Maya history: an introduction

You may well wonder why a photography website contains a page devoted to Maya history. Basically, I’ve published a series of guide books to Maya ruins, and my perspective is that even a summary understanding of Maya history will help visitors better appreciate what they’re seeing, and more importantly its significance.

At the same time, it helps to bear in mind that our understanding of Maya history has been evolving rapidly in the past decade as new finds are made and old ones becoming better understood. As a result, you’ll run across web sites and tour books still repeating old, long-disproved ideas. So this page includes a brief history of Maya history to help put some lingering misconceptions in context (if not to rest). I won’t pretend this little tract can be future-proof, but at least it can be past-proof.

But it’s probably best to begin with geography. The ancient Maya lived (as do their descendants) in a fairly cohesive area, the Yucatán peninsula and the lands around it. Most discussions break the Maya realm down further into three regions within this, as there are significant environmental and cultural differences between them.

Moving from north to south, the first region is the northern lowlands of the Yucatán peninsula. Thanks to its permeable geology, this area is very dry, with essentially no surface water (i.e., streams or rivers). Large populations in this region could only be supported with cisterns (chultunes) or access to the water table via sinkholes (cenotes). As a side note, most cenotes in the Yucatán form a ring marking the edge of the Chixulub crater — the surface remains of the impact that killed off the dinosaurs.

The second Maya region consists of the southern lowlands (Petén), covering what is now northern Guatemala and adjacent parts of Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. This area normally receives a relatively high amount of rainfall compared to the north, and is favored with geology that allows for the presence of a number of lakes. The southern lowlands were home to the largest cities during the Classic era of Maya history.

The third region is called the southern highlands, consisting of the mountainous part of what’s now southern Guatemala, along with Mexico’s Chiapas highlands. This area is relatively temperate in climate, and covered in vegetation. Thanks to the volcanic character of the southern mountains, this area has the best soils of the Maya realm, and supports the largest population of Maya in modern times. Some of the earliest Maya sites are in this region, yet it’s only been in the past few decades that much archaeological research has been conducted in this area.

A history of Maya history

Sadly, the western world’s first ambassadors to the Maya were the Spanish Conquistadors. Adventurous, greedy, aggressive, and largely illiterate, at least they were accompanied by clerics — who actually could read and write, and who at first were interested in Maya beliefs and history. But attitudes changed, and the priests subsequently burned all the Maya writings they could find in an attempt to snuff out Maya religious rites.

Only a handful of Maya texts survived the bonfires, as did some written eyewitness accounts of Maya practices and culture. But these were of little immediate interest. Soon the natives were primarily viewed as a source of slave labor, and so no real effort was expended to study their history until after Mexican independence in 1821.

The first concentrated study of Maya sites was performed by affluent, classically (not scientifically) trained aristocrats in the 19th century. While the Victorians’ enthusiasm was commendable and their resources helpful, their approach to what they found wasn’t particularly scientific by modern standards. In fact, what they recorded was strongly skewed by their background and cultural perspective.

These early adventurers saw Classic Maya culture as the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica. They thought the Maya lived in isolation from their barbaric neighbors, and were ruled by peaceful astronomer-priests. In short, Maya history was painted as a replay of classical Greece, with a postulated Aztec conquest taking the place of the Roman conquest of Greece. Post-classic Maya life was labeled “decadent” due to its reduced emphasis on monumental construction and ornamentation.

Realistically, though, we can’t be too rough on the Victorians and their early successors. Since the Conquistadors had destroyed all the Maya texts they could find, early explorers had to work from what hadn’t been burned, namely architecture. The state of the era’s science made it easy for early studies to focus on an unrepresentative sample of Maya sites. Big, dramatic buildings standing proud of the forest received attention, in preference to less monumental, more typical (and admittedly harder to find) architecture. Even after Maya writing drew study, for years Maya engravings were unreadable aside from the dates they contained. This helped support the early contention that the engravings were discussions of astronomy and calendrics, with the human figures on them being those of the astronomer-priests conducting the deliberations.

