The Maya then and now: from 1500 BC

The Maya, occupying the triangle of land framed by the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, have the longest identifiable history of any American people. Social customs, language and physical characteristics (such as unusually round heads) suggest an unbroken link between the American Indians living in the region today and their predecessors 3500 years ago.

Since much of the area is jungle (which preserves monuments for the archaeologists by concealing them from others), their culture is also better known than most. Maya temples, carvings and inscriptions have survived in considerable number.

The first American script: 2nd century BC - 3rd century AD

Of the various early civilizations of central America, the Maya make the greatest use of writing. In their ceremonial centres they set up numerous columns, or stelae, engraved with hieroglyphs. But they are not the inventors of writing in America.

Credit for this should possibly go back as far as the Olmecs. Certainly there is some evidence that they are the first in the region to devise a Calendar, in which writing of some sort is almost essential. The Zapotecs, preceding the Maya, have left the earliest surviving inscriptions, dating from about the 2nd century BC. The first Mayan stele to be securely dated is erected at Tikal in the equivalent of the year AD 292.

The Mayan script is hieroglyphic with some phonetic elements. Its interpretation has been a long struggle, going back to the 16th century, and even today only about 80% of the Calendar are understood. They reveal that the script is used almost exclusively for two purposes: the recording of calculations connected with the Calendar and astronomy; and the listing of rulers, their dynasties and their conquests.

Thus the priests and the palace officials of early America succeed in preserving writing for their own privileged purposes. In doing so they deny their societies the liberating magic of literacy.

The Mayan periods: 1500 BC - AD 1542

Historians divide the story of the Maya into three main sections. The Formative or Pre-Classic period runs from about 1500 BC to300. In the Classic period, from300 to 900, many separate Mayan city-states achieve a prosperous existence, revealed in their architecture and sculpture. They are ruled by priest kings. Tikal, the largest ceremonial centre, is thought to have had a population at its peak of between 50,000 and 100,000 - an astonishing number for a place in the middle of the jungle.

In the 10th century the Mayan kingdoms of the central region finally lose their vitality. The jungle encroaches and prevails.

The Post-Classic period is one of gradual decline, though the northern area of Yucatan continues to thrive under new overlords. Chichén Itzá, founded as a Mayan centre, is captured in987 by Toltecs - under whose rule it enjoys two further centuries of prosperity.

The Spanish bring the Post-Classic age to an abrupt end. The Maya are already weakened by European diseases when the Spanish invaders first threaten them. Even so it requires a prolonged campaign, from 1528 to 1542, before the Spaniards bring the Maya territory under control. And in subsequent centuries there are frequent Maya rebellions against colonial rule.

The Christian conquerors do their best to obliterate the pagan culture which they find in Mexico. Specifically they burn every Mayan manuscript they can find. Only three have survived, all of them on the topic of ritual and astronomy. The most complete is in Dresden. It consists of beautifully illustrated sheets of bark paper, hinged together to fold like a screen.

But the Spanish cannot destroy the Mayan temple cities. With their sculpted reliefs and inscriptions, they lurk in the jungle awaiting discovery. One of the first explorers to publicize them is a New York lawyer, John Lloyd Stephens. His sense of wonder at these massive constructions, built by unknown hands, has been echoed by countless thousands since.