History of the Maya
The Maya nation is an homogeneous group of people who have occupied roughly the same territory for thousands of years. They speak some thirty languages that are so similar that linguists believe that they all have the same origin, a proto Mayan language that could be as much as 7000 years old! They will will explain how geographical isolation made the original language evolve towards an eastern branch subdivided into proto-K'iche and Mam and a western branch subdivided into proto-Q'anjob and proto-Tzeltal and how the further division of these sub branches gave rise to the 30 languages spoken today. The in situ evolution of their language implies that they were the original permanent inhabitants of the Maya area and suggests that that today's two million Mayas probably share a very ancient common genetic origin.
That is quite different from the warlike Aztec and Inca nations who invaded their neighbours and absorbed their populations by imposing their language, customs and religion. The Aztecs were a small ambitious "Chichimec" (savage) tribe from the north west who migrated into new lands, absorbed new ideas, evolved further and grew powerful enough to impose their language and gods (Huitzilopochtli), on the indigenous people they conquered. It is the story of outsiders becoming the governing elite of pre-existing populations for a relatively short time. The Incas of Cuzco were also a short lived foreign elite governing a wide variety of pre-existing nations.
The Maya had no centralised political leadership. They developed a common culture by absorbing and developing elements borrowed from their neighbours. The long count calendar, writing with glyphs and the basic tenets of their religion can be traced directly to the Olmecs through Izapa. The Olmec civilisation disappeared before the advent of the Christ but its heritage formed the basis for all other mezoamerican civilisations such as the Monte Alban Zapotec, the great Teotihuacan hegemony, the Tula Toltecs and finally the Aztecs.
The Maya were also influenced by Teotihuacan that controlled the Mexican highlands from the first to the seventh centuries. The Mayan golden age lasted five centuries from 300 to 800 AD. Then, they stopped building temples, declined and became fragmented in competing states that were easy prey for invading forces from the north such as the Toltec which had been expelled from Tula around the end of the 10th century. The Toltecs became the ruling elite of the Maya in the post classic period. Toltec gods were added to the Maya pantheon but the Toltecs were absorbed as they leaned to speak Yucatec Maya.
The Maya were organised in city states, sometimes co-operating, sometimes fighting each other but they shared the same beliefs and deferred to priests who derived power from their knowledge of astronomy, mathematics and numerology. The Maya were very much aware of the passage of time. They recorded some dates on stelae and probably much more in books that are lost now because fanatical Spanish Catholic priests destroyed them to eradicate "pagan beliefs". Retracing the history of the Maya is like finding the solution of a detective novel for we have to rely on whatever clues we can find in what is left of archaeological sites that the Spanish did not plunder or destroy.
There are many unanswered questions about the Maya but the cause of their decline remains the greatest mystery. Their civilisation was not destroyed by an overwhelming outside force. The Olmec suffered the destruction of San Lorenzo around 900 BC and that of La Venta around 600 BC but no such catastrophe befell the Maya. Similarly, Teotihuacan was destroyed by warfare around 700 and so was Tula around 1000 AD but Maya power disintegrated from within. Many hypotheses have been proposed, overpopulation, famine, epidemics, civil disorder... Some of these factors might have played a role in some places but I tend to think that the common people just stopped believing in the dogma the elites were using to establish their power and justify their excesses. Similarly, the disintegration of the Soviet Empire can largely be explained by the excesses of a corrupt elite and the subsequent disbelief in the supremacy of the communist system by the common people.
There are hundreds of known Maya sites spanning two millennia. It can get quite confusing so I built the table below as a quick reference of where some of the more important sites are located (southern highlands, central lowlands and northern lowlands) and the period they are best associated with (pre-classic, classic and post classic). The highlighted sites are linked to one of the pages of this website. The others provide a minimum of information on each site.
I hope this table will help you to get an overall picture of Maya history through its archaeological sites.
Abaj Takalik halfway between Quetzaltenango and the Pacific coast is another significant link between the Olmec culture, modified at Izapa, and the Maya of the southern highlands. Maya styled stela 5 bears the long count date of 126 AD while a pure Olmec style were-jaguar is carved on a nearby boulder.
Altar de Sacrificios
This small site reached its apogee between 613 and 771 when it was the capital of the Rio de la Pasión region in the Petén. The last date recorded here was 910 AD.
Altun Ha (stone water), in Belize was founded in 600 BC and was actively trading with cities in central Mexico and others in the Maya world around 200 BC. The last buildings from that period date from 150 AD. The site was occupied again in the late classic (550 to 800).
