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Mesoamerica and the Maya Region

map of the maya world

The Maya today occupy the same areas as the ancient Maya whose temples and monuments are found throughout the region — despite the efforts of many invaders and colonizers they have never been displaced. This region includes the Yucatan peninsula in the north, along with parts of the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas; the Central American nations of Belize and Guatemala; and northern and western parts of Honduras and El Salvador.

The Maya population today is estimated at between severn and eight million people — compared to as many as ten million during the eighth century — who speak a variety of Mayan languages (which, though related, are often mutually unintelligible).

The Maya region makes up in turn a part of the larger unit known as Mesoamerica, which extends north through Mexico as far as the arid northern plateau where agricultural settlement became enormously difficult and as far south as Coasta Rica. Other Mesoamerican peoples shared with the Maya a priestly class; the practice of human sacrifice; a complex calendar; hieroglyphic writing; a competitive ball game played in outdoor courts; the growing of maize, beans, peppers, and squash; and other elements.

Despite such similarities, the region itself is highly varied. The volcanic highlands receive ample seasonal rains and often experience quite cold temperatures. The lowlands to the east are, by contrast, very hot; they range from dry scrub chaparral in the north and west to monsoon jungle forrests in the south and east.

The Maya population is often divided into three general groups: the Southern Maya of Chiapas, the Guatemalan highlands, and the Pacific coast; the Central Maya of the lowland forests, where the great classic cities of Tikal and Copan arose; and the Northern Maya of the Yucatan, who were dependent for survival on cenotes and stored water.