Centuries before Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World, a mysterious civilization flourished in the jungles of Mexico and Central America.
While Europeans struggled through the Dark Ages, the Maya built vast cities, developed advanced astronomical knowledge and invented amazingly precise calendars -- all without benefit of metal tools, beasts of burden or even the wheel.
By the 15th century, Mayan civilization was in ruins, its survivors scattered across the jungles and swamps of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras. Its spectacular stone cities and temples had all but crumbled beneath the twisting vines and searing tropical heat.
Their spectacular legacy lives on in such places as Palenque, Tikal, Copan and Chichen Itza -- some of the most beautiful and enigmatic sites on Earth.
Archaeologists are unsure what happened to these amazing people. Some suspect that climatic changes forced them to flee their ancestral homes. Others think that diseases swept the Maya in successive decades of the ninth century.
A few speculate that their collapse was caused by class warfare. "In city after city the ruling group was driven out or, more probably, massacred by the dependent peasants, and power then passed to peasant leaders and small-town witch doctors," theorizes scholar J. Eric Thompson.
Peasants may have revolted against human sacrifice, which was practiced on a regular basis, usually by throwing "chosen ones" into deep wells, shooting them with arrows or ripping their hearts out.
Such gruesome practices were common throughout Meso-America during this period. A dizzying array of gods, demons and important calendar days required human sacrifice to assure prosperity. War prisoners and slaves were the victims of choice, but women and children were routinely used.
The most famous sacrificial center was at Chichen Itza. At sunrise, after a night of feasting and prayer, priests led victims to the edge of a deep well, where they were bound and gagged, then thrown into the dark water along with gold and other precious possessions.
Archaeologists probing the depths of this sacred well have found thousands of skeletons and vast numbers of bracelets, necklaces and other ceremonial objects.
Outsiders first learned about the lost world of the Maya in 1841, when American author and traveler John Lloyd Stephens published a book detailing his journey to Palenque.
"It is impossible to describe the interest with which I explored these ruins," he wrote. "In the romance of the world's history nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, overturned, desolate and lost."
On a visit to Copan he wrote, "The beauty of the sculpture, the solemn stillness of the woods, disturbed only by the scrambling of monkeys and the chattering of parrots, the desolation of the city, and the mystery that hung over it, all created an interest higher, if possible, than I had ever felt among the ruins of the Old World."
Scientists generally believe that the Maya originated in the Yucatan about 2,600 years before Christ. Building on the legacies of earlier civilizations, such as the Olmec, they rose to prominence about A.D. 250.
Noted for their elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, they were also skilled farmers who cleared large sections of rain forests and built sizable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater.
They were also skilled as weavers and potters and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks.
About 300 B.C. the Maya adopted a hierarchical system of government, with rule by nobles and kings. This civilization developed into highly structured kingdoms during the Classic Period, A.D. 200-900.
Their society consisted of many independent states, each with a rural farming community and large urban sites built around ceremonial centers. It started to decline about A.D. 900, when the southern Maya abandoned their cities.
The northern Maya were integrated into the Toltec society by A.D. 1200, and the Maya dynasty finally came to a close, although some peripheral centers continued to thrive until the Spanish Conquest in the early 16th century.
Author and syndicated columnist Randall Floyd can be reached at Rfloyd2@aol.com.
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