People first came to Mexico and Central America millennia ago, living as hunter-gatherers in the rain forests and volcanic hills of the region. They first began developing cultural characteristics associated with the Maya civilization around 1800 B.C. on Guatemala's western coast. By 1000 B.C. the Maya had spread throughout the lowland forests of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. The Maya of the Preclassic period lived in small villages in basic homes and dedicated themselves to subsistence agriculture. The major cities of the Maya, such as Palenque, Tikal and Copán, were established during this time and began to prosper. Basic trade was developed, linking the city-states and facilitating cultural exchange.
Great temples were constructed: their facades were decorated with stucco sculptures and paint. Long-distance trade flourished, particularly for luxury items such as jade and obsidian. Royal tombs dating from this time are more elaborate than those from the early and middle Preclassic periods and often contained offerings and treasures.
The Classic Period is considered to have begun when the Maya began carving ornate, beautiful stelae (stylized statues of leaders and rulers) with dates given in the Maya long count calendar. The earliest date on a Maya stela is 292 A.D. (Tikal) and the latest is 909 A.D. (Tonina). During the early Classic Period the Maya continued developing many of their most important intellectual pursuits, such as astronomy, mathematics and architecture. During this time, the city of Teotihuacán, located near Mexico City, exerted a great influence on the Maya city-states, as is shown by the presence of pottery and architecture done in the Teotihuacán style.
The Maya late Classic Period marks the high point of Maya culture. Powerful city-states like Tikal and Calakmul dominated the regions around them and art, culture and religion reached their peaks. The city-states warred, allied with, and traded with one another. There may have been as many as 80 Maya city-states during this time. The cities were ruled by an elite ruling class and priests who claimed to be directly descended from the Sin, Moon, stars and planets. The cities held more people than they could support, so trade for food as well as luxury items was brisk. The ceremonial ball game was a feature of all Maya cities.
The major cities in the southern Maya region all fell into decline and were mostly or completely abandoned. There are several theories as to why this occurred: historians tend to believe that it was excessive warfare, overpopulation, an ecological disaster or a combination of these factors that brought down the Maya civilization. In the north, however, cities like Uxmal and Chichen Itza prospered and developed. War was still a persistent problem: many of the Maya cities from this time were fortified. Sacbes, or Maya highways, were constructed and maintained, indicating that trade continued to be important. Maya culture continued: all four of the surviving Maya codices were produced during the postclassic period.