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Cat Statue Jaguar: Icon of Power

View the Mayan TimelineWherever jaguars roamed, they became important deities and icons of power and status in the ancient civilizations of Central and South America. The OWJ expedition to the Yucatán Peninsula is in the land of the ancient Maya, a people who particularly venerated the jaguar, building temples to this Lord of the Underworld, capturing its essence in art, wearing its skins in battle; today some continue to believe that shamans can shape-shift into jaguars.

The ancient Maya developed advanced systems of astronomy and mathematics, an accurate calendar system, extensive trade routes, and a religion dominated by blood sacrifices. Without benefit of metal tools, beasts of burden, or even the wheel, they were still masters of architecture, building elaborate pyramids and sprawling cities. The collapse of these great cities is a mystery only now being explained, but the modern Maya remain tenacious survivors, like the jaguar itself, at the dawn of this new millennium.

The ancient Maya lived in a vast area covering parts of present-day Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and the western areas of Honduras and El Salvador.

From the Pacific Ocean in the south, a narrow strip of coastal lowlands rises to a belt of mountains, active volcanoes, and highlands. Then the terrain drops onto limestone-based, flat lowlands in the central area all the way north to the Gulf of Mexico.

Unlike the later Aztecs, the Maya had no central king ruling a vast empire. Instead, there were as many as 20 politically sovereign polities, similar to ancient Greece city-states. Each major city had its own ruler and noble class supported by tribute received from smaller cities and the surrounding farm villages.

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