It’s hard to dodge the Mayans here in Mexico. We’ve visited a half dozen ancient temples, ate Mayan food, and scoped out museums filled with ancient stone artifacts. With all this old stuff, you might even be excused if you think that the Mayans died out long ago, but you’d be wrong.
The story that we learn in school goes something like this: the Mayans ruled Mesoamerica* for hundreds of years but then their civilization mysteriously collapsed. After them the Aztecs took over the region, sacrificed a bunch of people and things were going well for them until the Spanish came to town. The conquistadors arrived on the scene and killed everyone. The end.
That narrative is not quite right and is missing some key details. The first is that the Mayans never left Mexico. And I don’t mean that in a figurative, poetic sense. I mean there are a ton of Mayans still here and they have an enormous impact on the country that we think of as Mexico.
The Mayan civilization that we think of started sometime around 2000 BC and had its roots in the other cultures in the area. Over the next 3,000 years the Mayans built amazing temples by hand (they didn’t have horses or machinery), studied the planets, developed an advanced calendar, and made some mathematical discoveries that Europeans wouldn’t know about for centuries.
The Mayans were not the only civilization in Mesoamerica at this time. There were Olmecs, Toltecs, and a lot of other ‘tecs. All of these cultures waxed and waned and many of them are still around today.
Sometime around 900 AD the Mayans started abandoning their cities. Their empire spanned thousands of miles from Mexico to Guatemala, so it didn’t happen all at once or even for the same reason in each city. No one is really sure why this happened but some theories point towards a multi-year drought, famine, or polluted water supply. Probably it was a combination of multiple factors.
But the Mayans didn’t die off. Rather they just scattered around the region, with many of them staying on the Yucatan Peninsula and others moving to the jungles of Guatemala. And that’s where they are today. Right now there are about a 6 million speakers of the Mayan language in Mexico and nearby countries. For many people, it’s their first language. A large portion of Mexicans identify as Mayan and if you visit the Yucatan it’ll be very easy to eat Mayan food, witness the Mayan culture, and even learn a few words.
Understanding the Mayans is key to understanding Mexico today. In the next post we’re going to talk about the Aztecs and the Conquistadors, and how they changed the face of Mexico.
*Mesoamerica is defined as central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica