Belize’s first and most enduring inhabitants, the Maya, left a rich legacy of art, science and mathematics that continues to unfold and astound us.
Much of this ancient knowledge was lost when Spanish conquistadors laid waste to the extensive Maya libraries and administrative centres, but, fortunately, the Maya recorded parts of their history and predictions in stone inscriptions that can be seen today in stelae and the remains of elaborate cities, buildings and temples that survived centuries of jungle encroachment.
It was only relatively recently that Maya writing, or glyphs, were deciphered and the richness of this advanced jungle civilisation came to light.
Archaeologists and linguists continue to unravel the ancient riddles of Maya civilisation, and we now have a better picture of this intricate, enigmatic civilisation.
History of the Mayans
Today’s Maya are descendants of nomadic people who settled in Belize, Guatemala, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, El Salvador and Honduras.
While the beginning of the early habitation is open to debate, the Maya Long Count Calendar gives a Maya creation date of 11 August, 3114 BC, and traces of Maya habitation at Cuello, in Belize, were recently carbon dated to around 2600 BC.
The Maya Early Preclassic period, from which we have some of the earliest examples of Maya pottery and art, lasted from 1800-900 B.C., and throughout the Middle Preclassic Maya (900-300 B.C.) the civilisation continued to grow, so that by 800 BC, the Maya of the Guatemala Highlands controlled the important jade and obsidian trade routes to the Petén and the Pacific, and by 600 BC were producing and trading cacao.
During the Late Preclassic Maya period (300BC- AD 300), the Maya civilisation continued to flourish as trade routes expanded along with advances in the cultivation of corn and the beginning of more complex agricultural practices, as well as construction of pyramids and urban centres.
Maya society continued to develop based on an intricate cosmology that resulted in complex calendars, writing and astute mathematical calculations.
Maya civilisation advanced to new heights throughout the Classic period of 250 to 900 AD, a time of intellectual, artistic and political development that established the Maya as one of the most advanced civilisations in the world.
It was during this time that Tikal, Caracol, Palenque, Altun Ha, Copán and other remarkable city states were established and flourished.
Innovation in arts, medicine and sciences, especially in the areas of mathematics and astronomy were phenomenal.
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