The Maya Area, the territory occupied by the pre-conquest Maya, is located in the geographical region of Central America and covers the southernmost part of the
Mesoamerican cultural area. The Maya Area can be defined both by the distribution of archaeological remains and by the known historical and recent distribution of inhabitants still speaking one of the 32 Mayan languages.
The entire Maya area covers a region of about 320,000 km². The area includes today's federal states Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo of Mexico, as well as the countries Belize, Guatemala and the western extremities of Honduras and El
Salvador. The Maya Area can roughly be divided into four greater geographical regions (Fig.
Fig. 1.1 - Map of the Maya Area showing the most important geographical regions and archaeological sites.
The Northern (or Yucatecan) Lowlands cover the most part of the Yucatec Peninsula. The
Central Lowlands (or the Petén) are the "heart" of the Maya Area, where deep in the rain forests Maya civilization reached its peak. The Southern (or Transitional) Lowlands cover a belt from southern Belize along the drainage of the Río Usumacinta to the gulf coast of
Tabasco and Campeche. The Guatemalan Highlands are starting in the north with the
Sierra Madre de Chiapas, stretch over the volcanic chains in Southern Guatemala until the
Pacific coastal plain.
While this division is rather geographical, a definition of the Maya Area can also be achieved by means of cultural terms. The absence of hieroglyphic writing outside the Lowland Maya
region is such a case. The Maya Area can also be subdivided into about a dozen regions with slightly distinctive variations in architecture, monument carving and most probably languages, among other features. In the Northwestern Zone for example, with Palenque as its predominant center, we find a priority of wall panels for the carving of texts, while the
Central and the Pasión Zone with Tikal, Calakmul and Naranjo, to mention only a few, preferred the recording of texts on stelae.
The four geographical regions described above feature a great variety of environments. The
Northern Lowlands are an even limestone slab that raised out of the Gulf of Mexico and is seldom higher than 30 m above sea level. With the Puuc rim (up to 270 m) and its famous centers Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, and Labná, the landscape begins to transform into karstland.
Because rainfall seeps away very quickly in the porous bedrock and bodies of water are very rare, the Maya had to develop a highly sophisticated water management system, including the construction of reservoirs and cisterns. One notable feature are sinkholes in the earth's surface called cenotes. At the eastern Caribbean coast, many bays featured natural harbors.
The Northern lowlands are mostly covered by evergreen dry forest and thorn bush and grass savannas. From the Northwest of the Peninsula to the Highlands of Chiapas and the Petén, the landscape is mostly karst, orientated in formations running from the northwest to the southeast. The Central and the Southern Lowlands are covered by dense tropical forest, pervaded in the south by numerous lakes and river systems. The most important is the Río
Usumacinta which meets the Gulf of Mexico. The Guatemalan Highlands are the result of the junction of two continental plates and experience frequent tectonic activity. From the
Highlands of Chiapas into Central America you find a chain of young and active volcanoes, among them the Tajamulco, the highest volcano in Central America, the Atitlan, Toliman,
Fuego and Pacaya. North of this belt, older volcanic highlands with fertile soils pass into the sedimentary formations of the Southern Lowlands. The Guatemalan Highlands were the source of a highly estimated trade good, obsidian, a volcanic glass. Before the introduction of steel cutting tools by the Spaniards, obsidian was the only source for such tools. Basaltic rocks were also used to fabricate grinding tools (manos and metates).
The Maya Area does not show specific seasons like spring or winter, but one can demark a rainy season from May to August with nearly 80% of the annual rainfall. The rest of the year is almost dry, from February to April you have the hottest months with temperatures up to
35°C. The annual rainfall amount differs considerably in the Maya Area, it moves between
500 mm in Northwestern Yucatan and 4000 mm in Southern Belize and the Tabasco plain.
In the diverse climates and regions, there lives a broad variety of plants and animals. Maize, together with squash and beans, are the basic sustenance for the people and are cultivated in Mesoamerica since about 3500 BC. The basic method was and still is shifting cultivation: parcels of land are being burnt and the ash is used as fertilizer. Other plants complement these staple foods, such as different spices and fruits (e.g. chile, avocado) and most notably cacao. The ancient Maya used to hunt and most probably herd specific animals as well. Some animals native to the Maya Area were turkey, tapir, white-tailed deer, pocket gopher and several species of primates. Cattle and poultry were unknown until the arrival of the
Spaniards. The Maya near the shores also were fishing seafood.
