The story of the Maya begins during the Fourth Ice Age about 60,000 years ago. At this
time the earth's ice caps were much larger than today, glaciers extended as far south as
the central United States and no tropical climate existed anywhere on our planet. The
so-called tropics were covered with savannah and grassland. So much water was trapped in
the ice caps that the level of the sea was lower than today and a land bridge about
miles wide connecting Asia and North America at the Bering Strait was exposed. The first
humans to inhabit the Americas came across this land bridge. At first, travel south was
impeded by vast walls of ice but gradually, as the ice melted, people began to spread
It is believed the first humans reached Central America about 15,000 years ago. The
first identifiable culture, Clovis, existed around 10,000 BC. Some stone tools dating back
to 9,000 BC have been found in Guatemala. Around this time, the Fourth Ice Age was drawing
to a close and the climate was gradually warming up enabling humans to begin eating more
plants and less meat. This change was underway around 8,000 BC.
From 8,000 BC to 2,000 BC the inhabitants of Central America gradually became more
agrarian and they domesticated beans, corn, peppers, squash and other plants. During this
time there was still no jungle, just savannah and grassland and some trees. Evidence
indicates that a tropical jungle climate appeared in Central America only quite recently,
after the Mayan civilization was well underway. Towards the end of this period, some
recognizably Mayan villages appeared and pottery and ceramics appeared. Some villages had
The period from 1500 BC to 300 AD is called the "Pre-Classic" period of Mayan
culture. During this period the Mayan language developed. The Mayans experienced
population growth and larger towns were constructed.
Meanwhile, the Olmec culture was developing in southern Mexico. The Olmec is viewed as
the "mother culture" in Central America; They developed a system of writing, the
long-count calendar and a complex religion. The Olmecs had a considerable influence on the
fledgeling Maya culture. The Maya adopted many of the Olmec skills and practices and
developed them further. It seems that the mixture of the Olmec and Mayan cultures touched
off an explosion of cultural development. Archaeologists are not sure of the cause but
from 300 BC to 300 AD, tremendous development occurred in architecture, writing,
and calendrics throughout Mayan lands and the population increased. The great cities of El
Mirador, Kaminaljuyú, Río Azúl and Tikal all were founded during this time. Mayan cities
often went to war against each other.
The Classic Period of Maya development is the 600 years from 300 AD to 900 AD. The Maya
refined the long-count calendar and developed a more advanced written language. The Maya
had a tendency to tear down buildings and temples and rebuild new ones over the rubble of
the old. Some buildings are built on several layers of previous buildings. All of the
great Mayan cities as they appear today were built during the Classic Period, over the
remains of previous construction. Architecture and culture blossomed during the Classic
Period. The Maya began to accurately record important events on carved stelae. Excellent
examples of Mayan stelae and art can be seen at Quirigua, an easy day-trip from Rio Dulce.
Early in the Classic Period, around 400 AD, the Maya became heavily influenced by the
civilization of Teotihuacan to the north. Teotihuacan was the most powerful culture in
Central Mexico. Much about this relationship is unclear but it appears to have been
beneficial to both civilizations because both prospered and developed at this time.
Evidence also exists that there was interaction and trade between Central American
cultures and European, African and Polynesian cultures -- well before the time of
Columbus. For more about this see Trans-Oceanic Diffusion.
Around the year 650 AD the civilization of Teotihuacan collapsed. This collapse
triggered an upset in the Mayan civilization. Apparently there was a struggle to fill the
power-vacuum left by the collapse of Teotihuacan. Now free of its relationship to
Teotihuacan, the Maya reached their highest levels of sophistication. Art, astronomy and
religion reached new heights. The population grew and cities expanded in this era of
greatest Mayan prosperity. Astronomy and arithmetics advanced and the Mayans were able to
measure the orbits of celestial bodies with unprecedented accuracy. The Maya predicted the
motions of Venus to a degree of precision only equaled in recent times. The Maya traded
with cultures as far away as South America and the southern US. Mayan cities were much
larger and more populous than any city in Europe. The Mayas greatest artistic works in
pottery and jade were made during this pinnacle of Mayan development.
Looking at the grey ruins of Mayan architecture today, it is hard to imagine that they
were originally painted in bright colors, red, white, yellow and green, inside and out.
Certain internal chambers have been preserved and microscopic traces of paint on the
stonework have enabled archaeologists to reconstruct what Tikal and other sites
probably looked like.
However, this peak of Mayan development was to be short lived. By 750 AD problems arose
and the collapse was underway. There are many theories about what happened. By this time,
the climate was certainly changing from grassland and savannah into the tropical climate
we now associate with Guatemala. Perhaps there were food shortages. In any event, the
population dropped and the cities were gradually abandoned. By 830 AD construction and
development had come to a halt. Some cities in Belize and Yucatan survived longer but in
Guatemala the population abandoned the cities and redistributed itself into the farming
villages of the highlands that we see today.