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The Classic Maya built many of their temples and palaces in a stepped pyramid shape, decorating them with elaborate reliefs and inscriptions.
These structures have earned the Maya their reputation as the great artists of Mesoamerica.
Its size dwarfed the Classic Maya capital of Tikal, and its existence proves that the Maya flourished centuries before the Classic Period. Excavations of Maya sites have unearthed plazas, palaces, temples and pyramids, as well as courts for playing the ball games that were ritually and politically significant to Maya culture.
Maya cities were surrounded and supported by a large population of farmers.
At the top of Maya society were the kings, or “kuhul ajaw” (holy lords), who claimed to be related to gods and followed a hereditary succession.
Within that expanse, the Maya lived in three separate sub-areas with distinct environmental and cultural differences: the northern Maya lowlands on the Yucatan Peninsula; the southern lowlands in the Peten district of northern Guatemala and adjacent portions of Mexico, Belize and western Honduras; and the southern Maya highlands, in the mountainous region of southern Guatemala.
In addition to agriculture, the Preclassic Maya also displayed more advanced cultural traits like pyramid-building, city construction and the inscribing of stone monuments. Classic Maya civilization grew to some 40 cities, including Tikal, Uaxactún, Copán, Bonampak, Dos Pilas, Calakmul, Palenque and Río Bec; each city held a population of between 5,000 and 50,000 people.
The Late Preclassic city of Mirador, in the northern Peten, was one of the greatest cities ever built in the pre-Columbian Americas. At its peak, the Maya population may have reached 2,000,000.
From the late eighth through the end of the ninth century, something unknown happened to shake the Maya civilization to its foundations.
One by one, the Classic cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned, and by A. 900, Maya civilization in that region had collapsed.
Guided by their religious ritual, the Maya also made significant advances in mathematics and astronomy, including the use of the zero and the development of a complex calendar system based on 365 days.