For us to appreciate the extent and the significance of the Maya and Spanish contact period (i.e. when the Spaniards came into contact with the indigenous people in the early 16th century) and for a century and a half later, we must first liberate our minds from the artificial frontiers that were later created, and from the partial histories that have so far been available to us. At that time there was no Belize, no Guatemala, no Mexico. Before the Spanish came there were various indigenous societies and civilizations with distinct sociopolitical systems, and many of them shared common features and had contact with each other through trade and war; there was a lively exchange of knowledge as well as goods between them. The Maya influenced and were influenced by other indigenous peoples, especially those up to the north, up to central Mexico.
The Maya civilization itself consisted of various distinct groups who inhabited a vast territory. They did not have a single centralised political authority, and this in fact helped them to continue armed resistance until the end of the 19th century.
Almost all texts on Belizean history have tended to deny or downplay the existence or extent of both the Maya and Spanish presence in Belize before the British came and in subsequent years. In fact there was a substantial Maya presence in what is now Belize at the time of contact, and during most of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish exercised jurisdiction over those Maya communities. – Assad Shoman.
Maya Civilization In Mezoamerica
Ancient Maya culture flourished from around 2000 BC across the southeastern corner of Mesoamerica. This area can be divided into three sub regions: Southern Highlands, central lowlands, and northern lowlands.
The volcanic mountain ranges of the Southern Highlands rise up to 14,000 feet and extend from southwestern Chiapas in Mexico to Nicaragua. Local resources like obsidian were exported from this area and used for producing knives, weapons, and sacrificial blades. The Highlands also provided the Maya with jade, quetzal bird feathers, granite and hematite. Many of these resources were controlled by such cities such as Chalchuapa, Kaminaljuyu, Iximche and Utatlan.
The central lowlands extended from the Mexican state of Tabasco across southern Campeche and eastern Chiapas, into the Peten in Guatemala and across Belize. This subregion has dense tropical forests, rolling terrain and several navigable rivers.
The northern lowlands are a flat almost featureless expanse of the Yucatán Peninsula broken only by the Puuc hills in a semi arid area of low scrub forests with no surface streams or rivers. Because of the soft porous limestone bedrock the primary sources of water are found in cenotes (sinkholes) where collapsed bedrock has exposed underground streams and this is where settlements in the north thrived.
Evolution of Maya Culture
Olmec 1200-1000 B.C.
Early Pre classic Maya 1800-900 B.C.
Middle Pre classic Maya 900-300 B.C.
Late Pre classic Maya 300 B.C. – A.D. 250
Early Classic Maya A.D. 250-600
Late Classic Maya A.D. 600-900
Post Classic Maya A.D. 900-1500
Colonial period A.D. 1500-1800
Independent Mexico A.D. 1821 to the present
B.C. 11,000 The first hunter-gatherers settle in the Maya highlands and lowlands.
3114 or 3113 The creation of the world takes place, according to the Maya Long Count calendar.
2600 Maya civilization begins.
2000 The rise of the Olmec civilization, from which many aspects of Maya culture are derived. Village farming becomes established throughout Maya regions.
700 Writing is developed in Mesoamerica.
400 The earliest known solar calendars carved in stone are in use among the Maya, although the solar calendar may have been known and used by the Maya before this date.
300 The Maya adopt the idea of a hierarchical society ruled by nobles and kings.
100 The city of Teotihuacan is founded and for centuries is the cultural, religious and trading centre of Mesoamerica .
50 The Maya city of Cerros is built, with a complex of temples and ball courts. It is abandoned (for reasons unknown) a hundred years later and its people return to fishing and farming. A.D.
100 The decline of the Olmecs.
400 The Maya highlands fall under the domination of Teotihuacan, and the disintegration of Maya culture and language begins in some parts of the highlands.
500 The Maya city of Tikal becomes the first great Maya city, as citizens from Teotihuacan make their way to Tikal, introducing new ideas involving weaponry, captives, ritual practices and human sacrifice .
600 An unknown event destroys the civilization at Teotihuacan, along with the empire it supported. Tikal becomes the largest city-state in Mesoamerica , with as many as 500,000 inhabitants within the city and its hinterland.
683 The Emperor Pacal dies at the age of 80 and is buried in the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque.
751 Long-standing Maya alliances begin to break down. Trade between Maya city-states declines, and inter-state conflict increases.
869 Construction ceases in Tikal, marking the beginning of the city’s decline.
899 Tikal is abandoned.
Left: Belize Maya Artifact found at Ambergris Caye.
900 The Classic Period of Maya history ends, with the collapse of the southern lowland cities. Maya cities in the northern Yucatán continue to thrive.
