It is a story still unfolding….
The expiration of the Mayan calendar created a lot of interest, until the world did not end on Dec 12, 2012. As a set of cultures and languages the Mayans have been around since at least 1000 BC, but certainly much longer than that. Who they are depends on the language that they speak and that is likely to be primarily one of the 20-plus versions found in the area comprised of the Yucatan and Belize, Chiapas, all of Guatemala, parts of Honduras and El Salvador. Surprisingly (to a novice), facial appearance is highly variable among groups of Mayans and reportedly can vary from village to village. Candyman was Qui'che from the central-east part of the country.
Like all Indigenous in the Americas, the Maya were decimated by Europen diseases, slavery and warfare. Best estimates are that people who (a) claim to be indigenous and, (b) who speak the language, and (c) wear traditional clothing, constitute about 50% of the Guatemalan population. It is the “claiming” that is essential here. Non-Indian Guatemala is comprised primarily of mestizos, called “Ladino” in Guatemala, and it is physically imposible to specify ethnicity simply from physical features. DNA testing is of little help since lifestyle and claiming “Ladino-ness” is all that is required to make the switch.
Historically the Maya have been the largest proportion of Guatemala’s population. Their sheer size may have been perceived by successive Ladino-led governments as a latent threat. Whether that is true or not, ruling Guatemala developed into a oligarchy of landowners. These were sometimes large corporations (E.G. United Fruit-now Chiquita Brands) but just as often they were a few families who constituted the country’s decision-makers. No surprise, their decisions rarely incorporated living wages and land distribution to the Indigenous. The Maya survived largely off bean patches, the near mythical “milpa” or corn patch with occassional fruit, chicken and green vegetables. A nutritionist friend, Bob Stickney has worked in Central and South America, including Guatemala. His view is that the complete protein resulting from the combination of corn and beans, supplemented by a few other food products was sufficient for survival. IF, enough food was available. It was lack of ability to grow subsistence level food, among other injustices, that fueled the Indigenous support of the leftist rebels.
Mayan religion, and especially its syncretization with Christianity, is an interesting story…for another time.