrines and temples. They were often constructed with an orientation connected with astronomical events (like the rising and setting of the sun). The religious aspects of Mayan cities and the building of pyramids shows a resemblance to ancient Egyptian culture (which was 2000 years earlier).
The Mayans practiced human blood sacrifice. They killed people to satisfy gods and ancestors. The practice was thought to bring prosperity and fertility. Later on, over-ambitious building projects required more food and labor from the peasants. Wars waged to take hostages for human sacrifice cut the population by too much. This saw the collapse of the agricultural system and therefore, the cities.
Most central Mayan cities were mere ruins by AD950, although a later phase of development was to follow.
The northern lowland Mayan cities, however, flourished for several more centuries. Mayan states in the southern highlands also thrived after the end of the classic period.
The Spanish conquest of Mayan lands started in the 1520s. Some of the Mayan city-states resisted fiercely. It took until 1697 until the last Mayan city was subdued by the Spanish authorities.
There is much modern interest in what is known as the Mayan Prophecies. Archeological investigations of Mayan architecture is thought by some to provide evidence predicting an upcoming cataclismic event, or the end of the world. Some people think this predicted event will occur late on in 2012.