HISTORY OF THE MAYA – PHASES OF THE MAYA CIVILIZATION

This article gives you an overview of the epochs that are used to describe the history of the Maya. The article is an excerpt from my book: The Maya Ruins – Hidden Treasures of the Rain Forest – a travel guide to the Mayan sites on the Yucatán Peninsula, in México and Guatemala.


Of course, there were already people on the Yucatán peninsula and in the surrounding areas long before the Maya stepped out of the darkness into the limelight of history. After individual hordes of hunters had crossed the Bering Strait from Asia at least 13000 years ago, it did not take long until the first humans arrived in Mesoamerica.

Archaeologists and historians have divided the time period from the first settlement of America to modern times into numerous phases, which are characterized by the commonality of specific characteristics respectively. However, as there have been many new discoveries over and over again, especially in recent years, the limits of these phases have shifted again and again, so that in recent works about the Maya, time phase descriptions are found that differ significantly from older classifications.

This is made even more complicated by the fact that each mayanist, archaeologist or mesoamericanist seems to maintain his own epochal classification and organizes the phases as it comes to his mind. Some people put additional periods in between, and of course, each of them thinks of specific criteria with which the respective classification can be justified. However, since not all researchers consider all these criteria to be equally plausible, the phenomenon arises that when looking at different textbooks in the field of Ancient American Studies, one can find just as many different epochal classifications as books about the subject. Even in Wikipedia, which can be updated quite quickly, you can see three completely different systems for the phases.

On the whole, I did not follow this custom but decided to make a classification, which is similar to that of Michael D. Coe. Only for the names of the epochs did I borrow from other authors.

The presence of human beings in America is already evident in the prehistoric and archaic periods. During the Prehistoric period, these people were just hunters. In the Archaic period, many people became sedentary farmers. From this point on, after these first traces of civilization, the time until the arrival of the Spaniards has been divided into three phases: Pre-Classic, Classic and Post-Classic.

All these phases are characterized by specific peculiarities that justify this classification. However, it should not be forgotten that these phases are not strictly delimited, but that the boundaries are subject to flow. Since there are often new finds in the Maya region, the edges can shift from time to time. So it is no wonder that there is not only the one classification I am presenting here.

The first two of these three epochs, Pre-classic and Classic, are both divided into three sub epochs. Roughly speaking, these are phases whose main characteristics are ascent, flowering, and decline. They are designated with the attributes early, medium and late. For the Postclassic period, just two subclassifications have been chosen. As I said before, one can subdivide these phases once more. Some authors thus state an “early late-classic” or “late, early pre-classic,” but I will forego this.

Until the “discovery” of America by Columbus, iron was unknown on the entire continent. (Yes, I know, the Vikings forgot a sword somewhere…) In metallurgy, the indigenous peoples of the continent had previously only discovered the processing of gold for themselves. This material was used for cult objects and jewelry. Copper had already been used slightly. The stuff from which weapons and tools were made in large quantities was obsidian, a vitreous stone of volcanic origin. It was mainly used because it allows producing extremely sharp blades. But ordinary flint was in use as well.

Table showing the early days for illustration
Table showing the early days

Early Days

PREHISTORIC – UNTIL 8000 BC

The exact time for the early settlement of America is controversial among scientists. Isolated finds made in both South and North America actually suggests that the American continent was invaded by the first humans as early as 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. However, since the archaeological evidence for this early period is sparse and measurement errors in the determination of age cannot be ruled out, the majority of historians believe that this period started about 13,000 years ago, beginning with the appearance of the first humans in North America. The seizure of the continent then took place at breakneck speed. Almost simultaneously, the first people appeared in Mexico. These were roaming hunter hordes that had to change their location frequently in search of new hunting grounds. If the group became too large or the food reserves too scarce, individual family associations had to split off and try their luck on their own.

ARCHAIC 8000 BC – 1500 BC

These first humans were hunters and gatherers. Significant stocks of provisions could not be built up while wandering around. The diversity of species and abundance of game in the immediate surroundings determined the limits for population growth. In the search for lucrative hunting grounds, these people had to dismantle and relocate their camps again and again. But already in 8000 BC, a new development started. People began to grow crops and stay in stable settlements.

