Pre-Columbian Honduras was populated by a complex mixture of indigenous peoples representing a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and linguistic groups--the most advanced and notable of which were related to the Maya of the Yucatán and Guatemala. Mayan civilization had reached western Honduras in the fifth century A.D., probably spreading from lowland Mayan centers in Guatemala's Petén region. The Maya spread rapidly through the Río Motagua Valley, centering their control on the major ceremonial center of Copán, near the present-day town of Santa Rosa de Copán. For three and a half centuries, the Maya developed the city, making it one of the principal centers of their culture. At one point, Copán was probably the leading center for both astronomical studies--in which the Maya were quite advanced--and art. One of the longest Mayan hieroglyphic inscriptions ever discovered was found at Copán. The Maya also established extensive trade networks spanning as far as central Mexico.
Then, at the height of the Mayan civilization, Copán was apparently abandoned. The last dated hieroglyph in Copán is 800 A.D. Much of the population evidently remained in the area after that, but the educated class--the priests and rulers who built the temples, inscribed the glyphs, and developed the astronomy and mathematics--suddenly vanished. Copán fell into ruin, and the descendants of the Maya who remained had no memory of the meanings of the inscriptions or of the reasons for the sudden fall.
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