Ahead of a major exhibition, Alastair Smart explains why we remain so fascinated by this magnificent, mysterious and bloodthirsty people

Soaring: The Mayan ruins at the Plaza of the Group of Crosses, in Palenque, Mexico Photo: © Brian Overcast / Alamy

The trouble with the great civilisations of Mesoamerica isn’t just the sheer number of them, but the fact that their names sound so similar. From the Olmecs and Huastecs to the Toltecs, Mixtecs and Zapotecs, it can be hard, at times, telling one culture from the next.

That said, two stand out above the rest, the Aztecs and the Maya – and there was always an easy rule of thumb for distinguishing them. The former were fighters, the latter thinkers. The Aztecs were the Romans of the New World, the Maya its Greeks.

This line of thinking held sway for much of the 19th – and 20th – centuries, ever since US explorer John Lloyd Stephens and British illustrator Frederick Catherwood discovered a host of ancient cities, lost to the jungle and overgrown with tropical vegetation, during an expedition to Mexico and Central America in 1839. The monumental Mayan sites they helped uncover included Copan, Palenque, Uxmal, Tulum, and Chichen Itza. Now tourist hotspots on the well-worn “Ruta Maya” (Mayan trail), these were not so long ago depopulated and barely known, even by locals.

In 1841, the duo published a book of their findings (words by Stephens, romanticised drawings by Catherwood), and “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucutan” became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.

'Queen of Uxmal' limestone sculpture, AD 600-900 (Image: Consejo Nacional)

The archaeologist J Eric Thompson followed in their wake, spreading his belief that the Maya had been a peaceful, rural people, whose grand urban plazas were visited only for the performance of priest-led rites on special dates. These were sites of religious devotion – hence their demise after the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century and clamped down on indigenous faith.

Thompson’s view of the Maya prevailed: that they were serene sophisticates. And as a new exhibition about them will demonstrate, they made some astonishing art. On show at the World’s Museum, Liverpool, will be painted ceramics, gold figurines, intricate stone carvings, and a remarkable collection of jade, death masks found in the tombs of different rulers. Even their cutting instruments look the part: razor-sharp blades of shiny, black obsidian.

Mayan territory extended 125,000 square miles – across what today is Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador – and the artistic style varied widely, from the stylised to the realistic. We patronisingly expect the former from non-Western sculpture, but there’s also a portrait bust on show from the burial chamber of Palenque’s 7th-century ruler, Pakal, of quite stunning individuality. It boasts protruding cheekbones, thin lips, a sharp chin, even a slight cranial deformation. This isn’t primitive sculpture in any sense, but highly naturalistic.

These artists’ influence has stretched far beyond their own time and place, too. Henry Moore’s long line of reclining figures were famously inspired by Mayan “chacmool” sculptures. Frank Lloyd Wright and his US peers, in turn, were so awed by Mesoamerican architecture that they spawned an early-20th-century style called Mayan Revivalist. The Maya, in short, have been deemed cultivated enough to justify imitation.

Majestic: The ruins of the Mayan temple grounds at Tulum (Photo: Brian Jannsen / Alamy)

Keen mathematicians, they invented the concept of zero, centuries before the Europeans grasped it. They also developed the most developed writing system in the Americas. Spanish friars destroyed most traces of it, alas, when – during colonialisation – they burned every book they came across, for purportedly idolatrous content. Just four Mayan codices survive.

The script was also found on monuments, but remained indecipherable for decades. Which meant that it wasn’t until a series of breakthroughs in the mid-20th century that we had any real insight into what made the Maya tick.

There was no eureka moment; no equivalent to the Rosetta Stone, the key to decrypting Ancient Egyptian. Mayan script was deciphered gradually. athough one major step was the realisation that it was both pictographic and phonetic.

By the 1970s, the code was cracked and a very different picture of the Maya now emerged. For one thing, it turned out they could be every bit as brutal as any other society. What’s more, their cities hadn’t been vacant at all, but thriving hubs from which leaders vied in fierce competition with each other (it was never a centralised civilisation). Temples recorded wars, the capture of prisoners, and the necessity of shedding human blood to nourish the gods. Various scenes in Mayan art depict women perforating their tongues and men driving sticks through their penises.

The Maya practiced human sacrifice, as witnessed in Mel Gibson's 2006 film, Apocalypto. (Photo: Everett/REX Shutterstock)

Human sacrifice, though not practiced on the mass scale of the Aztecs, was also common. Vast ball courts were even built for games in which the losers – and sometimes the victors – were ritually sacrificed. Mel Gibson alighted upon the bloodier aspects of Mayan life in his 2006 action film Apocalypto. In his view, the Mayans weren’t passive aesthetes but savages in need of civilising by the Spanish saviours who turn up in the final scenes.

Gibson’s take is, of course, grossly exaggerated, but it does highlight how much our view of the Maya has changed since Thompson’s time. They were at their peak in the so-called “Classic period” between AD 250 and 900 – and oneupmanship between rival rulers surely explains the soaring, limestone pyramids, palaces and temples in neighbouring cities.

Mayan prosperity over time owed much to bountiful supplies of corn, which provided a steady diet. One benefit of this was the freedom to practise pursuits such as astronomy to a high level. The Maya developed a number of calendars, including a 365-day solar one that all but matches our own for accuracy. Having built observatories aplenty, they also predicted eclipses, and charted the path of planets and stars.

The Maya still exist, in their millions, to this day – albeit as a poor, minority people. Their decline actually began centuries before the Spanish arrival in 1519. The last temple inscription appeared in Copan, for instance, in 820; in Tikal in 879; and in Uxmal in 907. In history books about the Conquista, it’s the Aztecs – then the dominant force in Mesoamerica – who feature as Hernan Cortés’s great opponents, while the Maya barely get a look in. The latter (who occupied a more southerly territory than the Aztecs) had suffered a startling collapse in the 10th-century. Nobody quite knows why. No inscription offers a clue either, making this perhaps one mystery we’ll never solve.

Mayan funerary mask in jade, AD 600-900 (Photo: Ignacio Guevara Pasaje Mexicano)

Some have suggested it was the product of overpopulation, others of disease or internecine strife, some that it was simply the natural course of an empire’s rise and fall. Projecting our own preoccupations back onto the past, the fashionable theory nowadays is that climate change, brought on by destruction of the rainforests, hastened the Mayan collapse.

In many ways, the Maya tick every box when it comes to the ultimate, ancient civilisation. Built towering pyramids, tick; fought bloody battles, tick; advanced human learning, tick; lived in an exotic, far-away land, tick. Were lost and belatedly rediscovered, had all-powerful leaders, produced art work to marvel at, wrote in a script needing decipherment, collapsed in mysterious circumstances – all that, too.

No wonder they continue to fascinate us. As recently as three years ago, they were making the news again – when Doomsday believers across the globe latched onto an old Mayan prediction that seemed to suggest the world would end in December 2012. Thankfully, we all made it through unscathed, the Mayans actually having predicted the end of a “Baktin” (or 5,125-year time cycle) rather than of life itself.

Which is just as well, because archaeologists in Mesoamerica are still uncovering ruins today, still making discoveries. If the word apocalypse applies at all to the Maya, it’s surely with its literal, original meaning – of “revelation”.

'Mayas: revelation of an endless time' is at the World Museum, Liverpool, from today until Oct 18