Long before other world cultures conceived the use of zero, the Maya of Mexico and Central America were using zero to calculate and indicate dates in their books and on their monuments. They could calculate dates millions of years in the past and far into the future. The current epoch in the Maya calendar began in 3114 B.C. and ends in December of this year. The Maya built large cities with towering temples; to this day, the tallest building in Belize is a Maya pyramid at the ruins of Caracol. When the artist Frederick Catherwood first tried to draw a picture of a Maya carving at Copan, around 1840, he had difficulty wrapping his mind around what he was seeing because the art was so alien to his way of thinking.
I’ve been interested in Maya history and culture since I read Time among the Maya by Ronald Wright. That book tells of Wright’s travels in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala during the early 1980’s. I found the book fascinating, if a bit over my head. When I read it I had never traveled to the area where the Maya live, I was not familiar with the names of the ancient cities Wright described and I had no clue about Maya culture, past or present. Since reading that book I have visited areas in Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and Mexico where Maya live and have enjoyed almost every minute of my travels there.
I just read Michael D. Coe’s The Maya and wish I had done so years ago. Coe is a noted anthropologist and first published The Maya in 1966, but he has revised it every few years since then. While it could be used as a textbook, The Maya is written in a straightforward style that is easy to follow. I finally feel I am starting to understand the development of the Maya civilization and how the seats of political power shifted over the centuries. This book also has information on modern Maya culture and tips on visiting the area, though the focus is on the past. Other books on Maya history are A Forest of Kings, The House of the Governor, The Blood of Kings, and Maya Art and Architecture.
If the ruins of Maya cities interest you,An Archaeological Guide to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, by Joyce Kelly, is a great book to read. Kelly also wrote An Archaeological Guide to Northern Central America, which covers sites in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
Thinking of visiting the Maya region? The Library has a number of travel guides, including Cancún and Cozumel, The Rough Guide to the Yucatán, Honduras and the Bay Islands, Guatemala, Belize and the Yucatán, and Lonely Planet/Mexico. These guides and others are good even if you have no interest in ruins; they tell you how to get around, suggest places to stay, and recommend restaurants. Restaurants in Yucatán often feature Maya cuisine, and these guides will let you know ones that are worth trying. The Maya culture covers a large area, from the Pacific coast to northern Yucatán, so there is something for almost every traveler to be found there.