Stone bust of the Maize God

The Maya civilization (AD 300-900) was one of the most sophisticated in the pre-Columbian Americas. It extended from southeastern Mexico across modern-day Guatemala, Belize and the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador. The Maya were never politically unified but lived in around sixty separate kingdoms, each with its own ruler. Relations between the kingdoms were complex. There was negotiation, trading and inter-marriage, as well as invasion and warfare.

Maya cities usually had a dramatic stepped pyramid topped by a temple sanctuary at their centre. Close by were the palaces of the royal court, which functioned as the centre of government and provided luxury accommodation. As well as lesser residences, temples and plazas, ballcourts have been identified. These consisted of two parallel walls between which a ritual game using a rubber ball was played.

The Maya produced impressive artworks, including polychrome ceramic vases and carved stone monuments portraying their rulers. The British Museum holds a number of carved lintels from Yaxchilan in modern south Mexico. They are considered to be among the masterpieces of Mayan art and record the rulers of the city.

The Maya developed a sophisticated writing system and used an elaborate calendar system known as the Long Count to provide dates.

By about AD 800 Maya civilization was in decline. Building and monument-making stopped and in some places there is evidence of violence and destruction. The problems may have been caused by warfare and agricultural crisis. Despite this 'collapse', the Maya survived in reduced numbers. There are about six million Maya alive today.

Image caption: Stone bust of the Maize God
Maya, Late Classic period (AD 600-800). From Copán, Honduras

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