The ancient Mayas of Central America built one of the most highly developed native civilizations ever found in the Western Hemisphere. In art, agriculture, and mathematicsthey equaled or outdid all of their counterparts. And for nearly 7 centuries (250-900 A.D.) they controlled the area of Central America now known as Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and El Salvador,and the entire Yucatan Peninsula.
Then suddenly the entire Mayan civilization collapsed. Hundreds of splendid temple-topped stone pyramids, many of which were nearly 200 feet high, fell intodisrepair. Beautiful cities like Palenque, the buildings of which once covered nearly 17 square miles, were quickly overgrown by the jungle. And in some areas the population density dropped from a total ofperhaps 200 to 500 people per square kilometer (about 0.4 of a square mile) to 20 or less per square kilometer-a level equivalent to what it had been some 200 years before.
The whole process tookless than 100 years. This is no time at all if you consider that the Mayan civilization had been around for 1000 years before reaching its peak between 250 A.D. Yet to this day, no one is reallycertain how or why this decline happened. For now, the downfall of the Mayas remains one of the great unanswered questions of human history.
In light of the extraordinary level of development the Mayasachieved before their fall, their sudden collapse is even more mystifying. For, while Europe was still struggling through the Dark Ages, the Mayas were using a calendar that was more accurate than theone we use today. Mayan astronomers were able to predict solar and lunar eclipses, and they had calculated the path of Venus so precisely that their error was only 1 day in 6, 000 years!
TheMayans were using the concept of zero in their numbering system several hundred years before it was introduced in the Old World. They used large-scale terracing to grow crops on hillsides and were...