As one of the best examples of indigenous Mesoamerican cultures, the Mayans are often credited with being one of the most advanced of all cultures found in the Americas. Although many historians believe that they were the first culture in the New World to use a fully developed written language, as well as being innovators in art, architecture, and the sciences of mathematics and astronomy, the Mayan people were not necessarily known as inventors. Instead, this culture seemed to promote the application of the creations of the other cultures in the area and find ways to improve upon those basic developments. From this perspective, the influence of the Maya can be found in many places around Mexico and other parts of Central America, with artifacts that originated with them being found as far away as central Mexico.
Geographically, the Mayan city states tended to be formed with a government structure that allowed a great deal of individual governance of the municipalities, rather than some sort of strong central structure. The main connections between the population centers appear to have been cultural rather than political. Strongholds have been found in a number of the southern Mexican states, as well as in present day Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Sometimes referred to as the Maya area, this large expanse covers a wide range of climate conditions, from mountain ranges to semi-arid plains.
Mayan history is normally divided into three great periods. The Preclassic period involves the first signs of them as a distinct people. Permanent settlements that date back to roughly 1800 BCE have been found along the Pacific coast. During this time, there is evidence of the development of some degree of manufacturing and an interest in art. A number of examples of Mayan pottery and clay figures that were fired in primitive kilns have survived to this day. There are also some indications that the process of using buildings as a means of recording history also began to develop during this time. Public ceremonial rites, especially in relation to the creation of burial rites for the dead, also appear to have their origins in the Preclassic period.
The Classic Period is usually dated from 250 to 900 in the Common Era. During this time, the culture began to develop urban centers that were more focused on the pursuit of artistic and intellectual development. Written documents from the time frame demonstrate a highly developed method of communication among this people. Engineering feats also are normally associated with the Classic Period, such as the construction of pyramids in the city-states. There also appears to be the development of a desire to preserve personal and cultural histories as well, and carved slabs of stone that are known as stelae have survived that use hieroglyphics to tell the stories and lineage of important rulers of the time, as well as preserve the stories of their conquests in battle.
Toward the end of the Classic Period, the structure of Mayan society began to undergo a change. Settlements in the southern lowlands began to shrink and were eventually abandoned. Architecture began to appear that featured plain facades, rather than carrying the ornate inscriptions of centuries past. In fact, building in general took on more of a utilitarian emphasis, with few if any grand structures appearing in the 8th or 9th centuries.
During the Postclassic period, the Mayan people continued to flourish in the northern sections of the area. The establishment of new settlements usually meant that straight walls, flat ceilings, and simple lines characterized the construction of the buildings. While the earlier interest in art continued to be present, as well as in language and writing, most of the bursts of creativity from earlier periods had ceased. Assimilation with other cultures weakened some of the Mayan culture as well, although several city states retained a distinct flavor well into the 16th century. Only after almost two centuries of efforts by Spanish conquistadors would the final remnants of this culture be brought under control of an outside power in 1697.
Today, the legacy of the Mayans lives on in several ways. Many members of the rural populations in Chiapas, Guatemala, Belize, and the Yucatan Peninsula are descendents of this culture, and use one of its dialects as their primary verbal language. A great deal of the culture remains evident today in these areas, found in a form that has been integrated with post-Conquest ideologies, such as Roman Catholicism. Today, the history and contributions of the Mayans is perhaps more appreciated than in previous years, with many sociologists and historians finally giving this people the attention they have long deserved.