Guatemala Feature


A Mayan Primer


The Preclassic (circa 3000 BC to AD 250) period was influenced by the Olmec, a civilization centered on the Gulf Coast of present-day Mexico. During this period cities began to take root, especially in the Guatemala and neighboring Belize lowlands. It's at this time that Takalik Abaj in the Pacific lowlands and Naranjo in the Petén were first settled.

By the Late Preclassic (circa 300 BC to AD 250) period, the Maya had developed an advanced mathematical system, an impressively precise calendar, and one of the world's five original writing systems.

During the Classic (circa 250 BC to AD 900) period, Mayan artistic, intellectual, and architectural achievements excelled. Vast city-states were connected by a large number of paved roadways, some of which still exist today. The great cities of Tikal and Quiriguá, along with Copán, just across the border in Honduras, were just a few of the powerful centers that controlled the Classic Mayan world.

The single largest unsolved mystery about the Maya is their rapid decline during the Terminal Classic (AD 800 to 900) period and the centuries following. Scholars have postulated that climate change, pandemic disease, drought, stresses in the social structure, overpopulation, deforestation, and changes in the trade routes could have been responsible. Nevertheless, smaller communities at Ceibal, Nakúm, and El Baúl were thriving during this period.

The Maya of the Postclassic (AD 900 to early 1500s) period were heavily affected by growing powers in central Mexico. Architecture, ceramics, and carvings from this period show considerable outside influence. Although still dramatic, Postclassic cities such as Chichén Itzá and Uxmal pale in comparison to their Classic predecessors. The period in what is now Guatemala was marked by a slow migration to the highlands. By the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, the Maya were scattered, feuding, and easy to conquer.

Key Dates

Note: Most of the dates are approximate, and some are disputed.



Date of the creation of the world, or according to the Long Count calendar


Early Olmec and Mayan civilizations thought to have begun


Olmec writing system developed


Tikal established


First written Mayan language


First Mayan calendars carved in stone


First monumental buildings erected at Tikal and El Mirador



Copán established


Tikal becomes leading city-state, with population of perhaps 200,000


Accession of Caan Chac begins Tikal's period of military dominance


Accession of Smoke Jaguar begins Copán's golden age


Accession of Ah-Cacao begins Tikal's golden age


Accession of 18 Rabbit begins four decades of Copán's regional military dominance


Quiriguá defeats Copán


Tikal abandoned


Classic period of Mayan history ends


Maya civilization in decline, many cities abandoned


Copán abandoned


Spanish arrive in Yucatán peninsula, Mexico, and begin conquest of Maya


Diseases introduced from Europe cause death of majority of Maya


Spanish conqueror Pedro de Alvarado subjugates most Mayan communities in the Guatemalan highlands


Tikal ruins rediscovered by Spanish


Spanish abolish encomienda system of forced Mayan labor


Copán ruins rediscovered


Quiriguá ruins rediscovered


Early archaeological work begins at Tikal, by Alfred Maudslay


Aviator Charles Lindbergh's flights instrumental in mapping El Petén and pinpointing location of ruins


William Coe and others begin excavations at Tikal


Guatemala's 36-year civil war causes massive displacement of Mayan communities in the highlands and Verapaces


War's "scorched earth" campaign targets certain Mayan communities for destruction


Rediscovery of Copán's Rosalila Temple


Rigoberta Menchú, a Maya woman, wins Nobel Peace Prize


Signing of peace accords ends war, eliminates army's role in domestic security, and gives co-official status to 21 Mayan languages


Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, set in a crumbling Mayan civilization, and with actors speaking Yucatec Maya, was filmed in Veracruz


The end of the world, in the Long Count calendar

History in Brief

Theories abound about the origin of the name Guatemala, but the prevailing consensus is that the word means "land of the trees" in one of the original Proto-Mayan languages. The name is apt. Guatemala's forested lowlands provided a fertile home for the region's Maya for centuries. On the topic of names, the original names of most of Guatemala's Mayan sites have been lost to history. Archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries routinely gave their rediscoveries new monikers. Uaxactún in El Petén is perhaps the most extreme case: its pronunciation (wah-shak-TOON) is thought to be a play on the name of Washington, D.C., the home of the Carnegie Institution, which funded the original expedition there. Call it inertia, but the new names have stuck.

Anthropologists believe that humans from Asia crossed a land bridge, in what is now the Bering Strait in Alaska, into North America more than 25,000 years ago. Gradually these Paleoindians, or "Old Indians," whose ancestors probably were Mongoloid peoples, made their way down the continent, establishing Native American or First Nation settlements in what is now the United States and Canada. Groups of them are thought to have reached Mesoamerica, which includes much of central Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, around 20,000 to 22,000 years ago.

These early peoples were hunter-gatherers. The Olmec civilization, considered the mother culture of later Mesoamerican civilizations including that of the Maya, arose in central and southern Mexico 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. The Olmecs developed the first writing system in the New World, dating from at least 900 BC. They also had sophisticated mathematics and created complex calendars. The Olmecs built irrigation systems to water their crops.

As long ago as around 3000 BC—the exact date is in question and has changed as archaeologists have made new discoveries—the Maya began to settle in small villages in the region. They developed an agriculture based on the cultivation of maize (corn), squash, and other fruits and vegetables. What would become the great city-states of the region, including Tikal in El Petén, were first settled around 900 to 700 BC.

Two or three centuries before the time of Christ, several Mayan villages grew into sizeable cities. The Maya began to construct large-scale stone buildings at Tikal and elsewhere. Eventually, Tikal, Copán, in Honduras, and other urban centers each would have thousands of structures—palaces, temples, residences, monuments, ball courts, even prisons. Although the Maya never had the wheel, and thus no carts or wagons, they built paved streets and causeways, and they developed crop-irrigation systems.

