1 Take a look at Mexico and Central America on a map. If you use your imagination, you might see how Mexico resembles a left-handed fist with the thumb sticking up. The area around this thumb, the Yucatan Peninsula, was once part of the Maya civilization. Evidence has been found to prove that the Mayas first settled in the area thousands of years ago. It is thought that the first tribesmen crossed a land bridge in the Bering Strait from Asia. 2 Many archaeologists like to divide Maya history into three time periods. The first time period is called the Preclassic period. The Preclassic period traces the Maya as far back as evidence can be found. They are pretty sure that people have lived in the area since 10,000 BC. Villages were built around 1800 BC. By 1000 BC, the people were building temples. In 600 BC, buildings were being built that brought the people together into a city. These cities sprung up around the entire Central American region. 3 The second Maya period is called the Classic period. It lasted from approximately 250 AD to 900 AD. It was during this time that the Maya created their greatest cities. The empire was at its most powerful. The Maya government was not an empire like many others in history. There was not one central powerful city. The Mayas built city-states. Each city-state had its own royalty. Each city-state made its own laws. Each city had its own temples and monuments. 4 Agriculture and trade were important to the people in the city-states. Cacao, salt, obsidian, and jade were traded regularly among the city states. 5 A Maya leader was born to his position. Leadership was passed from father to son for many generations. Many of the monuments constructed in Mayan cities were for the glorification of their leaders. Intricate carvings adorned the walls of these monuments. Temples for religious rites and palaces for the rulers were masterpieces. What makes these buildings even more spectacular is to remember that there were no metal tools or heavy equipment at the time. Temples looked like the pyramids in Egypt. Yet Egypt was thousands of miles from the Maya land. The temples, like the pyramids were built entirely with man-power. 6 The final period in Mayan history is known as the Postclassic Period. During the 700's and 800's, the Mayan presence seemed to disappear. Scientists have debated for years as to what happened. The beautiful, well-built cities were deserted. The people scattered in small groups. Had there been a great civil war? Had disease killed large populations? Had an earthquake or hurricane driven the people from the cities? These questions have been studied for centuries. 7 Some scientists feel that a severe drought that lasted for many years may have caused the Mayan people to seek new homes. Some scientists feel that the people may have become disillusioned by their leaders and revolted against the royal families. Unfortunately, we may never know the answers to these questions. The Mayans developed their own written language. They wrote books detailing their history. When Spanish conquistadors came across the ruins of ancient Mayan civilization in the 1500's, they destroyed almost all of the books. They reasoned that a group of people like this could not be civilized. The books must be the work of the devil. Only four books written by the Mayans are still in existence. 8 The Mayan people did not completely disappear. Their organized living style did. What may have started more than 20,000 years ago with ancient tribes crossing a land bridge in the Bering Strait came to a quiet end along the Caribbean coast of Central America.