The Maya civilization was one of the Western Hemisphere's greatest, at its height reaching from southern Mexico to Guatemala and northern Belize. Dating back to approximately 1500 B.C., the Maya began with small villages and developed an agriculture of maize (corn), squash, and beans. During the Maya culture's Classical period (ca. 250-900 A.D.), over 40 cities flourished, each with as many as 50,000 people, and the total Maya population grew to two million. The Maya experienced a sudden decline in ca. 900 A.D.; the cause is not known for certain, but wars or agricultural failure may have been the reason. By the time of the Spanish conquest most of the Maya had returned to a village-based agricultural system, but they perpetuated the ancient religious beliefs and rites so central to their great classical civilization.

As in other cultures, Maya códices recorded crucial information. They were considered sacred manuals documenting the workings of the universe, used by priests to interpret and influence unseen forces, as well as to conduct religious ceremonies believed to be essential for the well being of the people. The achievements of the Maya in astronomy and mathematics were inextricably tied to their religious beliefs, bringing together science and ritual to reveal the patterns and cycles of the universe. The once-rich body of Maya códices also documented astrology, divinatory practices, history, crafts, and other activities. Maya códices were written on fig bark paper and bound in jaguar skin.

Unfortunately, only four Maya códices have survived. Three are in European libraries: the Dresden, the Madrid, and the Paris. The fourth, the Grolier Codex, is in Mexico City; not all scholars agree that it is of Maya origin.

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