At its height, in what is known as the Classic period (250 BC to AD 900), the Mayan civilization consisted of about 50 cities, much like ancient Greek city-states. Each had a population of 5,000 to 100,000 or more. Tikal, the premier city in the region, may have had 200,000 residents in and around the city during its heyday. The peak population of the Mayan civilization possibly reached 2 million or more.

Mayan culture put a heavy emphasis on religion, which was based on a pantheon of nature gods, including those of the sun, moon, and rain. The Mayan view of life was cyclical, and Mayan religion strove to accommodate human life to the cycles of the universe.

Contrary to what scholars long believed, however, Mayan society had many aspects beyond religion. Politics, the arts, business, and trade were all important and dynamic aspects of Mayan life. Dynastic leaders waged brutal wars on rival city-states. Under its ruler Lord Smoke Ahau, Caracol, the largest city-state in Belize, conquered Tikal in AD 562, and less than a hundred years later, conquered another large city, Naranjo (also in El Petén).

The Maya developed sophisticated mathematics. They understood the concept of zero and used a base-20-numbering system. Astronomy was the basis of a complex Mayan calendar system involving an accurately determined solar year (18 months of 20 days, plus a 5-day period), a sacred year of 260 days (13 cycles of 20 days), and a variety of longer cycles culminating in the Long Count, based on a zero date in 3114 BC, or—the date that the Maya believed was the beginning of the current cycle of the world.

The Mayan writing system is considered the most advanced of any developed in Mesoamerica. The Maya used more than 800 "glyphs," small pictures or signs, paired in columns that read from left to right and top to bottom. The glyphs represent syllables and, in some cases, entire words, that can be combined to form any word or concept. There is no Mayan alphabet. Mayan glyphs can represent either sounds or ideas, or both, making them difficult to accurately interpret. The unit of the writing system is the cartouche, a series of 3 to 50 glyphs, the equivalent of a word or sentence in a modern language.

As in most societies, it's likely that the large majority of the Maya spent much of their time simply trying to eke out a living. In each urban area the common people lived in simple thatch dwellings, similar to those seen in the region today. They practiced a slash-and-burn agriculture. Farmers cleared their small plots by burning the bush, then planting maize, squash, sunflowers, and other crops in the rich ash. After two or three years, when the soil was depleted, the plot was left fallow for several years before it could be planted again.

Beginning around AD 800, parts of the Mayan civilization began to decline. In most areas the decline didn't happen suddenly, but over decades and even centuries, and it took place at different times. For example, the cities in the northern lowlands of Mexico's Yucatán, such as Chichén Itzá, flourished for several more centuries after Tikal and Copán were abandoned.

Scholars still debate the reasons for the decline. Climatic change, lengthy droughts, overpopulation, depletion of arable land, social revolutions by the common people against the elites, epidemics, and the impact of extended periods of warfare all have been put forth as reasons. It may well have been a combination of factors, or there may have been different causes in different regions.

Whatever the reasons, the Mayan civilization never regained its Classic-period glory. By the time the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, only a few of the Mayan cities, mainly in the highlands of Guatemala, were still thriving. Most of the great cities and trading centers, including Tikal and Copán, had long been abandoned.

Seeking gold and other plunder, the Spanish began their conquest of the Maya in the 1520s. Some Mayan states offered fierce resistance, and the last Mayan kingdom, in Mexico, was not vanquished until almost 1700. There was one enemy against which the Maya were defenseless: European disease. Smallpox, chicken pox, measles, flu, and other infectious diseases swept through the Mayan settlements. Scientists believe that within a century, nearly 90% of the Maya had been wiped out by "imported" diseases. Mayan resistance to European control continued from time to time. In 1847 indigenous Maya in the Yucatán rose up against Europeans in the bloody Caste Wars, which lasted until 1904.

Much of the Mayan civilization was buried under the tropical jungles for centuries, and Westerners knew little about it. In the process of trying to convert the Maya to Christianity in the 16th century, the Spanish burned most of the codices, Mayan "books" made of deer hide or bleached fig-tree paper. Only in the last few decades have scholars made progress in deciphering Mayan glyphic writing.

In 1839 two British adventurers, John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, visited Central America and explored a number of the Mayan sites. Their books, especially Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán, with text by Stephens and illustrations by Catherwood, brought the attention of the world to the Mayan past.

In the late 1800s the first systematic archaeological excavations of Tikal were begun. Alfred Maudslay, an Englishman, conducted excavations at Tikal in 1881–82, and Harvard's Peabody Museum did fieldwork there between 1895 and 1904. Sylvanus Morley, a well-known Mayan expert, conducted work at Tikal at times between 1914 and 1928. In 1956 the University of Pennsylvania began the first large-scale excavation project at Tikal. Since then, many university and museum teams have conducted extensive fieldwork. The 1989 excavation of Copán's previously unknown and well-preserved Rosalila Temple stunned the archaeological world and offered new insights into Mayan architecture and decor.

Guatemala's 1960–96 civil war, the longest in Latin American history, caught Maya descendents in the crossfire between government and insurgents. The war reached its most brutal phase during the 1982–83 military dictatorship of General Efraín Ríos Montt, whose forces targeted several Mayan communities for extinction. By war's end, more than 200,000 people had died. To its great credit, Guatemala has made tremendous strides toward reconciliation in the 1½ decades since a peace treaty was signed, yet suspicions linger among indigenous generations who remember the worst of the war.

The end of the world, or at least its current cycle, will take place on December 21, 2012, according to the Long Count calendar of the ancient Maya.

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