This phase, in which agriculture came up and finally became the dominant way of life, is the archaic period. Craftsmanship such as weaving and pottery also developed during this period. Decisive for the further progress was the use and breeding of the maize plant. From the original Teosinte, a primordial form of maize, farmers have grown the corn variety that we know today as a foodstuff over the years. As a result, far more people could be fed in the same area than it would have been possible through sheer hunting and gathering. The dwindling food supply was probably the main reason why people in America, just like in the old world, changed from hunting to the sweaty activity of farming.

It is remarkable that this development in the ancient American “way of life” cannot be attributed to external influences from outside the continent. Agriculture, pottery, and weaving were developed on the American continent independently of the other cultures that had already taken this step. The fact that the development here in America started later was probably because the hunting grounds in America had been sufficient as a food source for such a long time. The independent discovery of the cultivation of one type of grasses (Poaceae), because nothing else is maize, reveals something else. Around the world, people of the early days seem to have had grass seeds on their menu. In those areas where rice, millet, and other cereals were cultivated, they were also bred from members of the Poaceae group of plants.

Around 2500 BC, the ancestors of the Maya settled down in the area which they later inhabited.

The era of the archaic period ends around 1500 BC. The time period after that until the arrival of the Spaniards is divided into three phases: the pre-Classic, the actual Classic and the post-Classic.

History of the Maya civilization

Table illustrating the phases of the history of the Maya Civilization
Table illustrating the phases of the history of the Maya Civilization

PRE-CLASSIC 1500 BC – 200 AD

The pre-Classical phase, as you can imagine, precedes the later classical period. Sometimes, it is divided into two or three subsections. These are called early and late, and sometimes additionally middle Pre-Classic.

Another term for the pre-Classic is “formative phase” because in this phase, all the characteristics that are typical for the following classical period gradually emerged.” However, the original inventors were not the Maya, but the Olmecs and Zapotecs, who thus became precursors of the Maya culture. In addition to human sacrifices, writing, calendar system, corporate structures such as ceremonial centers, cities and city-states monumental stone architecture, sculptural art and the construction of step pyramids are some of the noteworthy new features and achievements of this epoch. The origins of the Gods’ Pantheon of the Maya can also be traced back to this time.

In the old world, the Bronze Age came to an end at the same time. The new kingdom of Egypt, Babylon, Assur, the Hittites, and Minoans determined history in the Near East. At that time the Israelites left Egypt and conquered Canaan.

Let us look at the sub-phases of the pre-Classic period in detail:

Early Pre-Classic  – 1500 BC – 700 BC

When the early pre-Classical period began, agriculture based on maize cultivation had finally been established as a way of life throughout Mesoamerica. The Olmecs formed the first cities or city-states. The first temples were built, such as La Venta in Tabasco and Tres Zapotes in Veracruz. The possibility of processing gold was discovered.

In Europe: On the other side of the Atlantic, on the Italian peninsula in the Mediterranean, Romulus, and Remus, twins raised by a wolf, founded the city of Rome towards the end of this period in 753 BC.

Middle Pre-Classic 700 BC – 300 BC

During the middle pre-Classical period, the culture of the Zapotecs was born in Monte Alban, Oaxaca. The Olmec town of La Venta was destroyed and abandoned around 700 BC.

Gradually, the Maya become tangible. First of all on the Pacific coast in Guatemala, where the Izapa culture, strongly influenced by the Olmecs, created first sculptures typical for the Maya. Almost at the same time, huge cities emerged in the southern lowlands, in the Mirador Basin in Petén.

El Mirador, the largest of these settlements, dates back to 600 BC. The two most famous pyramids in El Mirador are “La Danta,” which reaches a height of 72 meters, and “El Tigre,” which towers 55 meters above the forest floor. La Danta is one of the highest buildings in Mesoamerica. Due to its volume, it is also one of the most massive ancient buildings in the world.

In addition to El Mirador, other well-known Maya cities in the Mirador basin were established in the Middle Pre-Classic: Tikal, Uaxactun, Edzná, Piedras Negras and some more.

And in Europe? During this period, Rome’s transformation from a kingdom to a republic took place. The Romans began to build the Roman Empire.

