This is by far the most comprehensive book about the ancient Maya. There are several excellent shorter ones; this is the go-to book for thorough reference. It has become almost as "classic" as Maya civilization. Sharer reminisces about being "hooked on" Maya studies by the third edition (by Morley and Brainerd, 1956); so was I, back when it was newly minted. How much has changed since. Scholars can now read Maya. We now can match written history, sculptured portrayals, and archaeological findings to identify the actual skeletons of some of the greatest and most famous Maya kings, such as Yax K'uk' Mo' of Palenque. We have entire dynastic lists covering centuries, for many of the major cities. We can use bone chemistry to find out what the Maya ate. All of this was almost beyond the wildest dreams of the 1950s.
The Maya turn out to have been as brilliant, original and creative as anyone ever thought, a truly homemade civilization, one of the few in a tropical forest environment. They are said to have "collapsed" due to ecological maladjustment, but this book notes that modern research shows the civilization lasted well over 1,000 years before the "collapse" around 900 AD, and it was a fairly local phenomenon. This local collapse was due to drought, warfare, and some ecological overshoot--too many people doing too much (including burning too many trees to make lime for stucco and cement). The Maya kept on. They took on the Spanish and often won. The last independent state held out till 1697, and Maya continued holding out in remote backlands; in 1846 the Mexican Maya rebelled again, and created an independent state, finally reconquered after 1900 and turned into the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. As for what has happened since, suffice it to say that 3 days ago I saw an election sign painted in huge letters on a wall in central Quintana Roo: "PRESERVE YOUR PRIDE IN BEING MAYA!"
There are very few errors in this book, but some need correcting in the 7th edition. Most are in the very early sections, and are often left over from previous editions. Page 5, 16th-century Europeans are said to be "secure in the knowledge that they alone represented civilized life...." No, they revered China, and knew plenty about India, Persia and Arabia. P. 9, coffee is said to have come "soon" with the Europeans; not till the 19th century, at least as a major crop. 23, Nahuatl loanwords reflecting rise of central Mexico in the Postclassic: Well, a lot of those Nahuatl loanwords came with the Spanish (who had Nahuatl soldiers with them). Page 33, caiman: The book confuses the animal called "caiman" in English, an alligator-like creature not found within hundreds of miles of Mayaland, with the crocodile, which is called "caiman" in Mexican Spanish; also, pythons are claimed as native to Mayaland! The nearest they get is Africa; evidently "boa constrictors" are meant. Then nothing till page 640, where a typo (apparently two decimal places missed) has given us a preposterous yield figure for beans (in the table at the top of the page). The yields of maize are also pretty high, though not ridiculous. There are a few other errors in the book, but nothing of consequence that I can pick up.
The book uses the "new" transcription system for Maya languages, but sometimes slips and uses the "old" system, and sometimes mixes them up in the same word (e.g. "dz'onot" on p. 52). One related annoyance--not Sharer's fault; alas, it is becoming standard--is respelling "Yucatec" in the new transcription system. "Yucatec" is a SPANISH word, with no excuse in Maya, and should not be respelled. (For the record, the Spanish coined "Yucatec" from a misunderstood Maya phrase and a Nahuatl ending. They also popularized some Nahuatl ethnic names for Maya peoples. These names, like Huastec and Aguacatec, should be spelled in whatever system in now standard for Nahuatl--not in a Maya system. Better yet, they should be replaced with the actual Mayan names, like Teenek for Huastec.)
The one place I would respectfully disagree with this book is on ancient Maya population. Sharer has "tens of millions" of Maya in the 700s AD and around then. On the basis of some years of field experience with (mostly modern) Maya agriculture, I don't think this is possible. Granted that the old myth of purely-swidden agriculture is long dead, "tens of millions" would require agricultural intensity of a sort found, in preindustrial times, only in the wet-rice lands of east and southeast Asia. Mayaland is small, and only some of it is at all fertile. Sharer's evidence is a couple of surveys showing high densities of settlement in particularly favored areas; not only are they atypical, there is no guarantee the houses discovered were all occupied at once. I would guess the peak total for Mayaland was between 5 and 10 million; at least, the agriculture I know would support that many, if it had some additional intensification of the sort well documented. Beyond that, all is speculative.
One more thought. The Maya were supposed to be "peaceful" back in my student days. Then, with reading the Classic Period texts, scholars found they were pretty warlike. This led to some exaggeration the other way. Fortunately, Sharer is far too careful and comprehensive a scholar to fall for either the "peaceful" or the "warlike" view. The "warlike" view was justified by the big monuments in the Maya city squares. These commemorated wars and victories, just as do those in town squares in the midwestern US. Alas, we lack the ordinary writings--the equivalent of midwestern newspapers, with their record of marriages, births, corn and hog prices, store openings, and the like. Surely the Maya had their equivalents. What interests me here is the incredibly long life spans of Maya kings. Many lived, and even reigned, for 50, 60, even 70 years. Compare that with the Roman or Chinese emperors or the kings of France. Clearly, Mayaland in its glory days was a pretty peaceful, healthy place--though, indeed, not the paradise dreamed by romantic archaeologists of the early 20th century!
The ancient Maya are still a pretty mysterious lot in many ways, and there is a huge amount to learn. We had better do it soon. Sharer provides a long, excellent, very disturbing account of the looting that has destroyed much of the Maya heritage and will destroy all of it (at least in Guatemala) if a massive effort isn't mounted soon.
On the other hand, nothing is more heartening than the number of Maya who are becoming archaeologists and ethnographers, and studying their own past. More power to them.