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The ancient Maya civilization existed for over two thousand years before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. The ancient Maya settled in Central America, southern Mexico, and the Yucatan peninsula, and are believed to have been connected to the northern areas of Mesoamerica through their trading activities. For many years, very little was known about the ancient Maya. However, this has recently changed as a result of ongoing progress made by researchers in deciphering various Mayan hieroglyphic texts.
The history of the Maya civilization does not follow a straightforward path. Maya cities and regions advanced, collapsed, and had varying levels of influence at different time periods. The Classic Period from 250 – 900 A.D. is considered to have been the height of the ancient Maya civilization. During this time period, the Maya were led by dynastic rulers, the population grew dramatically, art and culture flourished, the elite classes became more entrenched, and wars and demands for tribute occurred more frequently. However, by the end of the Classic Period, the Maya kingdoms had begun to splinter and break off into smaller states. When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, the peak of the Maya civilization was long over and the remaining Maya states tended to be less centralized and more commercially oriented.
The Yucatec Maya first encountered the Spanish in 1502, but the official conquest of this region did not begin until 1527. The Maya fought with the Spaniards for several years until the conquest was completed in 1542. Despite the abuses that occurred during the Spanish colonization of the Maya homeland and the unfortunate human rights violations that continue to impact this region today, the Maya culture has survived and the modern day indigenous Maya of this region continue to carry on many of the traditions of their ancestors.
Sources: Foster (2002) and Sharer (1996).
Image Information: Presentation of captured dignitary to Maya ruler (Reents-Budet, from ceramic vase).