The end of WWII, with its heavy emphasis on code making and code breaking brought a renewed push to decipher Maya writing. Over decades, the combined efforts of linguists and mathematicians across the globe finally led to a break in the “Maya code.” By the end of the 21st century, some 80% of known Maya writings had been translated. As a result, we now know that Maya monuments aren’t calendrical and astronomical records — they’re Maya kings’ attempts at self-glorification (or as often, glorification of their ancestors). As with any pieces of political history mixed with propaganda, some care must be taken in interpretation of these stelae. But the scrupulously dated monuments are giving researchers a fairly complete record of dynasties and their wars in the Maya classic period.

Rather than living in a peaceful realm, cut off from their less-civilized neighbors, we now know Classic Maya society to have been driven by warfare between rival power blocs, and an integral part of regional trading networks. Elements of the old timeline are being called into question, too. Rather than appearing suddenly out of nowhere, the Maya society of the Classic era is seen to have developed from increasingly capable antecedents in the Preclassic. And rather than disappearing mysteriously at the end of the Classic era, Maya culture can now be seen to evolve (although abruptly) to revised and equally sophisticated forms in the Postclassic.

Preclassic (Formative) era — ca. 1800 BC – 250 AD

The earliest Maya settlements discovered to date were erected around 1800 BC. Starting as farming villages, some grew to considerable size. For instance, El Mirador (in modern day Guatemala) may once have been home to as many as 100,000 people.

In parallel with these early Maya developments, the Olmecs rose to their west, forming the first complex society in Mesoamerica (1400 – 400 BC). The Olmec reign likely ended as a result of volcanic activity, with most of its population scattering either west toward the valley of Mexico, or east into the Maya heartland. The Maya ultimately derived their number system and calendar, as well as some religious and cultural ideas from the Olmec.

The Preclassic Maya (particularly in the Mirador Basin) suffered a collapse around 250 AD as dramatic as the one to follow at the end of the Classic era — driven by overpopulation, environmental degradation, and subsequent weather-driven damage to their agricultural fields.

Classic era — ca. 250 – 900 AD

For all its flaws, the Maya Classic era was the golden age of Maya art and monumental architecture. In this period, the Maya realm grew to include dozens of cities, the population of each in the thousands. The total Maya population peaked during this era, somewhere in the low millions.

A key feature of the Maya Classic era was the erection of engraved stelae commemorating cities’ rulers (thought at the time to be divine) and their exploits. Conveniently for modern scholars, all the events on these monuments are dated in the Maya long-count calendar, and so can be converted into modern-style dates. The first recorded long-count date at a Maya site appears in 292 AD on Stela 29 at Tikal, although the Olmecs had been using the calendar for centuries before this.

The dominant political theme of the era was a super-power rivalry between two blocs of Maya city-states, one led by Tikal, and the other by Calakmul. This all started with the takeover of Tikal by a noble from Teotihuacan (in central Mexico) named Fire Is Born (Sihyaj K’ahk’) on 16 January, 378 AD. Like the 20th century’s Cold War, the rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul was expensive and destructive, but provided some stability to the region in the form of a strategic deadlock.

But having started with an invasion from Teotihuacán, this scheme may finally have been destabilized by the fall of that city (to the end, a supporter of Tikal) around 700 AD. Studies of lake sediments in the Yucatán also show signs of a particularly severe drought between the years of 800 and 1050 AD, which likely played no small part in destabilizing the era’s power structures. At any rate, long-standing alliances broke down during the 8th and 9th centuries, and the Maya realm was swept by endemic warfare.

Ultimately, the Classic era ended in a death spiral. The Maya population had boomed, but the agricultural system was strained to its limit feeding them. The climate was too hot and too humid to allow agricultural surpluses to be stored for lean years, so when hard times came, there was no way to increase the food supply (and by this point, essentially all arable land was in use).

