Above: Pyramid at the Mayapán ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico

A Primer on Maya Civilization

Without knowing it, many Americans are already familiar with Maya designs. This is because Maya decorative motifs were a major element in the art deco buildings constructed in significant American cities during the 1920s and 1930s. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was heavily influenced by Maya design. Among the best-known surviving Maya-influenced buildings in the U.S. are the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles, the Fisher Building in Detroit and the Giacomo, originally known as the United Office Building, in Niagara Falls, New York.

Many of the architects never actually visited the Yucatán but instead discovered the designs through the writings of explorer John Lloyd Stephens and the illustrations of Frederick Catherwood in their famous book, “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan,” which was published in 1841. Exploring on behalf of President Martin Van Buren, the pair were astonished by the beauty and sophistication of Maya civilization and the structures it had left behind at sites such as Mayapán, Uxmal, Kabah, Labná, Sayil, Xtampak, Chichen Itza, Tulum and Izamal.

Today, a visit to one or more of these sites is a highlight of any trip to the Yucatán. Though the exact origins of the Maya people remain a mystery, they began to settle in the region between 2600 B.C. and 1800 B.C. However, the Maya empire flourished between A.D. 250 and A.D. 900, when large-scale construction projects of astonishing sophistication took place. And then it all stopped, due to circumstances that remain enigmatic. Between A.D. 800 and A.D. 900, Maya civilization went into steep decline. Cities were abandoned, and the population fell precipitously. Many theories have been advanced to explain this collapse, but one likely cause was a rapidly growing population that demanded levels of food production that Maya farming methods were unable to meet.

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Above: Pyramid at the Mayapán ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico

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