The term Maya civilization is used to describe the societies and cities founded by the Maya — the indigenous people of Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America) — before the end of Spanish conquest of the area.
Some historians would say that the Maya civilization came to an end in 1697 when the Spanish attacked the city of Nojpeten, in Itza (in modern-day Guatemala). Others think that the Maya cities had been abandoned long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, and date the end of the Maya civilization to 1524.
Maya is a modern word and it comes from the name of an ancient city in Yucatan called Mayapan. The term Maya was never used by people of southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and western El Salvador to describe themselves at the time. Although they shared some religious beliefs and customs, the indigenous populations lived in separate settlements, spoke different languages, had different rulers, and never banded together to form a single empire.
Although it was traditionally believed that the Maya vanished from the face of the Earth when their civilization came to an end, this is not the case. There are thought to be more than 6 million descendants of the ancient Maya living on the same lands their ancestors did.
The Maya civilization is often praised for the sophisticated writing systems developed during the period, its architecture (particularly the step pyramids), its art, its astronomical symbols and observations, and its calendar.