Without knowing it, many Americans are already familiar with Mayan designs. This is because Mayan decorative motifs were a major element in the art deco buildings constructed in significant American cities during the 1920s and 1930s. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was heavily influenced by Mayan design. Among the best-known surviving Mayan-influenced buildings in the U.S. are the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles, the Fisher Building in Detroit and the Giacomo, originally known as the United Office Building, in Niagara Falls, New York.
Many of the architects never actually visited the Yucatán but instead discovered the designs through the writings of explorer John Lloyd Stephens and the illustrations of Frederick Catherwood in their famous book, “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan,” which was published in 1841. Exploring on behalf of President Martin Van Buren, the pair were astonished by the beauty and sophistication of Mayan civilization and the structures it had left behind at sites such as Mayapán, Uxmal, Kabah, Labná, Sayil, Xtampak, Chichen Itza, Tulum and Izamal.
Today, a visit to one or more of these sites is a highlight of any trip to the Yucatán. Though the exact origins of the Mayan people remain a mystery, they began to settle in the region between 2600 B.C. and 1800 B.C. However, the Mayan empire flourished between A.D. 250 and A.D. 900, when large-scale construction projects of astonishing sophistication took place. And then it all stopped, due to circumstances that remain enigmatic. Between A.D. 800 and A.D. 900, Mayan civilization went into steep decline. Cities were abandoned, and the population fell precipitously. Many theories have been advanced to explain this collapse, but one likely cause was a rapidly growing population that demanded levels of food production that Mayan farming methods were unable to meet.
When the Spanish arrived, the surviving Mayans resisted them fiercely, and uprisings occurred often. These continued after Mexico gained independence in 1810. One of the most significant is now known as the Caste War of Yucatán, which lasted from 1847 to 1901. The war is still commemorated in towns throughout the Yucatán. Today, it is estimated that around 2 million of the Yucatán’s population of 4.5 million are ethnic Mayans.