Clues to Maya Prosperity

Clues to Maya Prosperity

Archaeologist Stephanie Simms analyzes teeth from a human burial found at an ancient hilltop mansion called "Stairway to Heaven." She’s seeking clues about who lived there. Was this the royal palace of a Mayan king?


6 - 12+


Anthropology, Biology, Earth Science, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History

Maya civilization thrived thousands of years ago in present-day Central America. Anthropologists and archaeologists thought Maya culture originated in the northern reaches of what is now Guatemala about 600 B.C.E., and migrated north to the Yucatan Peninsula of present-day Mexico beginning around 700 C.E.

Throughout the film Quest for the Lost Maya, a team of anthropologists discovers the Maya may have been in the Yucatan as far back as 500 B.C.E. This new evidence indicates the Maya of this region had a very complex social structure, distinctive religious practices, and unique technological innovations that made civilization possible in the harsh jungle.

In this segment from Quest for the Lost Maya, archaeologist Stephanie Simms analyzes teeth from a human burial found at an ancient Maya site.

Scientific analysis of teeth can yield valuable data about what life was like for residents of the "Stairway Estate." The 1,200-year-old plaque contains traces of food, evidence of the Maya diet. Analysis of the plaque reveals the Mayan diet was rich and diverse, and included many more plant-based foods than originally predicted. Some of these fruits and vegetables include squash, beans, tree fruit, and chili peppers. Evidence suggests ancient Mayans were skilled cooks who used a wide variety of foods and spices.

The segment also looks at indicators that some of the Maya living at this site may have been the first middle class of the Americas. Many people have a misconception that life for ancient Maya peasants was rough and poor, but this new evidence shows some Maya lived a very comfortable and prosperous existence.

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Hannah Herrero
National Geographic Society
Anne Haywood, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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