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Early Representations

Maya settlements appeared in Mesoamerica as early as 1800 BC. In the era known as the Classic Period (250–909 AD), Maya built extraordinary city centers, such as Tikal, Copán, and Palenque. However, at the end of this period, many were abandoned for unknown reasons.

In the late eighteenth century, Josef Estachería, president of Guatemala’s Audiencia Real, received word of a large ruined city in the Chiapan jungle. Early reports that he commissioned were poorly executed, so in 1787 Estachería dispatched Captain Antonio del Río and artist Ricardo Almendáriz to Palenque.

Their written report and drawings, as well as actual artifacts, were sent to Madrid. In 1822, a year after Mexican independence, an English translation of Río’s report was published in London, with prints after the drawings. In 1810, Alexander von Humboldt had published the first view of Palenque in his Vues des Cordillères.

European interest in ancient civilizations had been intensified by excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy and Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, which resulted in the magnificent multi-volume publication Description de l’Égypte. In particular, the discovery of the Mayan hieroglyphic writing system in the New World resonated with the contemporaneous decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics by Jean François Champollion. 

Informed by their knowledge of Old World ancient cultures, many Europeans had trouble seeing a connection between the ancient and the living Maya. Some nineteenth-century explorers believed that non-Mesoamerican people had built the Maya cities, and many scholars could not consider the possibility of a relationship between the ancient Mayan glyphs and the modern Mayan languages.