An artist's rendering shows the ancient Maya trading city of El Mirador rising from the dense Guatemalan jungle, about 225 miles (360 kilometers) north of modern-day Guatemala City. (Video: See what El Mirador looks like today.
) El Mirador is thought to have partially influenced the look of a fictional city in Mel Gibson's movie Apocalypto.
More than 2,000 years ago workers cut and hoisted thousands of limestone blocks to build the complex's soaring step pyramids, temples, and plazas. These structures were coated with lime stucco and painted with ferric oxide, a bright red pigment made from the mineral hematite. The mineral deterred erosion and, because it resembles blood, symbolized power.
For more than a thousand years the Maya commanded an empire that at times stretched from Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula in the north to Honduras in the south (map of Central and North America
The Maya Empire saw advances in architecture, writing, religion, science, and math. It was also home to a network of densely populated cities like El Mirador.
But for unknown reasons the empire declined after A.D. 900—a collapse fictionalized in Apocalypto.
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Illustration by T.W. Rutledge