The doomed splendor of the Maya unfolded against the backdrop of the rain forests of southern Mexico and Central America. Here, Classic Maya civilization reached improbable heights. To chart a culture whose Preclassic roots reach back 3,000 years, we begin with new evidence suggesting that the arrival of a warlord from central Mexico ushered in an age of magnificence and masterpieces such as the death mask of Palenque's King Pakal. But empires rise only to fall. We conclude with the cascade of catastrophe—natural and man-made—that precipitated the Classic Maya collapse, leaving nature to reclaim the grandeur.
The stranger arrived as the dry season began to harden the jungle paths, allowing armies to pass. Flanked by his warriors, he marched into the Maya city of Waka, past temples and markets and across broad plazas. Its citizens must have gaped, impressed not just by the show of force but also by the men's extravagant feathered headdresses, javelins, and mirrored shields—the regalia of a distant imperial city.
Ancient inscriptions give the date as January 8, 378, and the stranger's name as Fire Is Born. He arrived in Waka, in present-day Guatemala, as an envoy from a great power in the highlands of Mexico. In the coming decades, his name would appear on monuments all across the territory of the Maya, the jungle civilization of Mesoamerica. And in his wake, the Maya reached an apogee that lasted five centuries.