As elsewhere, the road to civilization was long and rocky. Beginning around 15,000 years ago (some insist that the proper date is more like 20 to 30 thousand years ago) the earth was in the grips of the last Ice Age. Much of the ocean's water was locked up in the expanded polar ice caps, dropping the level of sea water to 100 to 300 feet below the present level. In the Bering Sea, between modern Alaska and Siberia, the sea was shallow enough that the reduced level of sea water would have resulted in a dry land bridge between the Asian and American continents. The so-called Bering Straits Land Bridge was at times over 1000 miles wide, permitting movement of humans and animals freely from the Old World to the New, and vice-versa. Now at the time there were no human inhabitants in the New World, but there were vast numbers of large game animals such as mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, horses and several varieties of camels (some of which are still around in the form of llamas, alpacas and vicunas).
This remote period, known as the Late Pleistocene, was when the first hunters and gatherers from Siberia colonized the New World. Eventually these nomadic hunters followed the game herds as far south as the tip of South America, where radiocarbon dates have recently established their presence there by 12,500 years ago. Called the Paleo-Indian Period by archeologists, these bands of hunters roamed the continent until around 8,000 B.C.
In Middle America, small bands of nomads began to cultivate certain plants rather than merely collect them. The most important of these seed plants was corn (maize) which permitted the storage of surplus and allowed for the establishment of the first permanent villages by the close of this, the Archaic Period, by 2000 B.C.
The Pre-Classic Period lasted, more or less, allowing for regional variability, from 2000 B.C to 250 A.D. With the spread everywhere of peasant hamlets and simplistic fertility cults the first Mesoamerican civilization established itself within this time-frame, at first with the Olmec and later the Zapotec and Maya. The Olmec, a full-blown civilization by 1200 B.C., were distributed over Mesoamerica from the Pacific Coast of Guatemala to the Gulf Coast of Mexico, and were responsible for the erection of huge carved stone monuments, masks, plaques of jade and the first attempts at a calendar (which has come to be known as the "Maya Calendar"). The Olmecs were not alone in their endeavors. The Zapotec, of the southern Pacific Coast of Mexico began to construct stone monuments to celebrate victories over neighboring chiefdoms, recording the name of the unfortunate victim, the name of his chiefdom and the date of his capture or sacrifice. So the Zapotec, not the Maya , invented writing in Mesoamerica.
The Period that followed is called the Classic Period, 250 to 900 A.D., in the minds of some, the "Golden Age" of Mesoamerican civilization. Dominated in Central Mexico by the great city of Teotihuacan and by the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsular, southern Mexico and Guatemala. It was during this period the Maya reached their zenith, with construction of the great ceremonial centers and the erection of carved stone monuments with the dates of the monuments expressed in the Maya "Long Count." The Classic Period began, as far as archeologists are concerned, with the establishment of a monument at Tikal, dated 292 A.D. and ends with the last such monument found at Uaxactun, dated 889 A.D.
The Post-Classic Period, A.D. 900 to 1521 saw the rapid decline of the Maya civilization followed by intrusions into the Maya World by elements from southern and central Mexico. While it is true the Maya made several attempts to reorganize and re-affirm their leadership, most notably at the large settlement of Mayapan in the Yucatan, they never achieved their former influence. The arrival of the Spanish, of course, extinguished the Post-Classic cultures.
So there it is in a nutshell. The Maya didn't come from outer space, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Africa, Polynesia, China, Norway or New Jersey. Instead their ancestors made the long journey from Siberia to Mesoamerica over many centuries, enduring the uncertainties and hardships of nomadic life until they opted for a more secure lifestyle as farmers. The outgrowth of this sedentary existence was the production of surplus food which freed up some of the more skilled craftsmen to produce things associated with permanent village life, such as pottery, textiles, and canoes that helped exploit food and other resources that enriched their daily lives. The ruins of the great cities and ceremonial centers of the Maya, only now being wrenched from the grip of the jungle, are testimony to their success- and failure.