Guatemala is a modern Indian nation which is a direct descendant of much of the old Mayan civilization, which may date back as early as 300 BC. The classical Mayan period lasted from about AD 300 to 900 and featured highly developed architecture, painting, sculpture, music, mathematics (including the use of zero), a 365-day calendar, roads, and extensive trade. This great pre-Columbian civilization seems to have collapsed around AD 900, and by the 12th century, the Mayas had disintegrated into a number of separate Amerindian groups. The Amerindians offered resistance to the Spanish expedition sent by Hernán Cortés from Mexico and led by Pedro de Alvarado during 1523–24, but by the end of that time, their subjugation to Spain was virtually complete. Although in the interiro of Guatemala some tribes never came under the dominion of the central government until the 19th century. Today a variety of Mayan languages are still the most widely spoken in this Central American nation.
With the invasion of the Spanish Conquistadors in the early 1500s, the world of the Mayans, like all of the other Indigenous societies in the western hemisphere, came to a fiery and brutal end. Although medieval Europe was in many ways far less developed, the Conquistadors arrived with enormous military advantages: specifically, gun powder, steel swords, and horses. The Mayans fought valiantly on foot, with their obsidian spears and leather shields, but they suffered devastating losses. Within a few years, they had become slaves in their own homeland, deprived of their lands, their rights, and any political or social representation of any kind. Their libraries and cities were burned and sacked, and their religion and culture were banned. Throughout the hemisphere war, disease and slavery wiped out nearly 90% of the Indigenous population within a century.
Despite the odds, the Mayans of Guatemala survived and maintained their heritage, religion and languages intact, although often virtually clandestine. Today the socio-economic structure in Guatemala is reminiscent of the old South Africa, with the Mayans constituting the majority of the population–some 80%–yet subjected to extreme racial discrimination and repression. Nevertheless, the Mayans cling fiercely to their own cultural identity, wearing their own hand-woven clothing, complete with mythical symbols, celebrating their own cultural and religious ceremonies, and speaking their own languages. Some 23 Mayan languages are still spoken in Guatemala today, and the people continue to secretly worship their own Gods at ancient temple sites in the mountains.
Tikal was a dominating influence in the southern Maya lowlands throughout most of the Early Classic. The site, however, was often at war and inscriptions tell of alliances and conflict with other Maya states, including Uaxactun, Caracol, Dos Pilas, Naranjo, and Calakmul. The site was defeated at the end of the Early Classic by Caracol, which rose to take Tikal’s place as the paramount center in the southern Maya lowlands. It appears another defeat was suffered at the hands of Dos Pilas during the middle 7th century, with the possible capture and sacrifice of Tikal’s ruler at the time (Sharer 1994:265).
The “Tikal hiatus” refers to a period between the late 6th to late 7th century where there was a lapse in the writing of inscriptions and large-scale construction at Tikal. This hiatus in activity at Tikal was long unexplained until later epigraphic decipherments identified that the period was prompted by Tikal’s comprehensive defeat at the hands of the Caracol polity in A.D. 562 after six years of warfare against an alliance of Calakmul, Dos Pilas and Naranjo. The hiatus at Tikal lasted up to the ascension of Jasaw Chan K’awiil I (Ruler A) in A.D. 682. In A.D. 695, Yukno’m Yich’Aak K’ahk’ of Calakmul (Kanal), was defeated by the new ruler of Tikal, Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, Nu’n U Jol Chaak’s heir. This defeat of Calakmul restored Tikal’s preeminence in the Central Maya region, but never again in the southwest Petén, where Dos Pilas maintained its presence. The beginning of the Tikal hiatus has served as a marker by which archaeologists commonly sub-divide the Classic period of Mesoamerican chronology into the Early and Late Classic.
Its name is an apparent reference to the fact that it was situated at the far southern and eastern end of Maya territory. The nearby modern village of Copán Ruinas itself may have anciently been known as Oxwitik. The fertile Copán River valley was long a site of agriculture before the first known stone architecture was built in the region about the 9th century BC. A kingdom seems to have been established in Copán in 159. It grew into one of the most important Maya sites by the 5th century. Large monuments dated with hieroglyphic texts were erected in the city from 435 through 822.
Xukpi was one of the more powerful Maya city states, a regional power, although it suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of its former vassal state Quirigua in 738, when the long-ruling Xukpi ruler Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (18 Rabbit) was captured and beheaded by Quirigua’s ruler K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat (Cauac Sky). Though Copán’s rulers began to build monumental structures again within a few decades, both cities withered in the face of unsustainable population growth bringing about the depletion of natural resources, factors that brought several of the Classic-Age Maya city-states to their end. The area continued to be occupied after the last major ceremonial structures and royal monuments were erected, but the population declined in the 8th century – 9th century from perhaps over 20,000 in the city to less than 5,000. The ceremonial center was long abandoned and the surrounding valley home to only a few farming hamlets at the time of the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.