The Maya civilization was located in what is now Mexico and Central America. The heart of the Maya civilization was located in the southern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, which incorporates parts of modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.
The Core Maya Region
The core Maya region refers to the heartland of the ancient Maya civilization in the southern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula. This includes the modern-day Mexican states of Campeche, Tabasco, Quintana Roo, Yucatán and Chiapas. Some of the major Maya sites located in the core region of Mexico include:
- Calakmul – Campeche
- Palenque – Chiapas
- Yaxchilán – Chiapas
- Bonampak – Chiapas
- Toniná – Chiapas
- Comalcalco – Tabasco
- Moral Reforma – Tabasco
- Edzná – Campeche
- Dzibanché – Quintana Roo
- Kohunlich – Quintana Roo
- Tulum – Quintana Roo
- Cobá – Quintana Roo
- Chichén Itzá – Yucatán
- Uxmal – Yucatán
- Kabah – Yucatán
- Sayil – Yucatán
- Labná – Yucatán
This list includes some of the major ancient Maya cities located in the core region on the Yucatán Peninsula where the Maya civilization emerged and flourished. Many are UNESCO World Heritage Sites today.
The Northern Maya Region
The northern Maya region refers to parts of Mexico located north of the core Maya heartland on the Yucatán Peninsula. Some important Maya sites in northern Mexico include:
- Paquimé – Chihuahua
- Cantona – Puebla
- Xochicalco – Morelos
- Teotihuacan – Mexico State
- Cacaxtla – Tlaxcala
- El Tajín – Veracruz
The presence of Maya in these areas shows the far northern reach of Maya trade and influence at certain times although these sites were not part of the core southern lowland Maya civilization.
The Southern Maya Region
The southern Maya region refers to parts of Central America located south of the core Maya heartland in Mexico. This includes sites in modern-day Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Some major sites include:
- Tikal – Guatemala
- Uaxactun – Guatemala
- El Mirador – Guatemala
- Copán – Honduras
- Quiriguá – Guatemala
- Caracol – Belize
- Lamanai – Belize
- Kaminaljuyu – Guatemala
- Izapa – Mexico/Guatemala border
This region was fully part of the Maya world and home to important cities that were contemporaneous with the great Maya cities further north on the Yucatán Peninsula.
Peak of Maya Civilization
The Maya civilization reached its peak during what is known as the Classic Period, from around 250-900 AD. Some of the largest and most powerful Maya cities thrived during this time, especially in the southern lowlands of Mexico and Central America.
Major sites like Tikal, Calakmul, Copán, Palenque and Yaxchilán were at their height and were ruled by powerful dynasties. Impressive temples, pyramids, palaces, ball courts and plazas were constructed in the large Maya cities.
Southern Lowland Region
During the Late Classic Period from around 600-900 AD, the southern lowland region of the Yucatán Peninsula was likely the most densely populated and urbanized area in ancient Mesoamerica. Some estimates suggest the overall Maya population may have reached over 10 million in this zone.
Major cities like Tikal, Calakmul, Palenque, Yaxchilán, Piedras Negras and many others were home to tens of thousands of people. They were linked by an extensive trade network and rivalry between cities was fierce.
In central Mexico, the great city of Teotihuacan rose to prominence and power in the early Classic Period, from around 100-650 AD. It was roughly contemporaneous with the early Maya cities and some scholars believe it may have exercised significant influence or even control over Maya states.
The later Toltec civilization flourished in central Mexico after the decline of Teotihuacan, in the Postclassic Period from around 900-1100 AD. Like Teotihuacan, the Toltec capital of Tula has been linked to later Maya sites and may have been involved in their history as well.
Geography of the Maya Region
The Maya region can be divided into three main geographical zones that helped shape Maya civilization:
The southern Maya lowlands make up the core of the Maya region, with low-lying wetlands and rainforests crossed by rivers flowing down from the southern highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala. Important sites like Tikal were located in this tropical environment.
The northern Maya lowlands cover the drier Yucatán Peninsula. Major cities like Chichen Itza and Uxmal were located here. The limestone geology shaped the architecture and access to surface water was a constant concern.
The southern Maya highlands stretch across southeastern Chiapas and into Guatemala, with rugged topography and volcanic peaks soaring over 13,000 feet. Sites like Kaminaljuyú and Quiriguá were located on the fertile slopes of this mountainous zone.
Climate of the Maya Region
The Maya region has a tropical climate, generally divided into wet and dry seasons. Rainfall patterns vary across the landscape:
- Southern lowlands – High rainfall, up to 160 inches/year, with peak from May to February
- Northern lowlands – Lower rainfall, around 40-60 inches/year, with peak in summer months
- Southern highlands – Variable rainfall depending on elevation, from around 80 inches/year up to 200 inches/year
The climate influenced Maya agriculture, architecture, and water management systems. Longer periods of drought may have contributed to the Maya collapse around 900 AD.
