2 – Classic Period (250 – 900 AD)
This is deemed to be the peak of Maya civilization as it included accomplishments such as the creation of distinctive writing and calendar systems, the development of impressive public architecture and polychrome ceramics. One of the trademarks of the Mayan Classic Period is the building of dated monuments called Stelae which were likenesses of an important figure with a written record of his accomplishments. The Maya also used the Long Count, a calendrical system using a 360-day year with a start date of 3,114 BC, to record their social, religious and political history.
It was during this era that large cities grew from small villages into great cities. Towards the end of the Preclassic Period, a Mayan city called Cuicuilco rivaled Mesoamerican giant Teotihuacan, but it was possibly destroyed by a volcano sometime during the Second Century AD. (In answer to queries, while Teotihuacan was named by the Aztecs and is admittedly not a Mayan city, it possibly hosted Mayan population at some point along with the Mixtec and Zapotec. No one knows for sure who built Teotihuacan.) The growth of these cities was indicative of the flourishing society as there were several cities with populations of over 50,000.
The growth of trading networks meant an increase in contact between rival city-states. While there were many positives such as the trading of important goods, it also led to warfare between states. It was normal for warriors from one state to attack another and use prisoners as slaves or sacrifices to the gods. There were even a few instances of all-out war between states. One of the most notable occurred between Tikal and Calakmul in the fifth and sixth centuries.
The complex Maya civilization started to fall apart from 700 AD onwards. The increase in conflict between states caused a rapid fall in population. Fighting intensified as resources became more scarce and important centers such as El Pilar, once a hotbed of new construction, were allowed to fall into ruin. Crucial centers in the lowlands such as Tikal were the first to collapse although Eastern centers such as Xunantunch fared a bit better.
The Mayan collapse of the ninth century involved the widespread abandonment of several major cities. While an average of 40 dated monuments were built per annum at the start of the 700s, practically none were built in 900. Copan Valley is a prime example of the rapid depopulation of centers throughout the civilization. Its population was approximately 28,000 between 750-800. A century later and it had almost halved to 15,000. By 1200, there were fewer than 1,000 inhabitants.
There are a number of theories that attempt to explain this sudden collapse of what was once a vibrant civilization. The Maya could have been invaded by a foreign power or else they fell victim to an epidemic. Other historians blame drought for the abandonment while the collapse of trade routes could have caused the Classic Period Mayans to leave their settlements. Despite the depopulation, this was not the end of the Maya.