Late Pre-Classic 300 BC – 200 AD

The Maya city of El Mirador reached the peak of its development at that time. Up to 250,000 people probably lived in the urban area. Up to 20 kilometers of connecting roads to neighboring cities on high dams could be detected. One of them can even be seen on Google Maps’ satellite image as a thin line just south of El Mirador. It presumably leads to the village of Tintal, which is passed on the walking trail to El Mirador.

Around 200 BC, outside the Maya region, the rise and prosperity of the central Mexican city of Teotihuacán near Mexico City began. The oldest buildings in the city date from this period. Teotihuacán had a significant influence on the further development of the Maya.

In the southern lowlands, there was a dramatic decline in development from 100 AD onwards. In El Mirador, fortifications with walls up to eight meters high were built. Nevertheless, the city was abandoned around 150 AD.

Findings indicate that the city was conquered by an army with the help of a command from the north, possibly from Teotihuacán, and the upper class of the city’s population was massacred.

Whatever the reason was, at the end of the pre-Classic era, the first destruction of the Maya culture occurred: the pre-Classical collapse. Many of the pre-Classical cities were abandoned. Within a short time, they were overgrown by the jungle. However, this does not apply to all cities in the lowlands. Some of them, such as Tikal, recovered again during the following 150 years.

In Europe: The Roman Empire had changed from a republic to an empire meanwhile and had reached its most significant extent in 117 AD in the year of the death of Emperor Trajan. The city of Rome had up to 1.5 million inhabitants during this period.

CLASSIC PERIOD – 200 AD – 900 AD

The Classical period of the Maya is a phase during which several new city-states were founded in the lowlands. The large cities of this area were in full bloom, and various alliances were formed between the royal houses of remote settlements. The rulers united by marriage or fought wars against each other. The outstanding conflict between Calakmul and Tikal lasted for nearly 500 years and ended with the conquest of Calakmul by the Tikal forces.

During this phase, stelae were erected throughout the lowlands, or inscriptions were placed on buildings that told of the kings’ heroic acts. They testified birth or death of a king, the ascension to the throne, or merely the fact that a ruler performed a special ceremony on a specific day. Basically, the existence of inscriptions with data from the Long Count marks precisely the period of time of the classical period. Earlier engravings that used the Long Count are known, but they are isolated findings. In Corso de Chiapas, a plaque with the date 36 BC was found. However, there is a lack of related historical information, so that we do not know to what purpose the recording of this date served. Section 4 of this book explains the Maya Calendar and how the Long Count was used in the inscriptions.

The first dating of the classical period took place in Tikal in 292 AD. On stele 29 that was found there, this date is shown next to the figure of a ruler.

The classical period is also divided into early, medium and late classics. As mentioned before, there seems to be no agreement in the world of Mayanists about how to divide this phase into sub-phases. Depending on whether the neighboring Meso-American cultures are included in the classification or whether the authors consider specific unique features to be particularly important, the time limits are pushed back and forth.

Early Classical period 200 AD – 500 AD

This period saw the creation of a large number of cities in the southern lowlands, including Palenque, Yaxchilán, and Copan in Honduras. In many cities, some stelae tell of the first dynasties, some of which are mythical inventions that may have been pushed into the past. Others actually mark the beginning of royal houses.

Outside the Maya region in Central Mexico, Teotihuacán reached the zenith of its development around 200 AD. 125,000 inhabitants could have lived in the city north-west of Mexico City at that time. Many finds from the Maya region suggest that Teotihuacán did not only have a cultural influence on the Maya. Militarily, however, the Maya had little to oppose the armies of Teotihuacan.

Towards the end of the Early Classical period, most of the Maya cities in the southern lowlands were under the control of Teotihuacán. Teotihuacan established its own rulers in some towns and gained control over essential trade routes.

