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Maya: The Exhibition

Maya the Exhibition I: Daily Life & New Discoveries is the first of two virtual field trips. In Maya I, discover the agricultural innovations the Maya used to build cities in a rainforest, the factors that led to the collapse of the Classic Maya population, and how the society transformed to survive today.

This exhibit is a cooperation with Museums Partner and Patrimonio Natural y Cultural, supported by the Ministry of Culture and Sports in Guatemala. Lenders of the objects are “The National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology" and "The Ruta Maya Foundation" in Guatemala.

Maya: The Exhibition - Video
Adventure Roadmap


Immerse yourself in the genius of the Maya, an urban civilization that grew from the tropical rainforest. At the height of this civilization, the Maya lowlands were the most densely populated region on the globe. How did they create such an empire, why did it decline and how does it live on today in the millions who carry on Mayan languages and traditions?

Join Cincinnati Museum Center and researchers from the University of Cincinnati and University of Bonn to study Maya agriculture, engineering and power structures through stunning artifacts and intriguing finds.


The ancient Maya lived deep within the tropical rainforest, which provided food, medicine and building materials. The forest also shaped Maya identity. Discover how the Maya utilized the forest and developed new forms of agriculture to feed their growing population. 


Why did the Maya abandon their lowland cities? Observe how community conflict, climate change and environmental damage led to the rise of a new civilization. 


Breakthroughs from University of Cincinnati and University of Bonn researchers reveal details about how ancient Maya people perceived the world around them and managed their land, forest and water resources.


Maya culture lives on. “Kawinaq,” they say. “We are still here.” See how the Maya retain a strong sense of identity and culture in our globalized world. 

Meet the Experts Guiding your Virtual Trip!


Dr. Nikolai Grube

University of Bonn, Germany

Dr. Nicholas Dunning

University of Cincinnati, Ohio

Dr. David Lentz

University of Cincinnati, Ohio

Dr. Sarah Jackson

University of Cincinnati, Ohio

Dr. Christopher Carr

University of Cincinnati, Ohio

Mariana Vázquez Alonso

PhD Candidate, University of Cincinnati, Ohio

Rebecca Nava

Artist and Educator

Héctor Rolando Xol Choc

Linguist - Q’eqchi’ speaker

Maya Timeline
Life in a Tropical Rainforest


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The ancient Maya lived deep within the tropical rainforest, which was a source of food, medicine and building materials. The forest also shaped Maya identity. Villages grew into large cities, each with a royal palace at its heart. The Maya built artificial lakes to collect water. With this infrastructure, combined with household gardens that produced food inside the cities, as many as 100,000 people could live in one place.

Think of a major city and imagine all the things its citizens require. Every day they need food, water and shelter – and these things take work to maintain. Nobles and members of the rising middle class managed this work; traders, artisans and warriors helped and prospered. As populations grew, so did the cities. The Maya needed more and more land to supply people’s needs. They expanded their cities into the wild, building farther and farther into the surrounding rainforests.

Building Reservoirs


The Maya developed new forms of agriculture. They created terraced fields on hilly terrain. They set low stone walls into the sides of hills to prevent erosion and keep fertile soil in place. These terraced fields increased the yield of maize and allowed the Maya to grow cotton and other crops.

The Maya built channels between periodically flooded swamps to water crops. This helped them harvest several times each year. They also turned abandoned quarries into farming plots. When massive limestone blocks were removed for building projects, fertile soil and water accumulated. The Maya used this land to grow plants – such as cacao, the tree used to make chocolate – that needed nutrient-rich soil.

Reservoir Perspectives - Video
Temples and Reservoirs - Video
The Maya and Reservoirs - Video


The Maya landscape was far from ideal for growing food, yet the Maya were able to provide balanced nutrition for millions of people. First, they had to choose and clear a site, and then leave it to dry over winter. In spring, the farmer would burn the dried site so that the fire’s ashes could mix with rainwater and fertilize the thin tropical soil. Careful timing was crucial: a fire set too late might be extinguished by the first rain, but ash from a fire set too early might be carried away by the wind.

The Maya put certain plants together to improve soil chemistry and use their space wisely. Planting corn, beans and squash together helps each plant grow: the cornstalk becomes a pole for bean and squash vines, bean plants give soil the nitrogen it needs and the squash plant’s broad leaves provide shade to help the soil retain moisture. Maize – or corn – was more than a crop for the Maya people.

They had a deep love for the maize plant and the maize god, who was always portrayed as a beautiful young man with long hair. They might also grow different types of beans, squash, sweet potatoes, yucca, jicama and chilies. To supplement what they farmed, the Maya collected honey and medicinal plants, extracted fibers from palm and kapok trees, pressed oil from nuts and ate wild fruits from the nearby rainforest.

After securing their nutritional needs, the Maya grew cacao – the base plant for chocolate – as a luxury food. They used cacao beans to season foods and make chocolate drinks, improving the raw bitter taste with chili powder, vanilla and maize. The Maya served liquid chocolate at weddings, funerals and royal occasions – often in elaborately decorated cups that expressed the hosts’ wealth and status. Chocolate became so valuable that the Maya even used cacao beans as a form of currency.

As their population grew, the Maya developed new forms of farming to feed more people. They terraced fields to grow more food, maintain healthier soil and grow cotton and other cash crops. Today, we can still see the remains of these terraces in the Maya lowlands – and farmers still use the Maya’s agricultural innovations.

Agricultural Methods - Video
Maya Crops - Video
Agriculture - Gallery Exploration One
Agriculture - Gallery Exploration Two
Agriculture - Gallery Exploration Three


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The Maya planted luxury crops, such as cacao, for consumption and trade, which they used to grow their economy. The lowlands were fragmented into several competing small states. The Maya packed trade goods into baskets and backpacks, traveling the rainforest trails on foot. They paddled canoes down rivers and along coastlines. In this way, they established extensive trade networks that connected the Maya lowlands with the highlands of Guatemala, the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Trade - Gallery Exploration One
Trade - Gallery Exploration Two
Trade - Gallery Exploration Three
Trade - Gallery Exploration Four
Decline and Rise


Maya culture prospered during the Classic Period, 250-800 CE. During times of peace and prosperity, the arts and sciences flourished. The Maya grew their understanding of the world around them, becoming skilled at mathematics and astronomy. Kings were no longer mere mortals—they had become divine beings with supernatural powers.

But the peaceful times were disrupted by war after war. Rulers fought over trade routes and natural resources for their growing populations. Cities rose and fell. By 700 CE, the entire Maya world was governed by two superpower cities—Tikal and Calakmul. When these powers collapsed, too, this golden age came to an end.

The Great Collapse


Prolonged warfare destroyed a social and government structure that had been effective for millennia. When cities fell, the Maya were left without governments or reliable sources of food, water or work. Around 800 CE, climate change brought long periods of drought, and populations began to starve. Research from the University of Cincinnati has discovered that water sources were also contaminated. When people left Tikal and Calakmul for the more fertile northern lowlands, the jungle reclaimed their massive stone cities.

From around 800 CE onward, large parts of the Maya population moved from the lowlands to areas less affected by conflicts. Many people fled to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, where they mingled with the local population. The city of Chichen Itza became the most powerful metropolis of the early Post-Classic period.

In the 16th century, the arrival of Europeans introduced new religions, brought diseases like smallpox and flu, for which the Maya had no immunity; and the result was a dramatic decrease in population. By beginning of the 17th century, only 10% to 15% of the pre-Columbian population survived.

The Great Collapse - Video
The Great Collapse - Gallery Exploration One
The Great Collapse - Gallery Exploration Two
The Great Collapse - Gallery Exploration Three