Humble Beginning

Maya

Tikal

Arguably the most successful ancient civilization in the Mesoamerican region. The mayans had a very humble beginning.

Hunter gatherers in Mesoamerica, slowly formed farming villages thousands of years prior to the first major mayan cities. Evidence of these hunter gatherers and settlers has been dated to around 7000 B.C. 

Cultural ties to the Maya have been linked to villages in western Guatemala as far back as 2500 B.C. 

Ancient Neighbors

Olmec

Olmec Colossal Head

The Olmec people were an ancient Mesoamerican group who flourished from around 1600-1000 B.C. centered on an area of the Gulf Coast region in what is now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco.

They were engaged in trade and crafts with other Mesoamerican civilizations and developed sophisticated astronomical, geometric, and numerical systems.

Known as the “rubber people” The Olmec are even more mysterious than the Maya. With controversial colossal stone heads, and carvings of bearded men. 

The Maya undoubtedly inherited and carried on traditions from the Olmec, despite no evidence of being dominated by them.

Zapotec

Gran Plaza from the South platform, Edificio J in front

The Zapotec, another major civilization dominated the region in what is now Oaxaca, Mexico for approximately 1000 years.

A little over 100 miles away from the Olmec, they had a very similar culture. 

In the first century B.C. to the far north, in central Mexico, the Aztecs were beginning their legendary history as well. 

Mayan Timeline 

Due to their cultural, scientific, religious and geographical importance they have been studied extensively by archaeologists for many years.

Mayan history is divided into three periods Pre Classic, Classic, and Post Classic. These periods roughly define the beginning, middle, and end of their civilization. 

Pre Classic Period

The Mayan civilization originated in what is modern day Mexico, and Central America. The formal beginning of the Maya civilization happened in 600 B.C. in the Peten region of northern Guatemala, with the establishment of the city Nakbe. Other major sites in the area like El Mirador, Uaxactun, and Cival also flourished in this period. From their humble beginning, the Maya became skilled astronomers and traders launching their civilization into greatness.

Classic Period

Palenque

The Palace at Palenque

As previously stated the Maya civilization flourished between the years 250 and 900 A.D. The Mayans were made up of several independent Kingdoms or city states, and stretched from the Yucatan, as far down as El Salvador and Honduras.

The Maya city of Tikal, located in Guatemala, is thought to have been the largest in the region at the time. Some even argue that it may have been the largest city in the world. Archaeologists now estimating that as many as 10 million people occupied the area at its height.

The Maya civilization was based around the Mayan Long Count calendar, which had a 13,000 year cycle. The Maya civilization developed an advanced writing system, and transformed it into a highly sophisticated script, along with a very advanced astronomical calendar, which were all used as part of a calendar cycle. In fact the Maya had three consecutive 13,000 year cycles, one of which was when their Mayan calendar would start and end.

The most famous sites in this area were Tikal, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Copan. Bonampak Calakmul, Caracol (c. 1200 to 1350 AD) are considered the most important cultural centers during this period.

The city at Chichén Itzá, located in the Yucatán Peninsula, is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world. It

was of considerable size and influence for its time and had survived several wars until its destruction in 1540 by the Spanish conquest of Yucatán. It was a powerful city, not only due to its population, but due to its natural resources and strategic location on a number of trade routes.

For a long period, it was the most important center in the ancient Mayan civilization. It is particularly renowned for its massive pyramid, the temple of Kukulkan.

However the Maya civilization had their fair share of damage and conflict. This unfortunately contributed to their inevitable decline. But the Maya had a lasting legacy that still influences many cultures in the region today.

Post Classic Period 

Mayan City

Mayapan

The Post Classic city Mayapan is located in the Yucatán Peninsula and is characterized by various artistic symbols, like the shell-patterned facades and the mirror reflecting facades. It is one of the most popular archaeological sites in the Yucatán. Mayapan was discovered in the late 15th century, and has been considered the most important of all the pre-Columbian Maya archaeological sites, after the city of Palenque. Archeologists believe that Mayapan was the capital of the civilization in this Post Classic period.

The Mayans constructed some of the largest and best-preserved ancient cities in the Americas. They left behind an amazing amount of history.  Although shrouded in mystery, archaeologists are making new discoveries every year. 

Origin of the Mayan Civilization

The Mayans were an ancient civilization which existed thousands of years ago. They populated the regions of the Yucatán Peninsula, southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and a part of El Salvador.

They dominated these regions for thousands of years, building huge cities and enormous pyramids. Experts in Math and Astronomy, they excelled in agriculture and trade, and they even developed a very unique writing and number system, not to mention their calendrical systems. 

Maya

Stone Jaguar Heads

The Mayans developed a sophisticated literary culture, and many of their monuments and religious ceremonies are of great archaeological significance.

