For more than 2,000 years, the ancient Maya were the dominant civilization in Central America. The heartland of the Maya world lies in what is now Belize, and modern-day visitors can explore more than two dozen ancient sites that have been clawed back from the jungle. The Maya created an enduring civilization of incredible complexity and architectural prowess. Many of their finest temples, pyramids, and buildings have lasted virtually unchanged for thousands of years.
Today, archeologists are still not sure what led to the large-scale collapse of their civilization and the abandonment of most of their still-intact cities, pyramids, and temples. Competing theories of climate control, civil war, and societal unrest have been put forward to explain how the Maya nearly vanished in the centuries before the arrival of the Europeans.
At the height of their civilization, it is estimated that the Maya had a population of more than one million, more than four times their current population. Although greatly reduced in numbers by the vagaries of history, the Maya continue to thrive in Belize, proud preservationists of their language, traditions, crafts, dance, music, and healing knowledge.
Beyond the impressive stone cities rising out of the jungle, other important Maya sites in Belize include sacred cave complexes. Believed by the ancient Maya to be a nexus between the world of men and the world of the gods, sacred caves such as Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) were the site of some of their most important religious rituals, including human sacrifice.
Perhaps the most iconic Maya ruin in Belize is Xunantunich in the country’s western Cayo District. The site of impressive pyramids and a panoramic view of the Mopan River, Xunantunich is where archeologists in the summer of 2016 discovered the largest Maya royal tomb ever unearthed.
One of the most famous Maya city states to have been rediscovered in the modern era isjust across the border in neighboring Guatemala. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tikal is home to soaring temples measuring 154 feet (47 meters) high.
THE MAYA OF BELIZE
Although Belize is a small country, it played an extremely important role during the height of the ancient Maya civilization. Although their empire stretched from Mexico down to El Salvador and shared a common religion and language, it was divided into different kingdoms and principalities that vied with one another for dominance. Similar to the ancient Roman world, the Maya civilization experienced several waves of expansion and retreat, inflation and economic success, prosperity and droughts during the more than 500 years that they dominated Central America.
Maya Ruins in Belize
The warm climate, fertile soil, and extensive network of rivers and offshore islands made Belize one of the most heavily populated centers of the ancient Maya world. Enormous cities with colossal pyramids and palaces were built all across modern day Belize. Sites such as Xunantunich and Caracol vied with dynasties in Tikal, just down the Belize River in what is now modern-day Guatemala, for control of the area.
Although many of the ancient Maya’s most amazing cities have been excavated, sites like Altun Ha, Caracol, Xunantunich, and Nim Li Punit, many more cities still await discovery, hidden beneath the dense foliage of the jungle. In addition to their fabulous cities of nearly unimaginable wealth, the Maya also frequently made use of the hundreds of caves found in Belize. According to the Maya religion, caves were sacred spaces, considered a nexus between the world of humans and those of the gods. Today, many of the ancient Maya’s ceremonial caves have been re-discovered, untouched for thousands of years and containing altars, ritual objects, and even the remains of sacrificial victims.
Today, there are many Maya communities across Belize, the living descendants of the ancient civilization that invented its own form of writing and made precise astronomical calculations.
If you are interested in learning more about the Maya in Belize, contact Caves Branch Lodge today.