Belize History

Anthropologists believe that humans from Asia crossed a land bridge, in what is now the Bering Strait in Alaska, into North America about 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, besides Belize, much of central Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, 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 Belize and elsewhere in the region. They developed an agriculture based on the cultivation of maize (corn), squash, and other fruits and vegetables. Some archeologists believe that the Maya—like other Indians in the region as well as in the South American Amazon—augmented soils with charcoal, pottery fragments, and organic matter to create terra preta (Portuguese for dark soil), very fertile earth that stood up to hard tropical rains. In Belize, small settlements were established as early as 2500 BC at Cuello in what is now Orange Walk District in northern Belize. Then, over the next 1,000 years or so, settlements arose at Santa Rita in Corozal and Lamanai in Orange Walk, and at Cahal Pech, Caracol, and elsewhere in Cayo District in western Belize. What would become the great city-states of the region, including Tikal in today's Petén region of Guatemala and Caracol in the Cayo, were first settled around 900 to 700 BC.

Several centuries before the time of Christ, several Mayan villages grew into sizable cities. The Maya began to construct large-scale stone buildings at El Mirador, Tikal and elsewhere. Eventually, Tikal, Caracol, 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 sophisticated 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, and Caracol in Belize probably had nearly as many. The peak population of the Mayan civilization possibly reached 2 million or more, and as many as a million may have lived in Belize alone—more than three times the current population.

The 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 was based on accommodating 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 Guatemala).

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 five-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 1,000 "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 in Belize and elsewhere in Mesoamerica 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 the Yucatán, such as Chichén Itzá, flourished for several more centuries after Tikal and Caracol were abandoned.

Scholars are still debating 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. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters may have played a role at certain sites. 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 in Belize and elsewhere in Mesoamerica 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 of Belize and Guatemala, including Caracol and Tikal, had long been abandoned. Lamanai and a few other urban settlements were still inhabited.

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. The Maya in Belize rebelled against the Spanish several times, but 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 Mayan Indians in the Yucatán rose up against Europeans in the bloody Caste Wars, which lasted until 1904. This had a major impact on Belize, as many Mexican Mestizos (persons of mixed Indian and European heritage) and Maya moved to northern Belize to escape the violence. Sarteneja, Orange Walk Town, and Ambergris Caye were among the areas at least partly settled by refugees from the Yucatán.

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, including Belize, 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 and Mayan sites in Belize 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 Maya 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. In Belize, Thomas Gann, a British medical officer stationed in what was then British Honduras, carried out the first excavations of several major Belize Mayan sites, including Santa Rita, Xunantunich, Lubaantun, sites on Ambergris Caye, and others, starting in 1894. Since then, many university and museum teams, including ones from the University of Pennsylvania, the Royal Ontario Museum, Tulane University, the University of Texas, the University of California, and the University of Central Florida, have conducted extensive fieldwork in Belize. Drs. Diane and Arlen Chase, of the University of Central Florida, have been at work at the largest site in Belize, Caracol, since 1985.

About 30,000 Maya live in Belize today, according to the 2010 Belize Census, of which about 17,000 are Ketchi, 11,000 are Mopan, and 2,000 are Yucatec. In southern Belize they're predominantly Ketchi and Mopan Maya; in western Belize, Mopan Maya; and in northern Belize, Yucatec Maya. The largest concentration of Maya in Belize is in the small villages in Toledo District near Punta Gorda.

By some interpretations, the end of the world, or at least its current cycle, was supposed to have taken place on December 21, 2012, according to the Long Count calendar of the ancient Maya. A number of hotels and other tourism organizations in Belize, Guatemala, Mexico and elsewhere attempted to capitalize on this supposed apocalypse with tours and special lodging packages. However, other experts said that the Maya did not see this as the end of the world but rather as a transition from one age to another. In any event, the day passed like any other day.

Barry Bowen

When he died February 26, 2010, in the crash near San Pedro of the Cessna 206 he was piloting, Sir Barry Bowen not only was the most prominent and best-known businessman in Belize, whose products touched nearly every Belizean and every visitor to Belize, but he also was a central figure in the political and economic history of modern Belize and a key link to the British Honduras past.

Born September 19, 1945, in Belize City, Bowen connected in some way to nearly every major development in Belize. He owned the most storied (and also at times the most hated) business enterprise in the country's history, Belize Estate and Produce Company; he was a pioneer in the two industries that now dominate commerce in Belize, agriculture and tourism; he was a supporter, leader, and major financier of the most powerful political party in the country, the People's United Party, although he also had close friends and associates in the United Democratic Party; and he proved himself one of the toughest and most capable entrepreneurs in modern Belize, using a combination of savvy marketing, hardball tactics, and government connections to make Belikin beer and Coca-Cola soft drinks his personal cash cows.

Bowen could trace his roots in Belize back to the middle of the 18th century, when the first Bowen, from England, disembarked from a British ship and joined the ragtag band of Baymen at an encampment at the mouth of the Belize River.

In 1978, just before independence, Barry Bowen bought Bowen and Bowen from his father. Bowen moved quickly to develop and exploit the opportunities he saw in the backwater of Belize. He developed the Coca-Cola franchise and turned Belikin, first brewed in the late 1960s, into the national drink of Belize.

Today, thanks in part to the virtual monopoly status granted by the Belize government to Bowen Brewing, Belikin controls nearly all of the beer market in Belize.

Barry Bowen seemingly never believed in the great potential in mass tourism that some others saw, preferring instead to invest in industries such as aquaculture. Although he owned valuable seafront property on Ambergris Caye, Belize's number one tourist destination, he didn't open a resort there. However, in 1988, he did develop a pioneering upscale jungle lodge, Chan Chich Lodge, on Gallon Jug Estate lands, formerly part of the Belize Estate and Produce Company, which controlled hundreds of thousands of prime acres in Orange Walk District. Built literally on top of a Mayan plaza, Chan Chich Lodge is widely considered among the top few jungle lodges in Central America, and one of the best in the world.

Barry Bowen's life was not without its controversies and contradictions. Although he actively supported many conservation causes, and was a friend and supporter of the Belize Zoo and its director Sharon Matolo, he was an advocate of the construction of the Chalillo Dam, which Matolo strongly opposed due to destruction of habitat for the Scarlet Macaw and other birds and animals.

Bowen also was criticized for building his jungle lodge on a Mayan site. Lord Smoking Shell, an ancient Mayan chief, will roll over in his grave, some said. In defense, Bowen claimed the location of the lodge protected the site from looters.

Admired or distrusted, envied or loved, Sir Barry was a one of a kind. Bold and full of life, ambitious and willing to take a risk, a man of vision and large plans, he was a multimillionaire who certainly achieved things in little Belize.

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