Thanks to my friend Frank for showing me this amazing story about the application of geotechnologies to research in anthropology. As reported in the New York Times, University of Central Florida researchers Arlen and Diane Chase have used low-level, high-resolution remote sensing to map a Mayan village in Belize. By combining mapping technology with their own extensive field work, they were able to verify that the ancient city of Caracol was, indeed, as large and complex as they had previously postulated.
This work is important, not only from an intellectual point of view, but from a human-rights perspective. The Spanish Conquest killed 90 percent of the Maya of (what is now) southern Mexico and northern Central America, and setting the stage for centuries of abusive treatment. In some sense, the complexity of what came before should not influence how the devastation is viewed, but in another sense, it does seem to show just how profound was the loss.
These days, the Maya are best known for their elaborate calendars, because of their role in the movie 2012 (which I confess I have not yet seen). The Mayan Timeline outlines the complex changes in Mayan civilizations over the centuries prior to and since the Conquest. It also helps to locate the Mayans in comparison to other indigenous civilizations that were or are found in Middle America.
Mayan civilization can still be found in the region, in varying forms and degrees. The most notable modern Mayan is probably the author and Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú, whose helped end the brutal civil war in Guatemala. Her lesser-known achievements include helping to bring Dean Cycon into the coffee business -- read his book Javatrekker to learn more about that connection and about the lives of some contemporary Mayans.