History of the Maya
The history of the Maya is integral to the history of Belize. Belize is located in one of the most important strongholds of this ancient civilization. That legacy can be seen today in the many well-preserved Maya ruins that are present in Belize. The best-known are those at Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, Caracol, and Lamanai.
Who Were the Maya?
The Maya civilization began around 2600 BC and lasted almost 2000 years. The Maya established numerous city-states in what we now call Mesoamerica, most of Guatemala and Belize, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras.
The Maya were the most advanced civilization of their time. Even today, people who explore Maya ruins are astonished at the construction and engineering skills they used to build their temples, pyramids, and cities. Maya architecture was far more complex and developed than that of the ancient Egyptians. Visiting these ruins today gives you a small glimpse into the detailed mathematical and engineering knowledge that they had.
Maya temples and palaces were built in ways that allowed them to view and study the constellation. They were fascinated by astronomy and show an advanced knowledge of it in their writing and architecture.
Mathematicians, Engineers and Farmers
Architecture and astronomy were not the only areas where the Maya excelled. Their language is considered the most sophisticated and advanced language in all of early America. The Maya improved the mathematical and calendar systems that were in place at the time. They invented the concept of “zero,” which allowed for more advanced mathematical calculations.
The Maya used advanced farming techniques, including underground water storage, irrigation canals, raised plots and terracing. The Maya grew corn, cacao, maize, squash, beans, cassava, and other crops.
They developed strong economies based on trading partnerships with other cultures and tribes in the region. Their social and economic structure was varied and it included the nobility, priests, merchants, skilled craftsmen, and laborers. However, the Maya did not use money, but they often used jade, seashells and copper bells as trading items.
The Maya believed in many different gods. Religion was an important part of their lives. They also believed that every living thing was imbued with a sacred essence.
To the Maya, caves were the most spiritual places because they were portals to the underworld which they called “Xibalba”. The Maya used caves to bury their dead and conduct their most sacred rituals. Today, explorers and archeologists in Mesoamerica are still finding important artifacts in these caves.
The End of the Maya Empire
The powerful city-states of the Maya empire began to fail sometime around 900 AD. The reasons for this are unclear, but many historians believe that a combination of prolonged draught, deforestation and wars was to blame. When the Europeans conquered the region, they did their best to wipe out all traces of the Maya civilization. However, many of them retreated to the highlands of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize.
The Maya Today
The powerful empire may have faded into history, but the Maya have survived. Today, thousands of people in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize speak one of the many Mayan languages.