The Maya were master pyramid builders, but their magnificent cities were buried by the jungle until the late 1800s and early 1900s. This is a pyramid in Chichén Itzá, a great Maya city of the Postclassic Era.
Palenque was one of the great cities of the Classic Era. These ruins were once the temple complex.
Volcano peaks pierce the blanket of cool mist that hangs above the forest canopy. Ghostly howler monkeys scream, unseen, as if the ruined temples were part of a scene in an unearthly horror movie. For some, the sounds create the illusion that the lost city of Copán is haunted by tortured souls wailing deep within the stone pyramids. Only the occasional rustle of a tree branch reveals that the monkeys are the true source of the screams. They scramble across a platform where priests once addressed thousands of people. The platform is now buried in vines, and moss, and jungle growth. The remains of Copán, one of the richest centers of Maya civilization, lie deep in the tropical forest of modern Honduras. Copán became wealthy because of its rich soil and the Copán River’s annual flood. Each year, the river overflowed and the water left behind a new layer of rich, fertile soil. The huge quantity of precious jade found in the tombs of Copán’s kings is evidence of how wealthy they were.
Classifying Maya history
Archaeologists divide pre-Columbian (the time before Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492 c.e. Maya history into three major time periods: Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic. During the Preclassic Era, from about 1200 b.c.e. to 250 c.e., settled farming communities grew into complex societies. Many Maya kingdoms experienced rapid growth in this era. They built monumental structures, established long-distance trade routes, and developed governing systems. In the later part of the Preclassic Era, some kingdoms were enjoying their peak while others had already faded away.
The Classic Era was between about 250 and 900. From southeastern Mexico to upper Central America, this varied landscape supported millions of people in Classic times. During the height of Maya civilization in the eighth century, as many as 60 independent kingdoms dotted the Maya area, as well as hundreds of smaller towns and villages.
Unlike the Aztec people, their neighbors to the north, the Maya never unified into a single empire. Instead, they built commerce centers that grew into city-states (cities that function as separate kingdoms or nations) ruled by kings. These kingdoms formed alliances with one another one day, only to turn into sworn enemies the next.
Robert J. Sharer wrote in The Ancient Maya that the capitals of independent kingdoms were “interconnected by commerce, alliances, and rivalries that often led to war.” By the end of the Classic Era, the southern lowland capitals had collapsed, leaving modern scholars to wonder what catastrophe forced the Maya to abandon their cities.
The northern lowlands kingdoms rose and fell during the Postclassic Era, from 900 to 1524. Some kingdoms flowered dramatically, but probably did not reach the heights of the kingdoms from previous eras. It was in the Postclassic Era that kings lost their grip on centralized power and nobles greedily stepped in to break the kingdoms up into smaller pieces.
The Postclassic Era ended with the arrival of the Spaniards, who found that most Maya were living in medium-sized kingdoms and groups of allied cities throughout the Maya area.