Mayan History

The image that historians have of the Mayans is not some fixed established text but has constantly altered over the last 40 years and is still developing. This changing image reflects the variety and the complexity of Mayan society. Mayan cities were not all of the same style and size but changed and developed over centuries. The deciphering of the Maya script since the 1970s also helped to create a vivid account of the Mayan past with names, dates and individuals rather than just an anonymous archeological record.

Since the 19th century historians have used a common division into historical periods for all the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica. These periods are shown in the table below.

Chronology of Mesoamerican Civilization

Period Timespan Summary
Archaic prior to 1800 BC Hunter gathers begin settled agriculture
Early Preclassic 1800 – 900 BC Olmecs create the first city-civilization, centered on San Larenzo.
Middle Preclassic 900 – 300 BC First settled Mayan communities on the Pacific coast, Guatemala and Belize.
Late Preclassic 300 BC – 250 AD Maya civilization develops including the writing system and Long Count calendar.
Early Classic 250 AD – 600 AD Flourishing of the southern Mayan cities. Rise of Tikal as the great city state of the south.
Late Classic 600 – 950 AD Apogee of Mayan civilization. Intensified warfare between Tikal, Calakmul and their allies. After 700 rapid growth of cities in northern Yucatan. Southern cities collapse in the 9th century.
Early Postclassic 950 – 1200 Northern Mayan cities collapse.
Late Postclassic 1200 – 1530 Mayapan becomes the last great Mayan city in Yucatan. Arrival of the Spanish.

The earliest human inhabitants of the Mayan region were primitive hunter and gatherers who moved across from Asia through north America during the Ice Age. They spread to every part of the Americas by about 14000 BC.

The first great civilization in North America were the Olmecs who lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco. The first great Olmec city was San Lorenzo, well-known for its colossal stone heads, which flourished around 1200 BC. The Olmecs laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed.

One of their trading partners in the Pacific coastal region were the Mayans who had exchanged their hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a culture based around agricultural villages. The contact with the Olmecs would have profound effects on Maya society. Olmec influences of Mayan culture include a religion involving astronomical observations, extensive jaguar-worship, a ritual ballgame, cities built around temple-pyramids, a diet dominated by maize and the use of the cacao plant.

While the Olmec civilization reached its zenith the Maya people began a northward expansion, occupying the Petén Basin. The dominant Mayan city of these early colonists was Nakbe, where the first attested Maya ball court and stone platforms were built. As the Mayan settlements developed, each of the centers came under the rule of a single lord, called an ahau assisted by warrior-nobles. Far from being just a ruler, the ahau was the center of religious life and performed rituals essential for the well-being of the entire city. By around 250 AD the defining elements of Classic Maya civilization such as the Long Count calendar, the ahau rulership, the Maya script and styles of architecture were all well established.

Mayan Fresco at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Mayan Fresco at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Although the Mayans were aware of themselves as distinct from other groups in Mesoamerica the Mayan civilization was never a unified empire. Instead they were divided into many independent city states of various size and power but with a common cultural background. In order to increase their power, cities would organize themselves through a network of relationships ranging from loose alliances to direct subordination. The most powerful Mayan cities during the Classic Period were Tikal and Calakmul, whose rivalry lasted for centuries.

The highly advanced Maya cities of the south went into a decline during the 9th century and were abandoned shortly thereafter. This rapid collapse is one of the biggest mysteries in archaeology. Although there is no universally accepted collapse theory, the ‘Drought Theory’ is gaining momentum as the leading explanation. This theory holds that a prolonged series of droughts between 800 to 1000 AD caused a social collapse in a region that already lacked stable sources of drinking water.

The Northern Yucatan was sparsely populated for most of the Classic period with only a few Mayan settlements. As the cities in the lowlands declined, urban centers sprung up in the Northern Yucatan, including Uxmal and Chichen Itza. These northern cities were characterized by an increasing diversity of external influences. After the decline of Chichen and Uxmal, Mayapan ruled all of Yucatán until the city was sacked, burned, and abandoned in 1441, and Yucatán fell apart into warring city states.

The conquest of the region by the Spaniards began in the early 16th century, but proved to be a more difficult exercise than the equivalent campaigns against the Aztec and Inca Empires. The Maya had no single political center whose overthrow would hasten the defeat and the conquistador forces had to subdue the Maya cities one by one. It would take some 170 years before the last recognized Maya stronghold fell, that of the Itza capital of Tayasal on Lake Petén Itzá, in 1697.