In Europe, the peoples began to move. From the steppes of Asia, the Huns pushed west and caused a domino effect. Entire nations fled from the hordes of horsemen and thus urged other groups further west to set themselves in motion as well. The Roman Empire, unable to secure its borders, fell apart more and more. Germanic tribes raided Italy, moved through Gaul and Spain to North Africa, establishing various kingdoms, the most powerful of which was to become the Franconian Empire. Almost unnoticed by world history, a group of Suebes, who had crossed the Rhine together with the Vandals and Alans in 406 AD and later invaded Spain, founded a kingdom in the northwestern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. It corresponds approximately to present-day Galicia and the northern part of Portugal. In 476 AD, the Thuringian Odoacer in Rome deposed the last Roman emperor and marked the fall of the Roman Empire.

Middle Classical period 500 AD – 700 AD

During this phase, the classical cities reached the peak of their growth. During this period, satellite cities such as Bonampak, which had a close connection to Yaxchilán, were founded. Numerous conflicts and changing alliances shook the city-states of the lowlands. Of particular note is the conflict between Calakmul and Tikal, which led to the conquest of Calakmul, ending the kingdom of Kan.

New cities were founded in the northern lowlands. Uxmal, Chichén Itzá and Ek Balam developed to power centers.

At the same time, the decline of Teotihuacán began and around 600 AD the city was abandoned by its inhabitants. For the further course of history, also in the Maya region, it is important to note that part of the population, the so-called Toltecs, moved away from Teotihuacán and founded the city of Tula about 60 kilometers north of Mexico City in the state of Hidalgo.

In Europe, the Christianization of the Germans began in this period. Visigoth Theoderich the Great ruled in Italy, the Merovingians ruled the Franconian Empire. In Arabia, Mohammed wrote the Koran, and the expansion of Islam in North Africa began.

The weather anomaly LALIA (Late Antique Little Ice Age), which was well documented in Europe, is also interesting. As a result of this anomaly, the “Justinian plague” occurred, which presumably claimed up to 50 percent of the population of Europe, the Near East, and Africa at that time. The causes of the weather anomaly are controversial. Two substantial meteorite impacts north of Australia and two major volcanic eruptions, one in Indonesia and the second in El Salvador, have been detected. In northern Spain, the kingdom of the Suebes was annexed by theVisigoths.

Late Classical period 700 AD – 900 AD

The late Classical Period was above all a time of decline in the southern lowlands. At the same time, a phase of increased activity began in the northern regions. The downturn can be seen from the fact that no inscriptions were made with the Long Count. 799 AD is the last recorded date in Palenque, 822 in Copan, 879 in Tikal. Tonina, in the highlands of Chiapas, stayed longest. There, the final inscription dates from the year 909 AD. Also, in Uxmal in the north of the peninsula, an endmost Long Count-inscription from the year 909 AD was discovered.

The reasons for the decline that archaeologists call the “classical collapse” are still mysterious. It seems there are as many theories for this as there are Maya researchers. Over the past few years, there have been growing signs that a prolonged drought could be the trigger for the downfall of classical Maya civilization. Failure of harvests could have led to famine, epidemics, social unrest and armed conflict, resulting in a further deterioration of people’s livelihoods, which could have led to the collapse of trade and the decline of the ruling dynasties. The central region of the Maya area was depopulated within a short period of time.

At the same time Tula, the seat of the Toltecs in Central Mexico, developed.

In Europe, the Islamic expansion reached its maximum extent around 750 AD with the founding of the Emirate of Cordoba, after the Visigothic Empire had been broken up in Spain. Only the north of the Iberian Peninsula remained in Christian hands as the Kingdom of Asturias. In 800 AD, the Pope crowned Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. In England, the raids of the Vikings forced the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to unite under King Alfred the Great.

POST-CLASSIC 900 AD – 1540 AD

In the post-classic period, the center of activity shifted northwards, and new actors from Central Mexico entered the stage of the Maya country: the Toltec.

Early post-Classic 900 AD – 1200 AD

Tula had just reached its climax when the 14th Toltec ruler, Ce Acatl

Topiltzin, was forced to leave the city. This Toltec ruler was named Kukulcán by the Maya. According to Aztec sources, this happened around 900 AD. He crossed the Gulf of Mexico and conquered Uxmal and Chichén Itzá. Around 930, the northern part of the Yucatán peninsula was in Toltec hands. But already around 970 the Maya gained the upper hand again and pushed back the Toltec influence.

