During the Pleistocene epoch (about 50,000 B.C.), when the level of the sea fell, people and animals from Asia crossed the Bering land bridge into the American continent. For nearly 50,000 years, humans continued the epic trek southward.
As early as 10,000 B.C., Ice Age people hunted woolly mammoth and other large animals roaming the cool, moist landscape of Central America. Between 7000 and 2000 B.C., society evolved from hunters and gatherers to farmers. Such crops as corn, squash, and beans were independently domesticated in widely separated areas of Mesoamerica after about 6000 B.C. The remains of clay figurines presumed to be fertility symbols, marked the rise of religion in Mesoamerica, beginning about 2000 B.C. Archaeologists believe that during this Archaic Period (3400–1000 B.C.) some hunter-gatherer communities made temporary settlements in Belize.
Around 1000 B.C., the Olmec culture, believed to be the earliest in the area and the predecessors to the Maya, began to spread throughout Mesoamerica. Large-scale ceremonial centers grew along Gulf Coast lands, and much of Mesoamerica was influenced by the Olmecs’ religion of worshipping jaguarlike gods. The Olmecs also developed the New World’s first calendar and an early system of writing.
The Classic Period
The Classic Period, beginning about A.D. 250, is now hailed as the peak of cultural development among the Maya. For the next 600 years, until A.D. 900, the Mayans made phenomenal progress in the development of artistic, architectural, and astronomical skills. They constructed impressive buildings during this period and wrote codices (folded bark books) filled with hieroglyphic symbols that detailed complicated mathematical calculations of days, months, and years. Only the priests and the privileged held this knowledge and continued to learn and develop it until, for some unexplained reason, the growth suddenly halted. A new militaristic society was born, built around a blend of ceremonialism, civic and social organization, and conquest.
Maya Society Collapses
All evidence points to an abrupt work stoppage. After about A.D. 900, no buildings were constructed and no stelae, which carefully detailed names and dates to inform future generations of their roots, were erected.
What happened to the priests and noblemen, the guardians of religion, science, and the arts, who conducted their ritual ceremonies and studies in the large stone pyramids? Why were the centers abandoned? What happened to the knowledge of the intelligentsia? Theories abound. Some speculate about a social revolution—the people were tired of subservience and were no longer willing to farm the land to provide food, clothing, and support for the priests and nobles. Other theories include population pressure on local resources, i.e., that there just wasn’t enough land to provide food and necessities for the large population. Others believe drought, famine, and/or epidemics were responsible.
Whatever happened, it’s clear that the special knowledge concerning astronomy, hieroglyphics, and architecture was not passed on to Maya descendants. Why did the masses disperse, leaving once-sacred stone cities unused and ignored?
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition