The Ancient Maya lived in basically the same area that the modern Maya live today.
Although hunter gatherers can be traced to Mesoamerica as early as 10-12k years ago, the origin of the Maya cultural tradition begins in the Archaic (8000 - 2000 B.C.E) period, when people began to settle in small farming villages and domesticating plants like Tomatoes, Corn, Beans, Squash, Chiles, and Chocolate. Imagine what cuisine would be like without Mesoamerica's contributions!
In the Formative period (2000 B.C.E - C.E. 200), villages become larger and connections between them become more complex. By 400 B.C.E, villages are more like cities and some of the largest pyramids in all of the Americas were constructed in the Peten region of Guatemala at that time (google sites like El Mirador and Nakbe).
Most of these "Preclassic" cities are impressive and contain iconographic symbols and architecture that carry on into what we call the Classic (C.E. 200 - 900). The basic difference between the Late Preclassic and Early Classic is that hieroglyphic writing becomes prominent in the Classic period and is found throughout the Maya region.
Some of you may ask "Hey, if the Maya spoke many mutually unintelligible languages, how did they have one writing system?"
I say, good question. In fact, the writing system used a language that only the elites shared, sort of like Latin during Roman and Medieval times.
Mayan hieroglyphic writing is what epigraphers refer to as "Logosyllabic", which means it contains symbols that represents words and also linguistic elements. The diagram above demonstrates this by showing many different ways in which the word Balam (Jaguar) was written. You see the first example is simply the drawing of a Jaguar face. The last example shows the same word written in the Maya syllabury, which is similar to an alphabet.
It took many years for Maya Epigraphers to "crack" the Maya code, and Michael Coe has written an excellent book telling the story if you are interested.
Today there are textbooks written that teach you how to read and write Maya script.
In the classic period, Maya hieroglyphic writing is mostly found on stone monuments like the one depicted below, which have been recovered from hundreds of sites.
These monuments contain a carved image of a ruler or king on the front, and hieroglyphs and calendrical dates on the side. Most of these monuments tell us the life histories of these important kings. When they were born, when they were crowned, who they conquered and when, the dedications of temples, etc ...
Other places where we find examples of Maya writing and the calendar are painted ceramic vessels from the Classic period and books that we call Codices. The codices were made on bark paper or deer skin and we only have 3 or 4 left. (Three confirmed and the fourth's authenticity still questioned by some scholars). We know that the Maya had many more books, but the Spanish missionaries burned them.
The three codices that are available for study are all in Europe. They were sent there by individual conquistadors. The Maya calendar is used extensively in these condices in the form of astronomical tables and almanacs.
In all of the examples we have found to date, more than 300 stone monuments, three long books with all kinds of calendrical info, and the vast corpus of painted ceramics, there is only one example of the 21 December 2012 date. JUST ONE!!!
It comes from a monument found at the site of Tortuguero in Tabasco. The stone basically chronicles the achievements of a ruler there. Telling us about his birth, his rule, his many exploits. Then, at the very end they add in some crazy dates. The first dates go back in time several thousand years (to before the beginning of the Maya long count) and the last date written is 21 Dec 2012. The hieroglyphic writing accompanying these dates connect the king to mythical time and one particular Maya God (Bolon Yokte) who was a key player in the creation of the world. Clearly this is an effort to immortalize the king. The text makes no prophecy, but says there will be a ceremony on that date. Sorry, no end of the world scenario.
We do know that they Maya did actually make many prophecies. Some are contained in the surviving codices. These involve predicting the motions of the sun, the moon, and venus. In particular, the Maya appeared to be very wary of eclipses, as they developed a very accurate table to predict eclipse events and the images appear to be dramatic. They do not, however, connect 21 Dec 2012 to an eclipse period. Also, venus first appearance as morning star appears to have been a scary time for the Ancient Maya based on their extremely accurate predictive table in the Dresden Codex.
We also have the books of the Chilam Balam (jaguar's mouth) from several communities that were written in the early colonial period in Spanish. These books do contain many prophecies that are connected to the Katun cycle of 7200 days, which is roughly 20 years. This is comparable to our decade, and the Maya considered events that occurred in these decades to be cyclical. For example, if there was a war in the 1930s, then there probably would be a war in the 2030s. Although some of the predictions are dire, not one of them is related to 21 December 2012.
One last note, the Ancient Maya recorded a date much later than 21 Dec 2012. In the tomb chamber of Pakal at the site of Palenque, they recorded at date that corresponds to the year C.E. 4772, some 2700 years from now. So, I guess they thought the world would still be around then to celebrate Pakal's anniversary. Therefore, it is doubtful they thought the world would end tomorrow.
Sorry folks. I hope these essays were enjoyable. Have a great solstice.