The short interlude had a significant impact on art and architecture. The temple of warriors and the thousand-pillar hall in Chichén Itzá are copies of buildings in Tula. The representations of the warriors on the columns of the warrior temple are also based on Toltec models. Diego de Landa tells us that the temple of Kukulcán was named after this Toltec ruler.

In 1168, Tula was destroyed, and the empire of the Toltec fell apart.

Europe: From 1000 AD onwards, conflicts between Berbers and Arabs in Spain began to weaken the Caliphate of Cordoba, which had been founded in the meantime, until it disintegrated into several small states. In 1085, Alfonso VI the Brave, King of Leon, Castile, and Galicia succeeded in reconquering Toledo, in the center of the Iberian Peninsula, from the Arabs. Thus the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula was in full swing.

Late post-Classic 1200 AD – 1 540 AD

Around 1200 AD, Chichén Itzá was conquered by a ruler from the Cocom family and lost his supremacy in the north. From 1250 to 1450, Mayapán was the city with the most considerable influence in Yucatán. The city planners took Chichén Itzá as a model for the construction of Mayapán. The town appears to be a scaled-down copy of Chichén Itzá.

In 1461, Mayapán was finally destroyed by the Xiu dynasty based in Mani, and this city became the capital of this last state of the northern peninsula. Mani himself was finally conquered by the Spanish.

In Central Mexico, in 1427, the Aztecs founded their empire in Tenochtitlan, in the center of a lake, overbuilt meanwhile by present-day Mexico City.

Europe: In 1347, the bubonic plague broke out in Europe and spread across the continent. In 1492, the last Muslim bastion on the Iberian Peninsula was conquered with Granada. The Reconquista in Spain was completed.

In the same year 1492, Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean and “discovered” America. And it took two years for Vasco de Gama, who sailed around the southern tip of Africa in 1497 and found the sea route to India.

The Colonial Period

Colonial times shall not be the subject of this treatise. Nevertheless, I would like to mention three important dates at the edge of this period.

From 1517 on, several Spanish expeditions had landed in Yucatán. But the conquest of the Maya lands took place between 1528 and 1542.

On 12 July 1562, Diego de Landa had burned all the books and images of the Maya gods, which he was able to seize, at an inquisitorial court of law, an “autodafé,” in Mani, south of Merida.

The last independent state of the Maya was the city of Tayasal on Lago Petén in Guatemala. It was finally conquered by the Spanish in 1697.

After that, the Maya no longer had any political independence.

THE COLLAPSE OF THE CLASSICAL CENTERS

The question as to why the flourishing high culture of the Maya has finally perished and what has contributed to this decline has occupied Mayan researchers for a long time. And gradually one seems to be able to provide an answer to this question.

After the empires of the Maya had grown in the southern lowlands for almost 700 years, the event that the Maya researchers call “collapse” occurred at the beginning of the post-classical period.

Usually, one understands a collapse as something that occurs suddenly and abruptly. In contrast, meanwhile, it is known that the decline of the Maya world had gradually taken place. And basically, it was limited to the southern lowlands.

It took more than a hundred years after the first prosperous city had sunk into silence until a Maya scholar carved the final Long Count date into stone for the last time in world history.

First, construction work and inscriptions ceased. A little later, people disappeared. And finally, nature took its rightful place and devoured the deserted cities.

The decline began at the end of the 8th century in the west of the Maya region. This development can be seen from the fact that no new steles have been erected after this time. People continued to live in the villages for a specific period of time. However, the numbers then declined quickly.

Palenque, Bonampak and Piedras Negras began, closely followed by Yaxchilán. After that, the fatality jumped over to the eastern border. Life in Quirigua and Copan ended. In Calakmul, the capital of the snake kingdom of Kaan, the last inscription was written in 810 AD, but it was still mentioned in 849 AD in an inscription in Seibal. It can, therefore, be assumed that the darkness did not descend over this once most powerful empire of the Maya until a time when its long-time ally, Caracol, sank into the dust. In 889 AD, the great Tikal in the center of the southern lowlands was overtaken by its fate. After 1500 years of existence, life in this former metropolis of the Maya disappeared within a concise time. And a little later, Uxmal in the north and Toniná in the highlands of Chiapas were the next in line. In the year 909 A. D., the use of the long count calendar finally ceased. The population had left the last of the classical cities and disappeared. The southern lowlands were depopulated, and the rainforest took possession of the ceremonial centers. At those places where for more than 1000 years the songs and drums of the priests had been sung for the dance of splendidly dressed kings, now only the creepy sounds of the howling monkeys and the mourning call of tropical birds resounded in the dense green. The classical period of the Maya came to an end, and the post-classic phase of the Maya began in the north of theYucatán peninsula.

