The Maya civilization was a Mesoamerican civilization developed by the Maya peoples, noted for the Maya hieroglyphic script, the only known fully developed writing system of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems.
The Maya civilization developed in an area that encompasses southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. This region consists of the northern lowlands encompassing the Yucatán Peninsula, and the highlands of the Sierra Madre, running from the Mexican state of Chiapas, across southern Guatemala and onwards into El Salvador, and the southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain.
- The Preclassic period (c. 2000 BC to 250 AD) saw the establishment of the first complex societies in the Maya region, and the cultivation of the staple crops of the Maya diet, including maize, beans, squashes, and chili peppers.
- The first Maya cities developed around 750 BC, and by 500 BC these cities possessed monumental architecture, including large temples with elaborate stucco façades.
- Hieroglyphic writing was being used in the Maya region by the 3rd century BC.
- Beginning around 250 AD, the Classic period is largely defined as when the Maya were raising sculpted monuments with Long Count dates.
- The Postclassic period saw the rise of Chichen Itza in the north, and the expansion of the aggressive K’iche’ kingdom in the Guatemalan Highlands.
- The Mesoamerican area gave rise to a series of cultural developments that included complex societies, agriculture, cities, monumental architecture, writing, and calendrical systems.
- Although much reduced, a significant Maya presence remained into the Postclassic period after the abandonment of the major Classic period cities; the population was particularly concentrated near permanent water sources.
- The later 19th century saw the recording and recovery of ethnohistoric accounts of the Maya, and the first steps in deciphering Maya hieroglyphs.
- The final two decades of the 19th century saw the birth of modern scientific archaeology in the Maya region, with the meticulous work of Alfred Maudslay and Teoberto Maler.
- Cities such as Kaminaljuyu and Q’umarkaj in the Guatemalan Highlands, and Chalchuapa in El Salvador, variously controlled access to the sources of obsidian at different points in Maya history.