During the so-called "Classic Maya" period, Tikal (in what is today Guatemala) was a thriving urban center of nearly 100,000 people, cut into the middle of the Central American rain forest.
Painting by Peter E. Spier, National Geographic
  • Select Text Level:

    On January 16, 378, a Maya king, Jaguar Paw, was killed in what is now Tikal, Guatemala. Jaguar Paw’s death was probably a result of the arrival of an invading army from Teotihuacan, a city in the highlands of the Valley of Mexico, near what is today Mexico City, Mexico. The invading Teotihuacano army did not destroy the Maya, however—they helped expand the culture’s sphere of influence to its greatest extent.
    Tikal was a thriving city by the time the Teotihuacanos arrived. More than 10,000 people lived in the city, deep in the rain forest of Central America. Jaguar Paw’s enormous stone palace is still standing, the center of one of Guatemala’s most popular national parks. The written Maya language was a sophisticated series of hieroglyphics, only deciphered in the 20th century. 
    The Teotihuacano period in Tikal’s history contributed to an even more advanced Maya civilization. The city grew to more than 90,000 people. Agricultural techniques such as irrigation, composting, and terracing began to thrive throughout the lowland Maya kingdom. Maya pyramids served as observatories where astronomers calculated seasonal and meteorological changes. Tikal became part of a trade network expanding from the mountains of what is today southern Guatemala (where jade was exported); to Teotihuacan and the Valley of Mexico to the west (where obsidian was exported) and both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Central America (where salt—difficult to find in the rain forest—was exported to Tikal).
    The Maya civilization of Tikal dominated the lowland region in northern Central America for more than 500 years. Long before Europeans arrived in the New World, the Maya had lost their power to civilizations such as the Aztec, Acolhua, and Tepanec.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    army Noun

    military land forces.

    astronomer Noun

    person who studies space and the universe beyond Earth's atmosphere.

    calculate Verb

    to reach a conclusion by mathematical or logical methods.

    city Noun

    large settlement with a high population density.

    civilization Noun

    complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Key Components of Civilization
    coast Noun

    edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: coast
    compost Noun

    mixture of decaying organic material, such as food waste and plants.

    crop Noun

    agricultural produce.

    Encyclopedic Entry: crop
    cultivate Verb

    to encourage the growth of something through work and attention.

    culture Noun

    learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

    decipher Verb

    to figure out or interpret.

    defeat Verb

    to overcome an enemy or obstacle.

    destroy Verb

    to ruin or make useless.

    dominate Verb

    to overpower or control.

    enormous Adjective

    very large.

    expand Verb

    to grow or get larger.

    export Verb

    to transport goods to another place for trade.

    hieroglyphics Plural Noun

    written language using images to represent words.

    highlands Plural Noun

    plateau or elevated region of land.

    invade Verb

    to enter and attack.

    irrigation Noun

    watering land, usually for agriculture, by artificial means.

    Encyclopedic Entry: irrigation
    kingdom Noun

    type of government with a king or queen as its leader, or the land ruled by that king or queen.

    Encyclopedic Entry: kingdom
    language Noun

    set of sounds, gestures, or symbols that allows people to communicate.

    Maya Noun

    people and culture native to southeastern Mexico and Central America.

    meteorology Noun

    study of weather and atmosphere.

    Encyclopedic Entry: meteorology
    national park Noun

    geographic area protected by the national government of a country.

    network Noun

    series of links along which movement or communication can take place.

    New World Noun

    the Western Hemisphere, made up of the Americas and their islands.

    observatory Noun

    place or building equipped and used for making observations of astronomical, meteorological, or other natural phenomena, usually equipped with powerful telescopes.

    obsidian Noun

    black glass formed as lava cools above ground.

    palace Noun

    large home or mansion, often the home of a leader or dignitary.

    rainforest Noun

    area of tall, mostly evergreen trees and a high amount of rainfall.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Rainforest
    region Noun

    any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

    Encyclopedic Entry: region
    sophisticated Adjective

    knowledgeable or complex.

    sphere of influence Noun

    area or region where a nation or cultural group has cultural, economic, military, or political influence.

    Teotihuacan Noun

    (200-750) ancient civilization in what is now central Mexico.

    terrace Noun

    flat surface created on a steep hillside.

    thrive Verb

    to develop and be successful.

    trade Noun

    buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.