In 1968 excavations yielded a nine pound jade head of the Sun God Kinich Ahau which is the largest jade piece ever found in the Maya world..
This early pre-classic site, west of Río Bec in southern Campeche, is famous for its "House of Four Kings" and its magnificent stucco frieze showing masks of monster amphibians.
There is no evidence of sustained large scale warfare between the Maya city-states during the classic period but occasional raiding and prisoner taking did occur. Most cities were situated in terrain vulnerable to attack. Becán (path of the serpent), in southeast Campeche is one of the notable exceptions to this rule as it had a great dry moat 17 feet deep and 50 feet wide dating from the early classic. Teotihuacán vases and figurines of the same epoch found in Becán suggest trade or war involving Becán, Tikal and Teotihuacán.
The late and terminal classic Bonampak (600 to 900), is renowned for its remarkably well preserved frescos depicting richly adorned Maya warriors dominating prisoners and slaves, evidence of the growing gulf between the elite and the common people and of the increasingly important role of warfare in the terminal classic period..
Calakmul in southern Campeche was an important regional capital during the early classic, its influence extending to Petén in the south. It reached its peak between 500 and 850 and re-emerged in 900 only to decline in the 15th century. Its ruins held almost 150 stelae but many of these have been stolen so the history of Calakmul will never be known completely.
Caracol in Belize was inhabited since 300 BC. It reached its peak in 562 AD when it defeated Tikal thereby gaining dominance over Belize and northern Guatemala for a century. It then had a population of 150 000. The principal structure, the "Caana" (Heavenly Palace), is the highest pyramid in Belize (42 metres).
Chakanbakán (surrounded by savannah), in southern Quintana Roo, was built between 300 and 50 BC. It has one of the largest buildings with jaguar masks of the Maya world.
Chiapa de Corzo
The site of Chiapa de Corzo, that has been occupied since 1500 BC, was part of the Olmec zone of influence. It has the further distinction of having yielded the oldest long count date inscribed on stela 2 dated December 9th 36 BC, five years earlier than stela C of Tres Zapotes. It lies at the extreme western limit of the Maya area in central Chiapas, a long way from the original Olmec area.
Cobá (ruffled waters), is a large group of sites built around shallow lakes in northern Quintana Roo and connected by masonry ceremonial causeways (sache), one of which reaches 100 km all the way to Yaxuna, 12km from Chichén Itzá. Related to the Sun god, the site has several large structures up to 42 metres in height, bearing witness to the presence of a large population.
Carbon-14 dating shows that the site of Cuello near Orange Walk in Belize was occupied between 2500 and 2200 BC. Well made pottery found here included jars, bowls and plates decorated with simple incised designs. They constitute the oldest pottery found anywhere in the Maya region.WIDTH="100%">
This huge site, covering 19 square kms in northern Yucatan, was occupied since 1000 BC up to the Spanish conquest. It contains more than 8000 structures of which only a few have been excavated. The most important being the Temple of Seven Dolls oriented such that the sun comes through the door at each equinox.
Edzná, 60 km Southeast of Campeche, was settled from 600 BC to 1500 AD. Most structures are of the classic period Petén style with Puuc influence. The main temple, the 30 metre high Temple of Five Levels features an impressive roof comb of Tikal style.
Ek Balam (black jaguar),20 km north of Valladolid, was the principal centre in eastern Yucatán during the late classic. It featured three massive structures of which the tallest rose to 31 metres. It was fortified with two concentric walls.
The El Baul site is known for its stela 1 showing a Maya warrior with an elaborate head dress held by a chin strap, an early Maya practice. The stela bears the long count date of 36 AD placing El Baul in the late pre classic along with nearby Abaj Takalik.
The small site of El Rey is ideally located for tourists, being close to the beach hotels of Cancun. El Rey was occupied from 300 BC to the Spanish conquest.
El Mirador on the Guatemala - Mexico border in northern Petén is a large Maya site that flourished from 150 BC to 250 AD in the late pre classic. It was a thriving centre of religious, political and economic activity with a well established elite class, a stratified society and spectacular public buildings. It was probably larger than Tikal at its zenith 8 centuries later.
Izamal, 50 km east of Mérida, was the centre for worship of Itzamná, the Mayan supreme god and Kinich-Kakmó the Sun god. The Spanish built a huge Franciscan monastery there to overshadow the two pagan gods.
