Long before Europeans ever dreamed of crossing the Atlantic, the ancient Maya culture in Belize
built enormous ball courts, pyramids, palaces, and extremely advanced astronomical observatories. For reasons still debated by archeologists, the ancient Maya culture abandoned most of their cities around the year 900 AD, and many of them were reclaimed by the jungle, only excavated and re-opened to the public in recent decades.
It is believed that the ancient Maya culture arose in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula around 1500 B.C. Spreading across the Central American mainland, the ancient Maya culture once stretched as far as south of El Salvador and had more than one million inhabitants. The ancient Maya were one of just three cultures to independently invent a complex system of writing and is renowned for its advanced mathematics and knowledge of astronomy.
Today, it is believed that the oldest surviving ancient Maya site is Cuello, located in Belize's northern Orange Walk District, however, many sites remain undiscovered, hidden in the thick foliage of Belize's vast jungles. During the Classic Period (250 to 900 A.D.), the ancient Maya began a massive construction campaign, erecting the temples and pyramids in now-iconic sites like Lamanai, Caracol, Xunantunich
, and El Pilar, which vied for dominance with city-states such as Tikal
(now located just over the border from Belize in neighboring Guatemala).
The ancient Maya were skilled architects and expert traders and travelers. Using the coastline, offshore islands, and the Belizean mainland's many rivers, the ancient Maya built trading posts, religious centers, and large cities across the length and breadth of what is now Belize. The ancient Maya also used underground caves as sacred spaces to perform religious ceremonies, including human sacrifices.
Although the ancient Maya culture suffered an endemic collapse around the year 900 A.D., possibly as a result of civil wars, droughts, and/or climate change, their descendants still live in Belize today. Three different Maya cultures can be found in Belize speaking unique dialects that helped modern archeologists decipher the ancient Mayan hieroglyphic style of writing.
Even in 2018, ancient Maya buildings remain the tallest man-made structures in Belize. The Canaa or "Sky Palace" at Caracol measures 141 feet (43 meters) tall, making it the highest building in the country. And the grounds of Caracol measure more than 77 square miles (200 square kilometers) in size, bigger than any modern city in Belize, and a had a population twice that of Belize City, the largest urban area in today's Belize.