Ancient Guatemala

Birthplace of the Lowland Maya, this region in Central America was home to Cancuén and Tikal, some of the most sophisticated city states to ever be encountered by Europeans in the new world.

Bonampak Mural Reproduction
The World of the Ancient Maya

Jade Mask found in Tomb of Tikal, Classic Maya 3rd Century

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.

The Maya

An illustration showing Mayans playing the sacred ball game

The Mayans of Guatemala and the surrounding regions had one of the most advanced civilizations of the ancient world. Their cities flourished across Central America, complete with remarkable pyramids, temples, observatories and libraries, and their scholars produced works of literature, philosophy, art and architecture. Particularly skilled in mathematics and astronomy, Mayan scientists developed a calendar more precise than that used by NASA even today.

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.

A reconstruction of the main temple at Copan clearly demonstrating how all Mayan temples were brightly colored originally

A reconstruction of the main temple at Copan clearly demonstrating how all Mayan temples were brightly colored originally

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.

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Ancient Cancuén

A Classic Maya urn with skeletal representations of the lords of death

A Classic Maya urn with skeletal representations of the lords of death

Cancuén was a major city during the Classic Period, reaching its peak during the Seventh Century A.D. The city was a major trade center, specializing in jade, pyrite and obsidian. Its strategic position on the Río Pasion helped it dominate trade in the region. Taj Chan Ahk, one of the city’s most powerful rulers, built the city’s palace in 770 A.D. The palace covered nearly 23,000 square meters and contained 200 rooms, making it the largest in the Maya area. The city had two ball court a large marketplace and a dock on La Pasion River. The city does not contain many large temples or burial sites; it is thought that the inhabitants of Cancuén worshipped and buried their dead in the mountains near the city. Several dozen bodies dressed in royal garments were discovered near the base of the central pyramid. Investigations have shown that the bodies, including the city’s ruler at the time, Kan Maax, had been executed and dumped in a cistern. The massacre occurred around 800 A.D., the time when the Mayan civilization collapsed, leading some scholars to believe that it was connected to the upheaval that accompanied the collapse of the Maya civilization

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The City of Tikal

The main plaza of Tikal showing the large number of pyramids as they looked in the late post classic era

Tikal was one of the major cultural and population centers of the Maya civilization. Though monumental architecture at the site dates to the 4th century BC, Tikal reached its apogee during the Classic Period, ca. 200 to 900 AD, during which time the site dominated the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily while interacting with areas throughout Mesoamerica, such as central Mexican center of Teotihuacan. There is also evidence that Tikal was even conquered by Teotihuacan in the 4th century. Following the end of the Late Classic Period, no new major monuments were built at Tikal and there is evidence that elite palaces were burned. These events were coupled with a gradual population decline, culminating with the site’s abandonment by the end of the 10th century.

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 main pyramid at Tikal as it looks today

The main pyramid at Tikal as it looks today

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.

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Rise of Copán

The city of Copan illustrated at it’s height

The city today known as Copán is a locale in western Honduras, in the Copán Department, near to the Guatemalan border. It is the site of a major Maya kingdom of the Classic era (5th through 9th Centuries). The kingdom, anciently named Xukpi (Corner-Bundle), flourished from the 5th century AD to the early 9th century, with antecedents going back to at least the 2nd century AD.

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.

The head of a Macaw, from a structure at Copan

The head of a Macaw, from a structure at Copan

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.

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