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Maya: Children of the Corn

Maya Article

This map shows the location of five important Mayan cities.

Maya map

Uxmal, Mexico. Reputed to be one of the most beautiful Mayan cities, it holds the only known pyramid with an oval base. The Magician's Pyramid sits on one side of a square noted for its excellent acoustics. Grand terraces offer remarkable views.

Chichen Itza, Mexico. The most famous Mayan city, this was the capital of the second empire, which lasted from about 1000 to 1450. Its enormous pyramids, including the giant Castillo pyramid that houses a jaguar throne, hold remarkable carvings and murals. A nearby cenote, or natural well, was used for human sacrifices to the rain god.

Tulum, Mexico. Between 1200 and 1450, this seacoast city became a major Mayan port and the center of a vast trading network.

Tikal, Guatemala. The largest known Mayan city, Tikal is believed to have been home to more than 55,000 people in the year 700. The 60-square-mile site holds numerous pyramids, shrines, and ball courts, where Mayans played a sometimes dangerous version of soccer, reportedly using as balls human skulls, which could do serious damage if kicked into an opponent.

Copan, Honduras. A southern outpost of the first Mayan empire, which lasted from 300 to about 900, Copan boasts some of the best preserved ball courts ever found, along with the longest known Mayan stone inscription. The document has helped archaeologists decode some of the culture's mysterious hieroglyphs.


For a thousand years, they ruled what is today a large part of Mexico and southern Central America. They built huge cities and enormous pyramids that vaulted hundreds of feet into the skies. Then, seemingly in an instant, the Mayan Empire, the focus of the second episode of SPIRITS OF THE JAGUAR, collapsed, leaving thousands of elegant stone carvings hidden in the region's lush tropical forests. Even today, the ancient monuments are still being rediscovered.

Pyramids

Pyramids at the Mayan city of Chichen Itza.

The Mayans believed that they were created by gods who added their own blood to flour made from corn, a plant native to their Central American homelands. Thus, they were children of the corn, and along with gods personified by the fierce jaguar and the life-giving rain, they worshipped the tall grass that fed them.

In fact, it was their skill as farmers that allowed the Mayans to prosper. Reliable crops of corn, squash, and beans provided enough food for the Mayan population to grow and for some residents to specialize in new skills, unburdened by the need to tend the fields. Some of these specialists became architects, while others helped push Mayan mathematics and astronomy to remarkable heights.

Today, Mayan cities highlight just how much knowledge this society accumulated at its height 1,200 years ago. Ornate wall carvings are actually astonishingly detailed calendars that can still be used to predict eclipses and other astral events. Similarly, massive temples are also astronomical observatories designed to track the movements of the night sky. Windows and doors are perfectly aligned to channel the light of the sun at different times of the year or to highlight a sparkling planet.

Mayan calendars can still predict eclipses and other astral events.

By necessity, the Mayans were also expert geologists. Each of their great cities is situated next to a cenote, or natural well. The cave water was essential because, although they lived in a tropical forest, fresh surface water was rare. Water from the cenote not only sated the Mayans thirst, it also provided irrigation water for their crops when rain was scarce.

Despite their knowledge, however, the Mayans were only human. By 900, political disagreements and civil wars -- together with crop failures, disease, and other natural disasters -- apparently forced the Mayans to abandon many of their great cities. Some fled to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, where they built a new empire ruled from the military citadel of Chichen Itza. But this society also fell in the 1400s, a victim of internal strife and invasion from hostile neighbors.

Though their empire is long gone, the Mayans live on. An estimated 1.5 million to 4.5 million descendants of the Mayans inhabit southern Central America. In Mexico's Yucatan region, many residents still speak Maya languages and wear clothing virtually indistinguishable from that depicted in ancient carvings. And, like their ancestors, they pursue a spiritual life still colored by ancient beliefs in the gods of the corn and the jaguar. In the words of noted local poet Mediz Bolio, many locals may speak in Spanish -- but they think in Mayan.

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