1200 Northern Maya cities begin to be abandoned.
1224 The city of Chichén Itzá is abandoned by the Toltecs. A people known as the Uicil-abnal, which later takes the name Itzá, settles in the desolate city.
1244 The Itzá abandon Chichén Itzá for reasons unknown.
1263 The Itzá begin building the city of Mayapán.
1283 Mayapán becomes the capital of Yucatán.
1441 There is a rebellion within Mayapán and the city is abandoned by 1461. Shortly after this, Yucatán degenerates from a single united kingdom into sixteen rival statelets, each anxious to become the most powerful.
1511 A Spaniard named Gonzalo Guerrero is shipwrecked and washed up on the eastern shore of Yucatán. He falls in love and joins the Maya in Chachtamal (modern day Corozal in northern Belize and becomes the father of Latin America’s Mestizos), tattooing his face, piercing his ears and marrying into a Maya noble family. Guerrero later becomes an implacable foe of the Spaniards and does much to help the Maya resist Spanish rule in Yucatán.
1517 The Spanish first arrive on the shores of Yucatán under Hernandez de Cordoba, who later dies of wounds received in battle against the Maya. The arrival of the Spanish ushers in Old World diseases unknown among the Maya, including smallpox, influenza and measles. Within a century, 90 per cent of Mesoamerica’s native populations will be killed off.
1519 Hernán Cortés begins exploring Yucatán.
1524 Cortés meets the Itzá people, the last of the Maya peoples to remain unconquered by the Spanish. The Spanish leave the Itzá alone until the seventeenth century.
1528 The Spanish under Francisco de Montejo begin their conquest of the northern Maya. The Maya fight back with surprising vigour, keeping the Spanish at bay for several years. 1541 The Spanish are finally able to subdue the Maya and put an end to Maya resistance. Revolt continues, however, to plague the Spaniards off and on for the rest of the century.
1542 The Spanish establish a capital city at Mérida in Yucatán.
1695 The ruins of Tikal are discovered by chance by the Spanish priest Father Avedaño and his companions, who had become lost in the jungle.
1712 The Maya of the Chiapas highlands rise against the Mexican government. They will continue to do so off and on until the 1990s.
1724 The Spanish Crown abolishes the system of encomienda , which had given Spanish land barons the right to forced Maya labour, as long as they agreed to convert the Maya to Christianity.
1821 Mexico becomes independent from Spain. In general, life becomes more tolerable for the Maya than it had been under Spanish rule.
1822 An account of Antonío del Río’s late eighteenth-century explorations of Palenque is published in London. The book raises a great deal of interest in further exploration of the “lost” Maya civilization and settlements.
1839 American diplomat and lawyer John Lloyd Stephens and English topographical artist Frederick Catherwood begin a series of explorations into Maya regions, revealing the full splendor of classical Maya civilization to the world for the first time.
1847 The Yucatán Maya rise up against the Mexican government, rebelling against the miserable conditions and cruelty they have suffered at the hands of the whites. The rebellion is so successful that the Maya almost manage to take over the entire peninsula in what has become known as the War of the Castes.
1850 A miraculous “talking cross” in a village in central Quintana Roo predicts a holy war against the whites. Bolstered by arms received from the British in Belize, the Maya form into quasi-military companies inspired by messianic zeal. The fighting continues until 1901.
1860 The Yucatán Maya rebel again.
1864 Workmen digging a canal on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala discover a jade plaque inscribed with a date of A.D. 320. The plaque becomes one of the oldest known objects dated in the Maya fashion.
1880 A new tide of government intervention in Maya life begins as governments attempt to force the Maya to become labourers on cash-crop plantations. This destroys many aspects of Maya cultural traditions and agricultural methods preserved over 4,000 years. Towns which had been protected for the Maya soon become a haven for mixed-race ladinos who prey economically on the indigenous Maya and usurp all positions of social and economic power.
1910 Rampant government corruption leads to the Mexican Revolution .
1946 American photographer Giles Healey is taken to the Maya city of Bonampak by the native Lacandón who live nearby. Healey becomes the first non-Maya ever to see Bonampak’s stunning wall-paintings, which reveal new details about Maya civilization.
1952 The Priest-king Pacal’s tomb at Palenque is discovered and excavated by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz, marking the first time a tomb has been found inside a Maya pyramid. Prior to this, Maya pyramids were believed to be temples with a purely religious or ceremonial purpose.
1962 Maya hieroglyphic signs are first catalogued. Uncontrolled looting of Maya tombs and other sites begins around this time in the southern lowlands, continuing until well into the 1970s.
1992 A Quiché Maya woman from Guatemala named Rigoberta Menchu , who has lost most of her family to the death squads and is known for speaking out against the extermination of the Maya, wins the Nobel Peace Prize.