The rich bottomland in the Río Copán valley attracted farmers of unknown origin as early as 1000 B.C., but archaeological evidence indicates the Maya did not settle the area until about the time of Christ. Construction on the city is thought to have begun around A.D. 100, and the recorded history of the city does not begin until 426, when Copán’s royal dynasty began. Some archaeologists believe the dynasty began when outsiders, probably either from the then-dominant Teotihuacán empire in Mexico or allies of theirs, conquered the city and took over administration of the valley.
Detailed information on Copán’s earliest rulers is difficult to obtain, in part due to the ancient Mayan tradition of destroying monuments built by past rulers or building over temples erected in their honor. Not until 1989 were references to Copán’s first ruler discovered, in a chamber nicknamed the Founder’s Room  buried deep under the Hieroglyphic Stairway . Apparently built by Copán’s second ruler, nicknamed Mat Head for the odd headdress he is always depicted wearing, the room was dedicated in honor of his father, Yax K’uk’ Mo’. According to a stela found inside, Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the city’s first ruler, took the throne in A.D. 426 and governed until A.D. 435. In an astounding 1993 archaeological find, the tomb of Yax K’uk’ Mo’ was discovered directly underneath the East Court of the Acropolis . Evidence indicates he was not a conquering warrior, but a powerful shaman who was revered by later rulers as semidivine.
Little solid information is available on the next seven members of the dynasty, apart from a few names and dates. Apparently ruling only a small, provincial settlement at that time, these leaders created few lasting monuments or hieroglyphics telling of their deeds. At that time, Copán’s dynasty was thought to be consolidating control over its domain, as well as establishing trade links with other Mayan cities in Guatemala, non-Maya groups farther south and east in Honduras , and even civilizations as far off as Teotihuacán in Mexico, as evidenced by teotihuacano-style pottery in Copán tombs.
The period of greatest architectural construction, considered to be the height of Copán’s dynasty, began on May 26, 553, with the accession of Moon Jaguar to the throne. Moon Jaguar, Copán’s 10th leader, built the Rosalila Temple, which was discovered in 1989 buried under Structure 10L-16. A replica of the temple can now be seen in its full glory in the Museo de Escultura Maya .
After Moon Jaguar, a series of rulers of unusual longevity governed Copán, providing the stability and continuity necessary for the city to flourish. Smoke Imix, the city’s 12th ruler, took the throne February 8, 628, and ruled for 68 years, leaving more inscribed monuments and temples than any other ruler. Frequently depicted in full battle regalia and with representations of the jaguar god Tlaloc, Smoke Imix is thought to have been a great warrior. His successor, 18 Rabbit, was also a prolific builder; he gave final form to the Great Plaza  and the Ball Court . He also encouraged the development of sculpture, from low-relief to the nearly full-round style of later years. Despite these achievements, 18 Rabbit’s reign ended in tragedy; he was captured in battle by the nearby city of Quirigua, formerly a vassal state of Copán, and beheaded on May 3, 738.
Possibly because of the devastating blow of 18 Rabbit’s death, the 14th ruler, Smoke Monkey, erected no stelae in his own honor and built only one temple during his 11-year rule. He apparently conducted the city’s affairs in a council with nobles, demonstrating the weakness of the regime. In what archaeologists consider an attempt to regain the dynasty’s former glory, Smoke Monkey’s successor, Smoke Shell, dedicated the impressive Hieroglyphic Stairway , the longest hieroglyphic inscription known in the Americas. The 2,500 glyphs narrate the glorious past of Copán, but the poor construction of the staircase itself reveals that Smoke Shell could not mimic the impressive work of his predecessors.
The final leader in Copán to complete his reign, Yax Pac, governed the city for 58 years. One of the most important monuments left by Yax Pac is the famous Altar Q , a square bench illustrating all 15 prior rulers of the dynasty around its sides, with the first, Yax K’uk’ Mo’, passing the baton of leadership to Yax Pac. Although he may not have known it when he commissioned it, Yax Pac left on the small stone altar a brief résumé of the city’s entire history.
A 17th leader, U Cit Tok’, assumed the throne on February 10, 822. But for unknown reasons, his rule was never completed. The pathetic, half-completed Altar L, which he ordered built to commemorate his rule, suggests the dynasty ended with a single tragedy or defeat, rather than slowly fading from power.
The debate over the reason for the collapse of the Classic Maya kingdom has raged since serious archaeological work began at the end of the 19th century. The most accepted current explanation for Copán’s collapse puts the blame on environmental factors and population growth. By the final decades of the 8th century, the city had grown to cover some of the best alluvial bottomland in the river valley; consequently, farmers were pushed farther up the hillsides, where land was not as productive. Recent investigations indicate that during this time the Río Copán valley experienced droughts, deforestation, massive soil erosion, and sudden floods during the rainy season. In addition, the Mayans followed slash-and-burn agricultural practices, which may have become unsustainable as their population grew. It’s likely Copán simply outgrew its environment.
Although the city center was abandoned, evidence suggests the population in the region did not drop drastically until about 1200, when the region reverted to the small village groups found by the Spanish when they entered the valley in 1524.