, you will find a list of introductory books on the culture und history of the ancient Maya. You will also find a high resolution
for downloading and printing at the end of the chapter.
The origins of Maya civilization can be traced back late into Early Preclassic times. New
World Pre-historians have developed a five-staged chronological scheme to describe the time span from the earliest traces of humans until the arrival of the Europeans (Fig. 1.2) in the
Maya Area. At about 1500 BC, the Olmecs were the first to have established a highly stratified civilization, recognizable through their monumental art and immense architectural construction in their "cities" La Venta and San Lorenzo in Tabasco and Veracruz. Here, we find for a first time the most basic elements of Maya architecture, low platforms and pyramidal structures.
Fig. 1.2 - Chronological scheme for the Maya Area.
Obviously, all Mesoamerican cultures featured a shared system of specific beliefs and conventions for their representation in art. Themes so common in Maya Art, such as the
"Jester God" motive as an icon for rulership or the representation of the entrance to the underworld as the maw of the "Earth Monster", have their roots in Olmec iconography. At about the same time, we can observe the first indications for intensive agriculture in the Maya lowlands. Ceramic vessels also appeared during this time period and are very similar in their style to Olmec pottery.
After the decline of Olmec civilization in the Late Preclassic at about 400 BC, one can recognize several development directions in the Maya Area. In the Pacific piedmont of southern Guatemala, a group called the Epi-Olmecs constructed several large-scaled sites such as Abaj Takalik, El Baúl, and Izapa. The inhabitants of these "cities" created a style of monumental art as well as an ideological and iconographic tradition that features many characteristics later also known from the Maya, such as the combination of an altar and a stela, the ritualistic importance of caves in the iconography, the representation of a ruler in a specific kind of dress (Fig. 1.3) and, most importantly, the use of script. This script consist of approximately 400 signs in a highly iconic manner. However, it is not a pictorial script, the number of signs corresponds to that of Maya Writing and therefore suggests a similar system.
Also of interest is the notation of numerals in bar-and-dot system and calendrical notations in the form of the Initial Series.
Fig. 1.3 - Kaminaljuyu Stela 10.
While the so-called Epi-Olmecs are supposed to speakers of a Mixe-Zoquean language they are doubtless a different ethnic group than the further north settled Maya. Originally, Maya civilization underwent its own development, as we will see in Lesson 3. But why do we observe these characteristics later on in the Maya Area? This can only be explained with a dynamic political nature in the Late Preclassic Period, where certain key symbols of rulership were invoked by rulers regardless their linguistic or ethnic affiliation. These icons surely facilitated the ideological exchange between regions and helped Maya society to form their cultural properties. The use of hieroglyphic writing is such another aspect of these exchange patterns.
In the Maya Lowlands, as early as about 500 BC, the first Maya "cities" arose in the deep rainforest of the Petén, among them El Mirador and Nakbé, which reached their peak in the
Late Preclassic. In other parts of the Maya Area, we can observe other developments. For example, the inhabitants of Cuello in Belize constructed houses from perishable materials with stucco cover and floors with plasterworks grouped around a central courtyard or patio. This became the principal arrangement of structures throughout the Maya Area. In these yards, a great part of daily life took place and there and in the houses the dead were buried near their family.
Many of the characteristics of what we call the Classic Maya civilization originated during the
Middle and Late Preclassic period. They mainly originated in the Guatemalan Highlands and the Pacific coast. The earliest evidence from inland, i.e. lowland ceramics producing settlements, comes from the Middle Preclassic. As Maya culture can now be traced in the lowlands, we begin to focus our attention on that region and begin to leave the highlands were the first origins were located. However, it is important to keep in mind that Maya civilization did not emerge in an unilateral direction, with the Olmecs and Epi-Olmecs being their direct cultural ancestors. Although it still cannot exactly be explained what the processes were, Maya society arose from a complex, dynamic interchange of different cultures.
Beside the Guatemalan influences, it becomes clear that the origins of Maya civilization came from the very heartland itself. The archaeological evidence from Komchen in Yucatán, Cerros and Cuello in Belize and above all El Mirador and Nakbé in northern Guatemala indicates a rapid growth of population during the Middle and Late Preclassic.
The tremendous development can be best exemplified at Nakbé. During the first half of the
Middle Preclassic it was a site not uncommon to other ones, with small structures and low walls. But during the later Middle Preclassic, beginning at about 600 BC, major transformations took place. Enormous terraced platforms were constructed to carry huge pyramidal structures, the tallest 32 and 45 meters high. Construction activity lasted until the
Late Preclassic at about 200 BC. A broken stela discovered recently shows a facing pair of figures, though no traces of hieroglyphs were found. Still, we cannot answer the swift development of Nakbé since our data on other lowland sites are limited.