Founded in 1500 BC Izapa, the largest civic and religious centre on the Pacific plain for a thousand years, absorbed the Olmec culture and transmitted it to the Maya settlements in the southern Guatemala highlands. It is listed here in the non Maya category because the tongue of the ancient inhabitants was Tapachulteco and not Maya but it could also be classified as early pre-classic Maya. Here, the Olmec Long Lipped God is transformed into the Maya rain god Chaac. Izapa is a very large site with 160 pyramids and platforms and some 250 stone monuments including 89 engraved stelae
Kaminaljuyú near Guatemala City saw the development of a truly distinctive Mayan style beginning in the middle pre classic with the exquisite Las Charcas pottery embellished with masks and abstract elements painted red on a white background. More than one hundred pyramids and platforms were erected in Kaminaljuyú's Miraflores phase in the late pre classic. Some of the remaining mounds rose to 65 feet and covered elaborate tombs containing rich funerary offerings that bear witness to the power the Mayan elites had already acquired in pre classic times. Unfortunately, what is left of the site has been partly built over by the expanding suburbs of Guatemala City
Lamanai (submerged crocodile), near Indian Church in Belize, was occupied as early as 1500 BC but the buildings date from 800 to 600 BC. The majority of its 700 structures have yet to be excavated but the largest, the 34 metre N10-43 has been artfully restored. At its apogee the city had 50 000 inhabitants.
La Venta became the centre of Olmec culture after the destruction of San Lorenzo around 900 BC but it was also destroyed violently around 600 BC. Colossal Olmec heads, some weighing up to 24 tons had to be moved 100 km from the quarries where the basalt came from. The Olmec invented the long calendar later used by the Maya, glyph writing, the numeral zero and a system of arithmetic based on 20 instead of our 10. They also invented the were-jaguar,
Female figurines found in La Victoria, not far from Ocós, possibly dating as far back as 1500 BC are thought to be related to a fertility cult. A large 25 feet high mound is thought to have been a temple platform.
Broken water jars uncovered on the edge of a cenote at Mani in Yucatan are earlier than 1000 BC as they are overlaid by typical middle pre classic pottery.
In Yucatan, Uxmal and the Puuc culture was predominant throughout the classic period until 1000, then came the Itza-Toltec hegemony based in Chichén Itzá which lasted until around 1200 and finally it was the turn of Mayapán to rule until it disintegrated into a dozen small kingdoms around 1441.
Monte Alban (white mountain), a few kms west of Oaxaca, was occupied around 500 BC by Zapotecs enriched by the Olmec heritage. It came to dominate the central valleys of the state of Oaxaca by the late pre classic and reached its zenith between 300 and 700 AD as a priest dominated society under the influence of Teotihuacán
Sophisticated ceramics, plates, pots and figurines, found in Ocós, on the Pacific coast of Guatemala near the Mexican border, are evidence of an early civilisation that dates as far back as 1500 BC.
Piedras Negras, a short distance downstream from Yaxchilán on the shores of the Usumacinta river is one of the major sites of the classic period in the western lowlands, ranking with Palenque, Bonampak and Yaxchilán It flourished from 608 to 810 under a succession of brilliant leaders but then rapidly declined.
Quiriguá on the Motagua river in eastern Guatemala is only 50 kms from its arch competitor Copán in Honduras. Quiriguá was a dependency of Copán for most of the classic period until Cauac Sky took King 18 Rabbit of Copán prisoner in 737 and had him beheaded. Quiriguá's buildings are rather ordinary but it is renowned for its immense sandstone stelae one of which is over 11 metres high from root to top. Quiriguá and Copán were among the first Maya sites to be abandoned early in the 9th century, probably subsequently to internal strife.
Río Bec is the name given to a group of 17 small sites in a 50 sq km area Southeast of Xpuhil, that have developed a characteristic style of low buildings with doors made to look like huge serpent mouths and facades decorated with small masks. The Río Bec style dates from around 700 AD.
The first significant civilisation in Mesoamerica arose around 1200 BC on the hot humid plain of the Gulf coast near the Coatzacoalcos river close to the Veracruz - Tabasco border. The earliest site, at San Lorenzo, of the culture that became known as Olmec is a gigantic man made plateau containing 3 million cubic metres of fill, silent testimony of a powerful government capable of directing considerable resources of human labour (50 m high x 700 m wide and 1.2 km long). Ten huge Olmec heads were found there. Around 900 BC the San Lorenzo site was destroyed and the centre of Olmec culture moved to La Venta near the coast, a hundred km to the east. The Olmec disappeared suddenly but they had time to invent major cultural themes that would influence all the mesoamerican cultures that followed.
