The Earliest Residents
The oldest human yet discovered in the Western Hemisphere was found in 2008 in an underwater cave complex in the Yucatán, about 27 miles southwest of Tulum. Named the “Eve of Naharón” by her discoverers, she dates to the year 11,600 B.C., or 10,000 years before the peninsula became the heart of the Maya world.
In those days, Ice Age humans hunted woolly mammoth and other large animals roaming the cool, moist landscape of Mexico and Central America (you can visit their bones in Loltun Cave). Eventually, these Archaic peoples, as they are known, settled into villages, some of which became precursors to Maya cities.
After about 1000 B.C., the Olmec, Zapotec, and early Maya cultures formed in various parts of Mesoamerica. These cultures developed the New World’s first calendar system and an early system of writing, the knowledge of which spread throughout Mesoamerica. “As the Olmec influence moved from Veracruz south to Chiapas,” writes Michael Coe in his classic text The Maya, “use of hieroglyphic writing and calendar keeping followed.”
It first appeared in Izapa and Tak’alik Ab’aj, along the Pacific Coast, before venturing into the Guatemala highlands, then reaching the Preclassic cities of the Petén—Tikal, Yaxhá, and El Mirador. These kingdoms pushed northward into the Yucatán, where the use of the Long Count arrived around A.D. 250, the beginning of the golden age of Maya civilization.
The Classic Period
The Classic Period is defined as the period during which the Long Count was used in the lowland Yucatán area—A.D. 250–900. The Maya made phenomenal progress in the development of artistic, architectural, and astronomical skills during these 650 glory years—for the ruling classes, anyway. (Someone else had to work the limestone and build those pyramids.) The Maya of this era constructed kingdoms and wrote codices (folded bark books) filled with hieroglyphic symbols that detailed complicated calculations of days, months, years, and greater cycles of time.
These are the years that gave the Maya their reputation as thinkers, philosophers, and astronomers. In Time Among the Maya, author Ronald Wright describes these Maya as “the Greeks of the New World, living in warring city-states under a pantheon of stars and gods. Their main achievements were intellectual, not political.”
Only priests and the privileged held this knowledge, however, and they continued to develop it until the date-keeping and growth suddenly halted sometime after A.D. 800. By the end of that century, no buildings had been constructed, nor stelae erected.
Why were the centers abandoned? What happened to the priests and noblemen, the guardians of religion, science, and the arts? Theories abound. Some speculate social revolution; the people were tired of subservience and no longer willing to farm the land to provide food, clothing, and support for the priests and nobles. Other evidence points to population pressure on local resources combined with a series of devastating droughts. Whatever caused the great collapse (as it is known), most of the Maya’s knowledge of astronomy, hieroglyphics, and architecture was not passed on to their Postclassic descendants.
Colonialism to the Present
Though most major Maya population centers had collapsed 600 years before the arrival of the Spanish, many Maya survived, living in scattered pockets throughout the region. In 1519, 34-year-old Hernán Cortés sailed from Cuba searching for slaves; he began on the Yucatán coast and continued southward encountering the Maya. The Spanish believed Maya culture and religion was satanic and forcibly tried to exterminate both—even if this meant killing people in the process of saving souls.
The Maya’s resistance surprised Cortés, and fighting continued for many years with much bloodshed and death on both sides. Historians estimate that in the end, as many as 90 percent of the pre-conquest Maya population died from violence and from European diseases, including smallpox.
As the Maya world was divided up into colonial territories, and then into the independent nations of Mexico and Central America, the story of the indigenous people in each of these countries was largely parallel: Colonizers and mestizos (those of mixed European/indigenous descent) treated the Maya as landless, illiterate peasants with no right to property, or much of anything at all.
The situation erupted several times in rebellion, notably in a prolonged period of bloodshed and violence during the latter half of the 19th century in southern Mexico. The Yucatán Caste Wars, as this period is known, were fought in defense of communal Maya lands and over dignity and human rights. Despite these hardships, the Maya endured. Ronald Wright writes, “They abandoned some areas, lingered in others, migrated, merged, and adapted. They were and are eclectic: the Maya have always absorbed the culture of their conquerors and remade it as their own. They survived the Classic fall; and, better than any other Mesoamericans, they survived the Spanish invasion.”
The Maya also survived state-sponsored terror and genocide in Guatemala in the latter part of the 20th century. The peace accord of 1995 finally ended the violence and allowed the Maya to practice their culture. Today, many Maya suffer widespread poverty in their communities, yet still continue to survive and thrive.
As ancient hieroglyphics become better understood, and as discoveries are made about Maya heritage, pride in Maya communities has increased, even while, in some areas, languages and customs are dying out faster than you can say “globalization.”
© Josh Berman from Moon Maya 2012