Generally speaking, the Maya were a lowland people, inhabiting the Atlantic coast plains of southern Mexico and northern Central America. The southern part of this region is abundantly watered by a network of streams, many of which have their rise in the Cordillera, while the northern part, comprising the peninsula of Yucatan, is entirely lacking in water courses and, were it not for natural wells called cenotes, would be uninhabitable. This condition in the north is due to the geologic formation of the peninsula, a vast plain underlain by limestone through which water quickly percolates to subterranean channels.
In the south the country is densely forested, though occasional savannas break the monotony of the tropical jungles. The rolling surface is traversed in places by ranges of hills, the most important of which are the Cockscomb Mountains of British Honduras; these attain an elevation of 3,700 feet. In Yucatan the nature of the soil and the water-supply not being favorable to the growth of a luxuriant vegetation, this region is covered with a smaller forest growth and a sparser bush than the area farther southward.
The climate of the region occupied by the Maya is tropical; there are two seasons, the rainy and the dry. The former lasts from May or June until January or February, there being considerable local variation not only in the length of this season but also in the time of its beginning.
Deer, tapirs, peccaries, jaguars, and game of many other kinds abound throughout the entire region, and doubtless formed a large part of the food supply in ancient times, though formerly corn was the staple, as it is now.
There are at present upward of twenty tribes speaking various dialects of the Maya language, perhaps half a million people in all. These live in the same general region their ancestors occupied, but under greatly changed conditions. Formerly the Maya were the van of civilization in the New World, but to-day they are a dwindling race, their once remarkable civilization is a thing of the past, and its manners and customs are all but forgotten.