The earliest signs of civilisation in the Petén were ceramics dated just after 100 AD found at Seibal along with jade objects showing an Olmec influence. Seibal was occupied throughout the classic period and was invaded around 830 by the Putún or Chontal Maya from the Gulf coast known by the Maya as the Itza, "people who speak our tongue poorly". Seibal's last stela is dated 889.
Tenochtitlán had little to do with the Mayas, other than trade relations, but it has to be mentioned considering the importance of the Aztec in this part of the world.
Teotihuacán (place of the gods), was founded early in the first century as a religious centre in a fertile valley 50 km northeast of today's Mexico City where, according to the legend, the gods had met to determine which of them would bring light to the earth that was still dark and lifeless. Two volunteers had approached the sacrificial fire, handsome Tecciztecatl and ugly Nanauatl who jumped in without hesitation and was transformed into a bright sun while Tecciztecatl, who hesitated, was transformed into a pale moon.
The cult of the Sun and the Moon was successful in arousing religious fervour mobilising large populations into building an empire that dominated the central Mexican highlands for more than seven centuries. The 70 m pyramid of the Sun, built in 100 AD is the third largest in the world. Teotihuacán adopted some Olmec memes (elements of Olmec culture) such as the plumed serpent but not the long count calendar. The city grew into a large commercial centre with an extensive trade network and a population reaching 200 000 at its peak in 600 AD.
When Teotihuacán invaded the southern highlands around 400 AD they became a foreign elite and the Mayas in that region adopted the Mexican style and stopped using the long count calendar. By the end of the fifth century the Mexican influence reached as far as Tikal.
By 700 however, Teotihuacán had completely declined. People were still living in and around the city but its elites had lost the power to mobilise them.
Toniná, 14 km east of Ocosingo in Chiapas, has large structures, dating from the late classic, on terraces cut from a hillside. Its claim to fame is to have defeated Palenque around 690 and to have held the last Palenque leader Kan-Xul II prisoner until killing him around 720.
Topoxte is located on an island in the Yaxhá lake 20 km from Tikal. It has two pyramids and a temple dating from the post classic.
The Olmec civilisation was hard hit by the destruction of San Lorenzo (900 BC) and of La Venta (600 BC) but it survived in a weakened state in Tres Zapotes near San Andrés Tuxla in southern Veracruz. An Olmec were-jaguar found there was inscribed with a long count calendar date equivalent to 32 BC in our calendar.
Around 750, the disintegration of the Teotihuacán empire left a vacuum soon to be filled by warlike Toltec - Chichimec tribes from the northwest who energised people already established in the region by adding their fierce god Tezcatlipoca to the existing wise Quetzalcoatl. They built their capital at Tula, 50 km north of Teotihuacán, from which they established a new hegemony in the central plateau that would last from 900 to 1200.
Apparently, followers of the two gods did not get along too well and Quetzalcoatl followers were exiled around 1000 AD. They joined with the Putún Maya (Itza), invaded the northern lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula, learned Yucatec and set themselves up as the new elite of the post classic Maya civilisation.
An elaborate stucco covered 24 foot pyramid discovered under classic period structured at Uaxactún, 20 km north of Tikal, shows that large organised populations existed in the Petén during pre classic times. Uaxactún was occupied throughout the classic period and there is evidence of continued occupation after the collapse of the Maya civilisation around 900. The evolution of temple architecture from open platforms where the ritual activities were visible to all towards elaborate palaces enclosing the ceremonial areas into courtyards hidden from the view of the common people reveals the growth of a powerful elite class isolated from the masses before the abrupt decline of the Mayas.
Xpuhil (place of the cattails), flourished between 400 BC and 1100 AD in the Rio Bec area between Campeche and Quintana Roo in the Yucatan peninsula.. It is famous for the Building of the Three Towers of Río Bec style, built in the late classic.
Yaxchilán on the Usumacinta River in the Lacandon rain forest flourished from 250 to 900 AD. It was the base of the powerful Jaguar dynasty that ruled when the city was at its peak, from 680 to 800. It is renowned for the carved lintels and stelae decorating its 120 structures.
Yaxhá (unchanged over time), features 40 stelae, about 500 structures of which 9 pyramids of more than 40 metres and a complex network of saches. It is located on the shore of the Yaxhá lake 18 km from Tikal.
Zaculeu, three kms from Huehuetenango in the Guatemala highlands flourished from 600 AD onwards in its strategic emplacement well defended by natural barriers formed by deep gullies and the river. Its architecture is strongly reminiscent of structures in Yucatan. It served as refuge for the Mam Maya defending their independence from the Quiché Maya but it finally fell before the invading Spanish led by Gonzalo de Alvaredo in 1525.