Archaeologists are now discovering even more astonishing things about the Maya, underneath the overgrowth of the jungle. The Maya left behind quite a mystery for the future to uncover…

Timeline

There is still debate about an exact timeline for the Maya, as new discoveries keep changing the history. A general consensus is that the earliest Mayan villages in Central America and Mexico, are dated back to as early as 2500 B.C. 

Great waring city states were established, and the Maya civilization prospered for thousands of years. 

Just before the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica, the Maya began to disperse. This is a big mystery in the history and understanding of the civilization. 

 

The Mayans became the dominant power in Mesoamerica in the second half of the first millennium A.D. But the Maya were not the first civilization to emerge in this ancient land.

Pre Maya 

Before the Mayans established their Civilization, The Olmec and Zapotec people made their mark. The Olmec famous for their enormous stone heads, lived in southeastern Mexico, what is now the modern state of Tabasco. 

Olmec

Olmec Stone Head

La Venta is one famous site left by the Olmec, dating to around 1100 B.C. they left behind many amazing giant sculptures, pyramids, and monuments. Archaeologists say that the Olmec date back to about 1500 B.C.

The Zapotec culture, dating to around 700 B.C, pre date the Maya. They ruled in the region that is now Oaxaca Mexico. One major site the Zapotec built, is a large pyramid complex called Monte Alban. 

Piecing together the chronology of the city through pottery, archaeologists have pieced together 2000 years of history for this ancient city. Divided into 5 parts of history, this one city in Oaxaca Mexico has a rich and deep past. 

Pre Classic

Generally the Pre Classic period for the Maya describes the civilizations beginning. From settlers to villages, the Maya began to establish their culture. They begin constructing their first ceremonial city’s and temples.

Around 750 B.C the Mayans establish their first city Nakbe in the northern Guatemalan lowlands. Nakbe is just a few kilometers south of the recently heralded El Miradaor, site and its massive pyramid La Danta.

One of the most famous Mayan archaeological sites, Tikal, was constructed in the Pre Classic period around the 4th century B.C. It is towards the end of the Pre Classic period the Maya start erecting massive cities all over southern Mexico and Central America. 

Classic Period

The Classic Period of the Maya is when the civilization flourished. 

In this period of Mayan history, many major city states battled with each other for power over certain regions.

King Pakal and his lineage start to build amazing temples at Palenque in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico. Including the temple of inscriptions, the palace, and the temple of the cross group. The history of Palenque stretches from 226 B.C. to 799 A.D. 

Palenque

Palenque

Although not as big as other Mayan sites like Tikal. Palenque is known for its massive amounts of monuments, glyphs, and reliefs that were preserved so well. It’s lineages of rulers also added to the history of Palenque. Including the famous Pakal, who ruled Palenque for 68 years. 

Tikal one of the biggest Mayan sites known today, was a powerful city state in the Classic Period. Tikal reigned over a large part of the Guatemala lowlands and part of Mexico during its rule. 

Many cities all over Mesoamerica flourished in this period.

Copan in Honduras

Bonampak in southern Mexico

Chichen Itza and Uxmal in the Yucatan 

After the flowering of the Classic Period, the Maya began to gradually fall…

Post Classic Period 

Mayapan one of the last city’s of the Maya was built in the late Post Classic period around 1220 A.D. The city contains thousands of structures. Eventually abandoned in the middle of the 14th century. 

There are many theories of why the Maya abandoned their cities. Some say overpopulation, some say drought or war, but we still do not know exactly why.

Maya

Mayan Ruins

After thousands of years the Mayan civilization passed into history. The ancient settlements vanished, but traces of their existence in the form of structures are being discovered every year.

Did the ancient Mayans have a longer recorded history than previously thought? With the new discoveries, archaeologists are now claiming that the Mayans may have solidified their culture in the Pre Classic period.

New Discoveries 

Using LIDAR, a light detection and ranging technology. Archaeologists have been able to see through the jungle from above and scan the forest floor. 

This technology has changed the whole perception of the Mayan city Tikal. Archaeologists are now saying that ten to fifteen million people once lived in this region. 

LIDAR has revealed numerous previously undiscovered structures. Leading to new theories about the Maya.

The Maya People Still Live

The Ancient Mayans are gone, but the Maya people still live in modern day Central America, and Mexico. They carry on their past with oral tradition and ceremony. 

Traveling through the Yucatan and Guatemala, one can see the Maya people are still here.

Conclusion

Thankfully the Mayans were obsessed with their calendars and recording the dates of major events. They recorded astrological events, war related events, they also preserved lineages and recorded the dates kings and queens would ascend to the throne.

The history of the Mayan civilization survived on pottery locked away in secret burial chambers, hidden inside the pyramids. Survived on large carved monuments called “stela”, and the remaining codices that escaped the cultural destruction by the  Spanish.

Preserved by time and the aggressive jungle, hiding pyramids and almost the whole civilization under the trees. 

The Pre-Hispanic Mayan culture was the most advanced ancient civilization on the American continent, and existed for over 2,000 years from 800 BC to 1440 AD.

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