The Late Preclassic saw the emergence of a hierarchically structured society throughout most parts of the Maya Area. Not only did population grow, the evidence that the society got more and more stratified can be demonstrated by elaborate funerary remains, a sophisticated art style and above all the massive ceremonial structures. All of this is at a glance recognized typically as Maya. In the southern Maya regions, the first examples of hieroglyphic writing occur, in strong ties with a Mixe-Zoquean tradition in the highlands of Chiapas and adjacent
Guatemala. In archaeology and iconography, the Late Preclassic features already the greater part of a cultural set we still find during the Classic period.
With the last part of the Late Preclassic (ca. 100 to 250 AD), also called the Terminal Preclassic or Protoclassic, monumental architecture appears in many sites in the lowlands, among them
Tikal in Guatemala, and Cerros and Lamanai in Belize. The site of El Mirador deserves yet another mention, for it was by the end of the Preclassic the biggest Maya city. The ceremonial core covers about 4 km2 and is connected by a series of causeways with a still undetermined hinterland. In the Western Group, the El Tigre complex (Fig. 1.4) comprises of a central structure flanked by two others.
Fig. 1.4 - El Tigre complex, El Mirador.
This type of building is known as a triadic pyramid. About 800 meters to east rises the Danta complex. This three-terraced group measures about 300 meters on each side and features several pyramidal structures which are towering about 70 meters above ground. The Danta complex is the largest individual structure ever built by the ancient Maya. The pyramids from
Nakbé and El Mirador can even be seen from the site of Calakmul, about 60 km in the north.
The rapid changes and swift developments in the Terminal Preclassic are not only visible in the Southern Lowlands and the Petén, but also in the Northern Regions further north. The intensive excavations in Cerros, Belize, have demonstrated that within a rather short period
of time the modest village was transformed in a royal center at about 50 BC. The discovery of jade pendants in a tomb showing the Jester God, the icon of rulership, are a good proof.
The façade of Structure 5C-2nd shows a series of large plaster masks representing several celestial bodies that are arranged by a specific mythological, religious and astronomic pattern.
This clearly demonstrates the social and intellectual stratification of Maya society.
However, by the end of the Terminal Preclassic, many sites, from small Cerros to huge El
Mirador, experienced tremendous difficulties and finally declined. What triggered it off must remain unknown, whether it was political or economic trouble.
The beginning of the Classic period is normally placed at about 250 AD. From the Early Classic, we have the first (provenanced) hieroglyphic inscription with a Long Count date. It is Stela
29 from Tikal which dates into 292 AD. And in Tikal we will also begin to retell the history of the Classic period.
For a course in Maya hieroglyphic writing, the Classic would be the period that is most interesting, for almost all hieroglyphic texts date from the time span between 250 and 900
AD. But it would be to extensive to mention all accounts at this point, so we restrict ourselves to a general overview.
The beginning of the Early Classic is characterized by the emergence of the first states in the
Maya Area. A broad class of simple nobles named themselves ajaw, whereas the rulers of these states are called the k'uhul ajaw, the "divine kings". The oldest of the Maya states was
Tikal which claims to have been founded by a king named Yax Ehb Xook. The analysis of epigraphic data suggests that this foundation event must have occurred at around 90 AD.
Terminal Preclassic and Early Classic Tikal had trade relations at its disposal with the
Guatemalan highlands and the important metropolis of Teotihuacan in Central Mexico. At about 360 AD Tikal flourished under its king Chak Tok Ich'aak I. By the end of the 4th century, we find many new iconographic motifs in the entire Maya lowlands which are purely Mexican.
Tikal and many other sites mention the arrival of a large group of persons pertaining to a new elite. What has happened? As advancing decipherment has proved, an invasion army from
Teotihuacan led by a person named Sihyaj K'ahk' has conquered Tikal in 378 AD. One year later a new king was installed, Yax Nuun Ahyiin I. , likely a son of a foreign king, may be even the ruler of Teotihuacan himself, and a noble woman from Tikal. The influence of Teotihuacan is reflected in many aspects of Maya culture. New iconographic elements appeared as well as new ceramic wares or architectonical forms. Even in distant Copán, located at the eastern edge of the Maya Area, we find a dynastic founder named K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', always displayed with specific features of Teotihuacan iconography.
