Tikal was settled somewhere between 900 and 700 B.C. on a site undoubtedly selected because of its position above seasonal swamps that characterize much of the terrain in this part of Peteén, as well as the availability of flint for trade and the manufacture of tools and weapons. It remained little more than a small settlement for at least 200 years. By 500 B.C. the first stone temple was erected and later used as the basis for the large Preclassic pyramid dominating the complex now known as The Lost World Complex . Tikal continued its steady progress during the late Preclassic period, sometime around 200 B.C., with the construction of ceremonial buildings found in the North Acropolis  and the completion of the pyramid at El Mundo Perdido.
By the time of Christ, Tikal’s Great Plaza had begun to take shape and by the Early Classic period, around A.D. 250, Tikal was an important religious, commercial, and cultural center with a sprawling population. King Yax Ehb’ Xoc established his dynasty at this time, one which was recognized by the 33 subsequent rulers of Tikal until recorded history at the site goes silent in A.D. 869.
The history of Tikal is closely tied to the emergence of Teotihuacán, a powerful city-state to the north in Central Mexico, which it should be noted was completely non-Mayan in origin. Its influence began to be felt during the middle of the 4th century A.D., when Teotihuacán dispatched a warrior by the name of Siyak K’ak’ (Born of Fire) to aid Tikal in its war against the neighboring city of Uaxactún. Siyak K’ak’ introduced the use of the atlatl, a wooden sling that allowed Tikal’s warriors to defeat their enemy by firing arrows without having to engage in hand-to-hand combat.
The aid from the north, according to recorded texts chronicling the execution of Tikal’s Jaguar Paw I, amounted to a military takeover with the installation of Yax Nuun Ayin I (Curl Nose or First Crocodile), of Teotihuacán royalty, who later married into Tikal’s dynasty.
With Teotihuacán hegemony now firmly established, Tikal dominated central Petén for most of the next 500 years. It grew to become one of the richest and most powerful Mayan city-states, aided by its dominance of strategic lowland trade routes. Tikal’s influence reached as far south as Copán  and as far west as Yaxchilán .
At the same time, the city-state of Calakmul, just north of the Guatemalan border in present-day Mexico, began its assent toward regional dominance. As the power and influence of Teotihuacán waned in the 5th century A.D., Calakmul emerged as a geopolitical force to be reckoned with, incorporating a number of vassal states surrounding Tikal and contesting its dominion over the Mayan lowlands. A key alliance was forged between Calakmul and Caracol, in present-day Belize.
Tikal launched a preemptive strike against Caracol in A.D. 556. With backing from Calakmul, Caracol launched a counterattack on Tikal in A.D. 562; the latter suffered a crushing defeat. Desecration of Tikal’s stelae and ritual burials, in addition to the destruction of many of its written records, followed.
After this defeat, Tikal underwent a 130-year hiatus from erecting inscribed monuments, though it has recently been discovered that Temple V was constructed during this period. Mayanists now believe Tikal was never completely broken, despite defeat at the hands of its bitter rival.
Tikal reemerged as a dominant power beginning in A.D. 682 under the new leadership of Hasaw Chan K’awil (Heavenly Standard Bearer), whose 52-year reign was marked by the definitive defeat of Calakmul in A.D. 695 with reassertion of control over regional satellite cities such as Río Azul  and Waka’ as well as a frenzy of new temple construction. The six great temples dominating Tikal’s ceremonial center were reconstructed between A.D. 670 and 810 by Hasaw Chan K’awil and his successors.
At the height of the Classic period, Tikal covered an area of about 30 square kilometers and had a population of at least 100,000, though some Mayanists believe it may have been much greater.
By the beginning of the 9th century A.D., conditions worsened for many city-states across the Mayan lowlands with the Classic Maya collapse in full swing. Tikal was no exception. The city-state’s last inscription is recorded on Stela 24, which dates to A.D. 869.
Tikal, like Petén’s other Mayan cities, was completely abandoned by the late 10th century A.D. The city would be reclaimed by the jungle and largely forgotten until its rediscovery in the late 17th century.
The Itzá who occupied the present-day island of Flores  probably knew about Tikal and may have worshipped here. Spanish missionary friars passing through Petén after the conquest mention the existence of cities buried beneath the jungle, but it wasn’t until 1848 that the Guatemalan government commissioned explorers Modesto Méndez and Ambrosio Tut to visit the site. The pair brought along an artist, Eusebio Lara, to record their discoveries.
In 1877, Swiss explorer Dr. Gustav Bernoulli visited Tikal and removed the carved wooden lintels from Temples I and IV. He shipped them to Basel, where they remain on display at the Museum für Völkerkunde.
Scientific study of the site would begin in 1881 with the arrival of British archaeologist Alfred P. Maudslay. His work was subsequently continued by Teobert Maler, Alfred M. Tozzer, and R. E. Merwin, among others. The inscriptions at Tikal owe their decipherment to the work of Sylvanis G. Morley. In the mid-1950s, an airstrip was built, making access to the site much easier.
The University of Pennsylvania carried out excavations between 1956 and 1969, along with Guatemala’s Institute of Anthropology and History. With help from Spanish Cooperation, Temples I and V have been restored as part of a project begun in 1991.
A relatively small part of Tikal has been officially discovered and excavated. New discoveries await, along with new information that will undoubtedly continue to shed light on the turbulent history of the Mayan civilization.
Among the more recent discoveries are the 1996 unearthing of a stela from A.D. 468 in the Great Plaza and the location of Temple V inscriptions challenging the notion of Tikal’s 130-year hiatus after its defeat against Calakmul.