The Legacy of the Maya

Throughout the rainforests of Central America one is constantly reminded of the existence of a great civilization that existed a thousand years ago.

Tikal, Guatemala

Pyramid at Palenque, Mexico

To the north, at Palenque, an impressive pyramid and tall buildings look out over the Yucatan from the edge of the rainforest.

South of Palenque, in what is now Belize, a population greater than is present today lived, with life centered around cities such as Xunantunich.

Xunantunich, Belize

Xunantunich, Belize.

Many Mayan cities enjoyed strategic locations looking out over vast territory.

Getting to these locations can be exciting - this is a hand-cranked car ferry on the way to Xunantunich.

Ferryacross the river, Xunantunich.

Monolith, Xunantunich.

The Maya documented their history through carvings throughout their cities. Unfortunately rain has eroded many of these carvings.

The Mayan also had a complex written language. Priests with the early Spanish conquistadors destroyed most written images, feeling that what was on them was heretical. We are just now learning to translate these writings.

Glyphs, Tikal.

The most important Mayan city, Tikal, which was begun around 600 BC, had a population of between 50-80,000! It is still not understood how this area supported this population.


Tikal, Guatemala

Clearly much of the surrounding rainforest must have been cleared for crops. There is no source of standing water at Tikal - reservoirs were made and rain was channeled in to these to store water.

The Maya carved underground food storage cellars into the rock. When discovered, this one still contained seeds and nuts.

Underground storage, Tikal.

Temple at Tikal.

The Maya developed a complimentary system of agriculture, growing beans, corn, and squash together. The beans and corn provide complimentary (complete) protein, and the bean plant replaces nitrogen in the soil taken out by the corn. The broad squash leaves protect the ground from rain and sun. The Maya eay squash flowers and all stages of the squash fruit.

Many experts feel that an extended period of drought forced the Maya to abandon their cities and spread throughout the region.

Living quarters, Tikal.

Tzutuhil Maya girl, Santiago Atitlan

The Maya today live scattered in villages throughout the region. They have been victims of discrimination and cultural genocide. Peace and development has come slowly. Educational opportunities are few, and due to poverty most children must work and cannot attend school.

For related stories see "Refugee work in Chiapas, Mexico" and "A human rights victory in Guatmala".

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