The Maya Area was never unified politically. At all times, several more or less powerful city states were competing with each other. The establishment of alliances between these states was the next logical step. It is not clear, how dynamic politics was during the Classic, whether it was a permanent fluctuation of allies, or the emergence of hegemonial states. Whereas
Tikal was the most powerful city state during the Early Classic, another power emerged during the latter half of this period: Calakmul, situated in southern Campeche. The whole political situation began to change in the entire Central Lowlands, and even centers as far as Palenque were affected by these upheavals. For Tikal, this period is often described as the "hiatus" or
Middle Classic period from about 550 to 679. During this time, we find virtually no archaeological or epigraphic evidence from Tikal. What has happened to this superpower and how was Calakmul involved?
Calakmul followed a strategy of gaining allies in order to surround Tikal and cut the city off its political and economic power. The first evidence we have is a war event recorded in Caracol that occurred in 556, Tikal opened the hostilities against Caracol which was by that time an ally of Calakmul, though in 553 Tikal oversaw the accession of the Caracol ruler Yajaw Te'
K'inich II. Other city states, including Naranjo and later Dos Pilas joined Calakmul and Tikal was ultimately defeated in 562. Dos Pilas is a very interesting case, since its dynasty appeared very late on the political landscape. Recent discoveries proved that the first ruler, Bajlaj Chan
K'awiil, was a brother of the Tikal sovereign Nuun Ujol Chahk. Internal struggles let Bajlaj
Chan K'awiil become an ally of Calakmul and found its own dynasty at Dos Pilas. Nuun Ujol
Chahk was even forced to live in exile for a while. With the defeat of Tikal, Calakmul became the predominant city state in the Maya Area. But you may not think of Maya warfare as great battles like the ones in the Old World. Maya "armies" likely consisted merely of several hundred warriors, the dense forest prohibited greater expeditions. During the supremacy of
Calakmul, the city underwent extensive construction activity. Structure II (Fig. 1.5) became the tallest temple pyramid with 120 m on each side and a height of 45 m, it is therefore the fourth-largest building in the Maya Area after the Preclassic structures of Nakbé and El
Mirador. With more than 120 stelae commemorating its history, Calakmul displays the greatest amount of monumental inscriptions of all Maya cities.
Fig. 1.5 - Calakmul Structure II, two views. (a) from the top of Str. VII across the Great Plaza, on the left is
Str. I, (b) from the Great Plaza with stelae 38 to 42 in the foreground.
Fortune turned in 695 when Tikal's ruler Jasaw Chan K'awiil defeated the Calakmul ruler
Yich'aak K'ahk' and its army. In two further campaigns, Tikal freed itself of the embrace of El
Perú and Naranjo and gained again the supremacy over the lowlands. Even before these events, Jasaw Chan K'awiil conducted important building programs, he extended Temple 33 of the North Acropolis, the most sacred area in Tikal and erected several new pyramidal structures (Fig. 1.6).
Fig. 1.6 - Aerial view of the Great Plaza of Tikal. In the foreground parts of the Central Acropolis, in the background the North Acropolis. Temples I (right) and II (left) flank the plaza.
But the restored power of Tikal was not so strong as it used to be during the Early Classic though the city and its dynasty flourished until the end of the Classic period. Calakmul, though still a powerful state, seemed to have left a vacuum in the political landscape. What we can observe with the end of the 7th century, is a process which has frequently been called a
"balkanization" of the Maya Area. As a general tendency, lesser nobles which referred to themselves as an ajaw now claimed to be a k'uhul ajaw over their own independent city state as well. The emergence of the Dynasty of Dos Pilas was such an initial case and was also within that region where apparently the decline of Classic Maya civilization began.
The region called the Petexbatun was presumably ruled by the small site of Tamarindito during the Early Classic. The newly founded dynasty at Dos Pilas soon began to be very active. It attacked the neighboring sites, even fought against Tikal, and Bajlaj Chan K'awiil sent his daughter to Naranjo, all to extend its ascendancy of the other polities. But suddenly, Dos Pilas was brought to its knees with the defeat of its fourth ruler, K'awiil Chan K'inich by his vassals in Tamarindito in 761. Dos Pilas was attacked and shortly after abandoned. The archaeological record shows in a dramatic manner, how the inhabitants of Dos Pilas tore down the ceremonial buildings to erect two defensive walls around the site core. After the siege of Dos Pilas, the scene shifts to Aguateca, also a strongly fortified city, where its rulers also claimed to be the
"divine king of Mutul". This prestigious title was originally the one of the rulers of Tikal, but
Dos Pilas also occupied it, because its dynastic founder was a member of the Tikal ruling lineage. Aguateca also fell in the increasing warfare of the Petexbatun region, and subsequent pity reigns at La Amelia, Seibal, and Aguas Calientes tried to continue the tradition of Dos
Pilas. By the end of the 8th century, apparently most parts of the Petexbatun region were depopulated.