In a system based on divine rulers, it was easy to interpret drought and crop failures as signs of divine disfavor. The proper response in the culture of the time was to mollify their deities by building more and bigger temples. But this response could only make things worse via increased environmental degradation, and diversion of farming population to construction. Famine, disease, and infant mortality worsened.

The political legitimacy of ruling dynasties rested on their supposed divine roots, leading to a claimed ability to control weather and crops. As the local climate and security situation spun out of control, people likely lost faith in their leaders, and lost patience with their demands. Ultimately, the Classic ended when the survivors of the mayhem voted with their feet, and moved away (many to cities in the north).

So while many treatments of the Classic Maya collapse focus on apocalyptic treatments of society in free fall, the main thing that collapsed was the era’s political structure.  Even then, “collapse” happened at some but not all Maya sites, and in an uneven fashion. Depopulation was widespread, but most dramatic in the southern lowlands — by 900 AD, all its major cities were abandoned. The last recorded long-count date on a stela was carved in 909 AD in Toniná.

Terminal Classic / Puuc Florescence (ca. 800 – 987 AD)

As the Classic era cities began to lose their appeal, many people moved to once-small communities further north (notably in the Puuc region and Chichén Itzá). Rapid growth became the norm across the northern lowlands. Uxmal became the capitol of this polity by about 850 AD, playing host to a resurgence of architectural development, although on a lower-slung scheme than was the norm further south. The less-monumental scale of this era’s architecture, coupled with its almost complete lack of royalty-glorifying stelae suggests that it was accompanied by a more human view of its leadership as well.

But this party wasn’t to last. In 987, a Toltec noble named Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl and his followers were expelled from Tula in central Mexico, and in turn invaded the Yucatán (Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl taking on the Maya name Kukulkan, “feathered serpent”). They seized Chichén Itza, and shortly came to dominate the northern half of the Yucatán peninsula. Trade networks shifted from cross-country trails to coastal waters, and the old Puuc centers were largely abandoned under duress — either under attack from the Toltecs, or due to the collapse of their land-based trade networks. And so the Puuc Fluorescence ended less than 200 years after it started.

Post-Classic (ca. 1000 – 1528)

The final pre-conquest era of Maya history was dominated by Toltec Chichén Itzá and affiliated coastal cities. This part of Maya history is still murky, in no small part thanks to the fact that many surviving lineages maintain their own competing oral histories of the time, in which each has a starring (and virtuous) role. Suffice it to say that the Toltec abandoned Chichén Itzá by the early 13th century, possibly as a result of ethnic conflict. The wandering Itza clan, led by a man who also called himself Kukulkan (and so is referred to as Kukulkan II in most literature) settled in the abandoned city around 1240, then founded Mayapán 100 km (60 miles) to the west about 40 years later. Mayapán came to eclipse Chichén Itzá (may, in fact, have overthrown it), and ruled the Yucatán until its own ethnic explosion in 1450. Tulum and other small coastal cities remained intact through this latest crisis, but the Yucatán as a whole degenerated into 16 competing city-states that squabbled for dominance until the Spanish arrived.

But the Conquistadors, preoccupied by the pursuit of gold elsewhere in Mesoamerica, were preceded to the Yucatán by diseases that they brought with them. By the time the Spanish finally invaded the Yucatán in 1528, some 80% of the native population had already died of measles, smallpox, malaria, and other imported plagues. At the time of the conquest, only a few cities still had significant populations, while the rest of the Maya were living in small towns and villages.

Online References

It Depends on How We Look at Things: New Perspectives on the Postclassic Period in the Northern Maya Lowlands

“The Arrival of Strangers”: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History Chronological Table of Mesoamerican Archaeology

John Pohl’s Mesoamerica

Secrets of the Maya: Deciphering Tikal | Smithsonian Magazine

Social Patterns in Pre-Classic Mesoamerica | Dumbarton Oaks