Who Were the Mayans?

The Mayans were the founders of a Mesoamerican empire that thrived from around 250 A.D. to 900 A.D. They built numerous cities in and around the Yucatan, developed a sophisticated calendar and used the only known fully developed written language in Pre-Columbian America.

A distinctly Mayan culture began around 1800 B.C. in the Soconusco region in what is now Mexico. For nearly 2,000 years, Mayan civilization consisted of a relatively small number of settled agricultural communities with limited populations. This period, known to Mayan scholars as the Preclassic period, lasted until 250 A.D., when the Mayans began organizing large networks of villages and, eventually, building cities in the rain forest.

The Classic period was distinguished by the growth of cities and the development of the Mayan system of writing, which still appears carved onto the stones of the Mayans’ ruined temples and thoroughfares. This was also the period in which the Mayan calendar was developed in step with Mayan advances in astronomy. After 900 A.D., much of the monumental building came to an end without any clear reason. The cities were abandoned to the jungle and fell into ruin. The surviving Mayan population returned to small-scale agriculture, which they continued until after the arrival of the Spanish.