The Maya homeland, called Mesoamerica, spans five countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. There are now indications that the people we call the Maya had migrated from North America to the highlands of Guatemala perhaps as long ago as 2600 B.C., living an agricultural, village-based life. The culture of these Preclassic Maya owes much to the earlier civilization of the Olmec, which flourished ca. 1200 B.C.
By the time Maya civilization had reached its peak - the Classic period (A.D. 200-900) - the Maya were spread across an almost continuous territory of roughly 311,000 square kilometers (120,000 square miles), comprising three general areas:
A series of rivers originates in the mountains and flows towards the
Pacific Ocean on the west coast, and towards the Gulf of Mexico in the
southern Petén lowlands. These rivers served as passageways for
canoes to travel from one city to another. Most of the Maya cities of
the Classic period were built near rivers that provided water for human
consumption and access to trade routes. In the northern Yucatán
lowlands, however, there are no major rivers.
The Rain Forest:
Apart from the volcanic glacier mountains, most of Mesoamerica is covered
by a dense rain forest. A rain forest resembles a greenhouse, providing
warmth, sunlight, and water, and producing an enormous variety of plants.
Unlike the rich humus soils of temperate-zone forests, the soil in rain
forests is thin and poor. In order to survive, tropical trees and plants
have developed highly efficient root systems that absorb nutrients from
dead plants (which decompose rapidly because of the high heat and humidity)
before they are washed away.
The Soil: The best soils are found in the southern highland valleys where volcanic eruptions have enriched the earth. The spring-like climate and fertile valleys made this a popular place to settle, despite the threat of volcanoes. Today, this area supports the largest Maya population.
(chart courtesy of MECC and Tom Duda) For further information see also:
While the Mayan-speaking peoples spread across these regions shared many similarities, their geographical dispersal resulted in the evolution of numerous languages which are related but sufficiently distinctive to prevent different Maya groups today from understanding one another. This divergence adds a further complication to efforts to translate the hieroglyphic writing of the city-states. Scholars today are still trying to reconstruct the family tree of the Mayan languages and there are different interpretations, but it is generally felt that four or five language groups had emerged by the Middle Preclassic period (900-300 B.C.).
Central American Cultural-Ecological Information Network
For further information see also: