The Paleo Indians Came Before The Maya

Belize girl examines mastodon fossil on display in Western Belize Archaeology Open Day.

The Maya were not the first inhabitants of present day Belize and Central America and account for only the last 3,200 years of the 17,000 year history of human occupation of this area. The following chronology provides insight into the first settlers and those who came after them, where the populations came from, who they were influenced by and what events affected their survival.

This fascinating account of the tools, weapons and ceramics that remain, sheds light on these early peoples and puts Maya civilization into a broader context. Mesoamerican chronology is traditionally subdivided in periods: Paleo Indian, Archaic, Prec1assic (or Formative), Classic, Post classic (the last three are further divided into middle and late facets) and Historic.

Paleo-Indian Period (15000 -7000 BC)

This period marks the first colonization of the New Word by small groups of people who are referred to as Paleo-Indians. Scientists believe that the Paleo-Indians may have followed herds of large animals such as mastodons, mammoths, horses, camelids and bison as they crossed the Bering land bridge from Siberia to Alaska. The land bridge was made possible by the formation of huge glaciers and ice sheets which caused water levels to drop more than 150 feet below their present level. As water levels fell the Aleutian Islands, which spread across the Bering Strait, would have been joined together, linking Asia to America.

maya lobster effigy

Maya Lobster effigy artifact found in Belize.

Evidence of these climatic and geological events has been noted in many countries, particularly in Canada and the United States. In Belize, the Blue Hole at Lighthouse Reef with its underwater cave system is now submerged some 400 feet below sea level. During one of several ice ages, this cave, like the Bering land bridge, was above ground level. We know this because stalactites that adorn the ceiling of the cave could only have been formed by drip water laden with calcium carbonate deposits. Elsewhere in Belize sea shells and marine fossils have been found in the Crooked Tree area, and in the Orange Walk and Cayo Districts.

Paleo-Indians in the Yucatan Peninsula, lived a nomadic way of life. They did not live in permanent villages; consequently they left few clues or artifacts that can assist us with determining many aspects of their cultural lifestyles.

The few campsites that have been found suggest that they had few material objects. Their tools were predominantly made from wood, bone, shell, and stone. Their most important hunting implement was a fluted projectile point that is generally referred to as a Clovis point.

The first evidence of Paleo-Indian occupation in Belize was discovered in the early 1960s. Following Hurricane Hattie, farmers near Santa Familia, Cayo District, discovered two large bones that were later identified as those of an extinct (Pleistocene age) giant sloth.

Cut marks on the bones suggested that the animal may have been killed by hunters who subsequently cut the bone to get to its protein rich marrow. Conclusive evidence of Paleo-Indian presence in Belize was recovered in the mid 1980s. At this time a farmer near Ladyville discovered the first fluted projectile point in the country. A few years later another farmer in the Toledo district found a second Paleo-Indian projectile point in his corn field. Since then, teeth of an extinct mastodon were discovered in Bullet Tree Falls and simple stone tools associated with the remains of extinct horse and cave bear were recovered in a rock shelter at Actun Halal, in the Cayo District. This evidence tells us that here too early humans gathered edible plants and hunted along the open savannas and river valleys of the country.

The Archaic Period 7000-2500 BC And The Birth Of The Maya

modern day maya

Modern day Maya in southern Belize

Sometime around 7000 BC most of the world began to experience changing climatic patterns. As the weather became warmer and wetter, the icy glaciers melted in the north and the Pleistocene era gradually drew to an end. Along with these major environmental changes many of the large animals that once flourished in the Americas (mastodons, giant sloths, horses and camelids) began their decline and eventual extinction.

The climatic challenges at the end of the Pleistocene period also had important effects on human populations. With the subsequent depletion of large animals, people began to rely more and more on plants and smaller animals for food. These changes brought about the next phase in human development, referred by archaeologists in the New World as the Archaic period. This phase begins roughly around 7000 BC and terminates with the establishment of early Maya culture around 3000-2000 BC.

Climatic changes in the Archaic period led to the invention of new tools for use in the exploitation of different sources. Three oft he most diagnostic implements used by the Archaic people of this time are large stone bowls and pestles, and smaller, but wider, projectile points. The stone bowls and pestles are similar to (but slightly smaller than) the manos and metates that were later used by the Maya for grinding and processing plant food. The new projectile or spear point has barbs on either side (somewhat like a fishtail) and was used for hunting smaller Post-Pleistocene animals.

The best evidence for Archaic human activity in Mesoamerica was recovered by archaeologists working in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico. They noted that after the end of the Pleistocene era, people began to collect and eat a variety of plants such as peppers, squash, avocado and early forms of corn. Much of this food was carried by Archaic people to their rock shelter campsites in bags that were woven from plant fibers. With the passage of time, many of the plants originally collected by these people were domesticated. Plant domestication eventually led to the establishment of the first permanent settlements.

Evidence of Archaic human activity in Belize is only slightly better than the preceding period. In most cases too, this evidence is limited to the diagnostic projectile points left behind by these nomadic people. The first Archaic period artifact reported in Belize was discovered in the 1980s near the Lowe Ranch to the north of Ladyville Because of this archaeologists in Belize refer to them as Lowe points. Up until 1999 about twelve Lowe points had been recovered in the Belize, Orange Walk and Corozal Districts. Between 2000 and 2005 several more points were discovered in the Cayo District: in San Ignacio, near Spanish Lookout, in the Roaring River area, the Caves Branch River Valley, Calla Creek and the Mountain Pine Ridge.

- Source: Dr. Jaime Awe Belize Archaeology Commissioner,