Maya civilization, the only one to achieve true literacy in pre-Columbian America, flourished between AD 300 and 900 in Guatemala, western Honduras, Belize, Yucatan, and eastern Campeche in Mexico. This area encompasses a great variety of terrain and many ecological zones among which raw materials and products were being traded as early as 2000 BC. Maya civilization reaches back to this period. Excavations at Cuello, Belize, have revealed a proto-Maya culture with characteristic groupings of Maya-type buildings, including a temple on low mounds around a plaster-floored central plaza.

From about 300 BC to AD 300, sizable cities were being constructed in both lowland and highland zones. By the start of the Classic Maya phase, in about AD 300, extraordinary stone-built cities, such as Tikal and Palenque, had come into existence. Maya cities contained multistoried buildings, often called palaces, temple-topped pyramids up to 150 feet high, ballcourts in which a ritual game was played, and astronomical observatories, all grouped around central plazas.

Such gigantic enterprises depended on a large population and sociopolitical mechanisms to control its labor. The nature of this control has been disputed. Formerly, the predominance of religious buildings in the undefended cities led them to be interpreted as purely ceremonial centers, used only for periodic festivals. Recent breakthoughs in deciphering Maya hieroglyphs and further excavations have shown this to be untrue. The inscriptions refer to particular events involving members of ruling dynasties and emphasize their legitimate descent. Public sculptures and wall paintings stressed the unity of the gods with the hereditary rulers and commemorated political and matrimonial alliances and victorious campaigns.

Maya cities had large resident populations. At Tikal some 50,000 people lived in small groups of houses built on mounds scattered over six square miles of suburban development. Staple foods were maize, beans, squash, manioc, and chili.

Classic Maya culture was neither homogenous nor closed to outside influence. Each major city-state developed its own art and architectual style. Regional products, such as cacao, copal, gum incense, obsidian, and jade, were traded along navigable rivers and by sea routes on the Caribbean coast.

Internationally, contacts were established with Teotihuacan in central Mexico. At Kaminaljuju in the highlands of Guatemala, the temple design reflects Mexican traditions, and the high-status dead were buried with imported Teotihuacan ceramic vessels. Lowland Maya also had links with the Valley of Mexico. Images and inscriptions at Tikal indicate that foreigners from Teotihuacan married into the ruling dynasty. Mexican influence declined after 500 AD, leading to a resurgence of Maya civilization. Many splendid new buildings were constructed at Copan, Palenque, and Naranjo, while Tikal was virtually reconstructed.

In the ninth century, Maya civilization collapsed. The causes are still unclear. It has been proposed that the agricultural system was simply too fragile to support the demands placed upon it, or that invasion or internal strife destroyed a society which had concentrated so much labor and wealth in glorifying its rulers.