The ancient Maya were a group of American Indian peoples who lived in southern Mexico, particularly the
present-day states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo, and in Belize, Guatemala,
and adjacent Honduras. Their descendants, the modern Maya, live in the same regions today, in both
highlands and lowlands, from cool highland plains ringed by volcanos to deep tropical rain forests.
Through the region runs a single major river system, the Apasion-Usumacinta and its many tributaries, and
only a handful of lesser rivers, the Motagua, Hondo, and Belize among them. The ancestors of the Maya,
like those of other New World peoples, crossed the BERING LAND BRIDGE from Asia more than 20,000 years
ago, during the last ice age.
The Maya were the first people of the New World to keep historical records: their written history begins
in 50 BC, when they began to inscribe texts on pots, jades, bones, stone monuments, and palace walls.
Maya records trace the history of the great kings and queens who ruled from 50 BC until the Spanish
conquest in the 16th century. All Maya "long count" calendar inscriptions fall between AD 292 and AD
909, roughly defining the period called Classic. Earlier Maya culture is called Formative or Preclassic
(2000 BC-AD 300), and subsequent civilization is known as Postclassic (AD 900-conquest).
Protected by difficult terrain and heavy vegetation, the ruins of few ancient Maya cities were known
before the 19th century, when explorers and archaeologists began to rediscover them. The age and
proliferation of Maya writings have been recognized since about 1900, when the calendrical content of
Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions was deciphered and the dates correlated with the Christian calendar. For
most of the 20th century, only the extensive calendrical data of Maya inscriptions could be read, and as
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