The reasons for the decline of the classical state structures seem to be complicated. But from the increasing number of mosaic tiles that emerge during exploration and research, however, it gets easier to draw the picture of the transition from the classical to the post-classical period.

Initially, the Maya had optimized the performance of their agricultural production. They were probably able to do this thanks to the elaborate organization that emanated from the royal houses in the cities. The surpluses not only allowed them to keep on in population growth but also allowed them to release forces to build great temple pyramids, palaces, streets and irrigation systems.

Dates of the last inscriptions:

792  AD   Bonampak
795  ADPiedras Negras
799  ADPalenque
808  AD   Yaxchilán
810  AD    Quiriguá
822  ADCopán
810/849  ADCalakmul
859  AD Caracol
889  AD Tikal
907  AD Uxmal
909  AD Toniná

It is quite possible that the Maya simply had reached the maximum limits of agriculture during the 8th century at the beginning of the late classical period and the fertile soils became scarcer. It is also believed that at this time only remains of the original forest of the region were left.

For this period, the beginning of several centuries of extreme drought in the region has been proven. Harvest failures were the inevitable consequence and in their wake hunger, illness and death.

Initially, this seems to have led to local unrest. Dynasties disintegrated, other families, unstable and short-lived, followed. The political alliances between the cities collapsed, and in the struggle for survival, they began to wage war against each other. This is shown by fortifications that were built more often during this period.

At the end of the 8th century, millions of people must have settled in the southern lowlands. In addition to hunger and disease, it is also possible to assume an increased infant mortality rate. All in all, this should have led to a decimation of the population within a concise time.

Then people began to migrate. It can be assumed that parts of the population moved south into the highlands, hoping to find new settlement opportunities there. Other groups, however, seem to have migrated northwards to the northern lowlands, where it is possible to prove for the 10th century at the beginning of the post-classic that the cities began to grow extraordinarily strong. For some regions, such as Uxmal and Edzná, the arrival of foreign population groups is recorded partly in inscriptions and partly in the later records of Chilam Balam.

Unfortunately, one does not know much about this post-classical period. The use of stone inscriptions was out of fashion in the Postclassic period. Paper seems to have been the medium on which the Maya scribes now used to record their concerns. At first glance, this is also much more practical than laboriously carving a text into an inscription. Unfortunately, the disadvantage is obvious. Not only is paper much more fragile when exposed to the high humidity in this area, but it is also more volatile. Paper also burns easily, a circumstance that the Spanish conquerors took advantage of. By inflaming all the Maya books they could get hold of, they erased the Maya’s memory of their own high culture and past.

Finally, there is still hope that the Spaniards were not really victorious regarding the written heritage of the Maya and that, in addition to the five well-known Maya codices that have survived to this day, there is still a place somewhere in the Mayab where a large number of ancient books are kept. Well-hidden and preserved at best, they wait there for the discovery by a lucky archaeologist…

This article gives you an overview of the epochs that are used to describe the history of the Maya. The article is an excerpt from my book: The Maya Ruins – Hidden Treasures of the Rain Forest – a travel guide to the Mayan sites on the Yucatán Peninsula, in México and Guatemala.


Get the book! Available at Amazon or in your favorite bookshop - as ebook or print.

The Maya Sites - Hidden Treasures of the Rain Forest - 2nd Edition

ISBN-13: 978-3000601422

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Christian Schoen

Christian Schoen is a globetrotter, travel writer and author of the very successful travel guide "Die Ruinenstädte der Maya", published in Germany. He loves to visit temples, pyramids and any kind of ancient ruins. The SLR in his hand, he can be met on adventurous hiking tours in tropical jungle landscapes - sometimes - or just somewhere in his neighbourhood, the Black Forest Mountains in Germany.

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