Nobody knows where they came from, but about 2,400 years ago, a new tribe appeared in Central America. They settled in the rainforests of the Yucatan Peninsula. They were very clever people. They set about making cities in the rainforest, many beautiful cities. They did not use metal tools. They built huge cities using stone tools and wood tools, and tools made from shells. Before very long, the Maya had built hundreds of cities. They were skilled builders. They built palaces, temples, pyramids, walls, and homes. The cities were connected with well built roads that ran through the rainforests and jungles on the Yucatan Peninsula.
For a very long time, the Maya made their home in Central America. Every city had a ball court, temples, and a central plaza. Each city was a center of learning and religion. Each city had its own ruling family. The Maya city-states never unified. Like the ancient Greek city-states, the Maya cities often went to war with each other. Some historians believe they were almost always at war with someone.
By around 900 CE, the Maya cities were mostly deserted. Some people remained, and their descendants still live in Central America today. But without enough people to take care of them, the great Maya cities fell into ruin. That's why the Maya are called "the mysterious Maya" - nobody knows where they came from, and nobody knows what happened to them. It is a history mystery.
Just as the fall of Rome did not mean the end of Romans, there are many descendants of the ancient Maya living in Central America today. About 40% of Guatemala's modern population, along with hundreds of thousands of people outside Guatemala, trace their ancestry back to the ancient Maya.
Archaeologists are very curious about these ancient people. Although they know there are ruins of many Maya cities hidden in the jungle, and suspect there may be more cities yet to be discovered, it's difficult (and dangerous) to look for them. But that has not stopped archaeologists from trying.
In the cities discovered, many thousands of hieroglyphics have been found. But not all of the around 800 different symbols that make up the Maya glyph system are understood today. As archaeologists and other scientists continue to decipher this ancient language, we hope to learn more about these fascinating people.