Nobody knows where they came from, although historians suspect they came on foot from North America, 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 did have the wheel. They did not have pack animals like elephants or donkeys. They built huge cities using stone tools, and wood tools, and tools made from shells. In time, 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.
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, 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 why they migrated, or why they left some people behind in the cities. But historians and archeologists believe the move was caused by a drought, but no one knows for sure. It's a history mystery.
Mythbuster: True or False: The Maya civilization collapsed around 900 CE and the Maya disappeared. Answer: False.
There was no Maya collapse. Instead, due probably to severe and long lasting drought, people living within the rainforest area abandoned their cities and travelled north into the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico and the highlands of Guatemala. These people established a new home, building new cities such as Chichen Itza, that were occupied up until the 1400s (the 15th century.) Then their civilization ended, when much of their population died from disease introduced by European explorers.
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 clever, ancient people. Although they have discovered the ruins of many Maya cities hidden deep in the jungle, they suspect there may be more cities yet to be discovered. It's very difficult (and dangerous) to look for them. 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.