In other parts of the Maya Area we can trace similar processes of social and political decline.
Small polities seemed to have gained power over their foes, the regional capitals. The capture of the Palenque ruler K'inich K'an Joy Chitam by Toniná or the one of Copán's Waxaklajuun
Ubaah K'awiil by Quiriguá are such cases. Elsewhere, established dynasties faced other struggles. After the death of Itzamnaaj Bahlam of Yaxchilán, the city experienced an interregnum of ten years.
Lesson 5 - The Terminal Classic
The Terminal Classic was a period that saw many dramatic social and political changes that divided the Maya Area in two halves. We will at first focus on the Central and Southern
Lowlands and then continue with the development on the Yucatec Peninsula. The events of the Terminal Classic are strongly connected with a phenomenon that is well known as the
Classic Maya "collapse".
In the time between ca. 790 and 910 almost all centers and cities in the Petén and the adjacent lowlands disappear from the landscape. The archaeological evidence from this time is very sparse, construction activity stopped and the erection of inscribed monuments also came to an end. The last hieroglyphic inscription with a Long Count date notation we have comes from Toniná and dates from 909. The collapse began as a crisis of the nobility and within a short period of time, came to involve most of the non-elite and rural population, too.
But what has really happened? What were the circumstances of this "collapse"? It might help not to term it a "collapse", since Maya people still live today. It was somehow a "decline" of the cultural, social, and political traditions of the Classic and the Preclassic, but specific aspects of the Ancient Maya can still be observed today. It would be best to see the situation during the Terminal Classic as a "transition" of cultural, social, and political elements. Many theories about these events used to focus on a monocausal basis, whether the factor were of internal or external origin. Natural disasters, political cataclysms, peasant revolutions or the invasion of Central Mexican Powers have long been candidates for this issue.
Recent hypotheses focus on a co-action of several factors, interwoven in a subtle nexus. The better understanding of the hieroglyphic inscriptions points towards a stronger emphasis of internal factors. As we have seen in the previous lesson, political struggles, the loss of dynastic authority, and increasing warfare seem to have destabilized great parts of the Maya Lowlands.
Furthermore, the last centuries of increasing population with growing cities and intensified agriculture may have led in part to lixification of the tropical soils. As the research of a group of German geologists under usage of an old theory has shown, the Maya Area obviously faced several successive droughts during the Terminal Classic. Though the reasons of the "collapse" still have to be determined more closely, it seems reasonable to consider the factors mentioned above to be part of the whole process.
After the subsequent decline of several polities in the Petexbatun region, it is interesting to observe that another polity arose to fill the void. The site of Seibal declined during the Early
Classic and was at some time incorporated in the realm of Dos Pilas. After regaining its independence, an outside group must have taken over the power. They are referred to as the
"Putun Maya" in the literature, but evidence for them is rare. Whoever they were, the monumental art in Seibal depicts persons combining Classic Maya with foreign elements (Fig.
Fig. 1.7 - Seibal, Stela 13
It clearly shows that the foreigners readily adopted Classic Maya customs. But the resurgence of Seibal was brief and the city was abandoned shortly after 900. While Seibal was an exception in the Central and Southern Lowlands, a great number of polities arose in the north of the Yucatec Peninsula. But you may not think that the North was a sparsely populated area in the times before. Though much is unknown about the Preclassic and Early Classic, one of the earliest dates we have comes from Oxkintok and is 475. Other centers, such as Edzna,
Dzibilchaltun, Ek Balam, and Cobá, can also be traced back into early times but reached their peak during the Late and Terminal Classic.
But we will focus here on the centers that emerged in the Puuc region of northwestern
Yucatan, such as Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, and Labná. Though the peak of these cities was short and lasted less than 250 years into the very Early Postclassic, it is a remarkable development.
The most prominent feature to be recognized in the architecture is the distinctive style of a finely fitted veneer masonry displaying elaborate mosaic façades and ornamental "monster masks", probably displaying the god Itzamnaaj (Fig. 1.8)
Fig. 1.8 - Detail of the façade of the Palace of Labná as an example of the Puuc architectural style.