Some of the major river systems in the Maya region provided vital routes for trade and communication linking Maya cities:
- Usumacinta River – Flowing west to east across Chiapas into the southern Gulf of Mexico; major sites like Yaxchilán, Piedras Negras and Palenque located along its course
- Pasión River – Major tributary of the Usumacinta with important sites like Tikal and Altar de Sacrificios
- Grijalva River – Flows north to south through Chiapas; sites like Chiapa de Corzo were based along it
- Belize River – Linked major sites like Caracol and Lamanai in Belize
In the drier Yucatán interior, the Maya accessed underground rivers and built cenotes (sinkholes) as water sources.
Major Cities and Sites
Here is an overview of some of the major Maya cities and archaeological sites in Mexico:
- Located in Campeche
- One of the largest and most powerful Maya cities
- Rival of Tikal and seat of the Snake Kingdom
- Existing from Early Classic to Late Classic, ca. 500-800 AD
- Known for its massive pyramid structures
- Located in Chiapas
- Flourished in Late Classic, ca 600-800 AD
- Famous for ornate temple reliefs and inscriptions
- Royal tomb of King Pakal discovered here
- Located on the Usumacinta River in Chiapas
- Powerful city dating to Late Classic period, ca 600-900 AD
- Known for well-preserved sculptured monuments depicting rulers
- Located in Chiapas
- Site of ancient Maya murals from ca. 790 AD depicting court life and battle scenes
- Provides insight into Maya art, culture and warfare
- Located in Tabasco
- Unique Maya city with temples constructed from brick and mortar rather than stone
- Used to mold elaborate decorations on buildings
- Flourished in Late Classic period, ca. 600-900 AD
- Major city in northern Yucatán
- Mix of Maya and Toltec architectural styles
- Famed El Castillo pyramid with calendar significance
- Flourished ca. 800-1200 AD
- Located in Yucatán
- Important Late Classic to Postclassic city, ca. 700-1200 AD
- Distinctive Puuc architectural style with intricate geometric mosaics
- Features the Pyramid of the Magician and Nunnery Quadrangle
- Coastal trading port on the Caribbean in Quintana Roo
- Main occupation circa 1200-1500 AD in Postclassic period
- Known for cliff-side location and El Castillo temple
- One of the last thriving Maya cities
Maya Origins and Early Development
Here is an overview of the origins and early development of Maya civilization in Mexico and Central America:
Archaic Period: 2000 BC – 1000 BC
- The Archaic period marks the transition to sedentary agriculture in Mesoamerica
- Early maize cultivation begins
- Settlement in villages with simple round houses
- Beginning of pottery production
Preclassic Period: 1000 BC – 250 AD
- Complex societies emerge in Maya region
- Large-scale monuments and pyramids constructed
- Writing system develops
- Major sites like El Mirador and Kaminaljuyu emerge
- Maya adopt monumental architecture and art influenced by Teotihuacan
Protoclassic Period: 250 AD – 550 AD
- Transition between Preclassic and Classic periods
- Population growth and increasing political complexity
- Trade networks expand
- Maya script increasingly codified
- Early kingdoms consolidate power
This early development set the stage for the florescence of Maya civilization during the Classic period.
The Maya Collapse
One of the great mysteries of Maya history is the so-called “collapse” that occurred around 900 AD that marked the end of the Classic Period in the southern Maya lowlands:
- Most major southern lowland cities were abandoned by 900 AD
- Causes likely included climate change, drought, ecological disaster, disease, invasion and civil unrest
- The collapse was uneven – some areas declined while others continued to thrive
- Northern Yucatán cities like Chichen Itza and Uxmal flourished after the southern collapse
Although the southern lowland cities collapsed, the Maya people and culture persisted into the Postclassic Period and up to the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s.
Legacy of Maya Civilization
The Maya made many lasting contributions that are still reflected in Mesoamerican cultures today:
- Maya Calendar – The Maya developed a sophisticated calendar system for tracking time and rituals
- Writing and Numbers – They used the only true written language in Mesoamerica and the concept of zero
- Architecture – Maya cities featured soaring pyramids, palaces, observatories and temple complexes
- Art – Maya art was complex and colorful, seen in painting, sculpture, ceramics and decorative arts
- Mathematics – They used advanced mathematics including the concept of zero
- Agriculture – Maya agriculture was intensive and sophisticated, including irrigation, drainage and terracing
Aspects of Maya knowledge in areas like astronomy, timekeeping and math live on today and their great cities and monuments continue to inspire wonder at their accomplishments.
It is estimated there are around 6 million Maya still living in Mesoamerica today. The largest populations are in:
- Guatemala – Around 4-5 million Maya, primarily K’iche’, Kaqchikel, Q’eqchi’, and Mam
- Mexico – Around 1 million Maya, mainly Yucatec Maya and Lacandon
- Belize – Around 20% of the population is Maya, mostly Kekchi and Mopan Maya
The Maya people maintain many aspects of their traditional culture, language, dress and customs while also participating in the modern world.
In summary, the ancient Maya civilization reached its peak in the southern lowland regions of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Major Maya cities with monumental architecture were located throughout this zone and were linked by an extensive trade network. Although the southern lowland cities collapsed around 900 AD, the northern Yucatán continued to thrive after this period. The Maya made major innovations in areas like writing, mathematics, astronomy and the calendar that left an enduring legacy. Millions of Maya people maintain aspects of Maya culture and tradition today.