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Maya History (Part 1): Chronology

Maya history is divided into three main periods: the Preclassic, the Classic, and the Postclassic.

The Preclassic (2000 BC - 250 AD)

The Preclassic is also called the Formative, and it covers the development of complex Maya societies.  It is divided into three sub-periods:

  1. Early Preclassic (2000 – 1000 BC)
  2. Middle Preclassic (1000 – 400 BC)
  3. Late Preclassic (400 BC – 250 AD)

The first great Mesoamerican civilization was the Olmec civilization, which developed during the Early Preclassic, along the Mexican Gulf Coast.  Many see it as the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica.  Olmec concepts & art spread far and wide, greatly influencing Maya societies.  The Olmecs were probably the first New World culture to invent writing, but it was developed further by the Epi-Olmec, the Zapotec, and the Maya.

By 500 BC (near the end of the Middle Preclassic), the Central Maya were establishing the first major cities.  Large red-painted temples were constructed at the centre of these cities, and decorated with stucco god-masks.  Nabke was one of the first cities; it was later eclipsed by El Mirador, which eventually had the largest concentration of Maya monumental architecture.

San Bartolo was a smaller centre to the south-east of Nabke & El Mirador.  Recently, incredible murals were discovered there which showed that Maya mythology & writing had developed by 300 BC (near the beginning of the Late Preclassic), and concepts of kingship by at least 100 BC (in the middle of the Late Preclassic).

Complex societies weren’t limited to the Central area – many grew up in the Southern area as well.  The main ones were Kaminaljuyu & Izapa.

The Classic period which followed was characterized by 1) the Long Count calendar; 2) carved hieroglyphic inscriptions; and 3) portraits of kings accompanying those inscriptions.  These features marked the rise of a new political ideology, and also a new ideal of kingship.

They first appeared in the Southern area between 37-126 AD, at El Baúl and Takalik Abaj.  Other regions (especially the Central area) may also have been part of this new movement.

Both the Central & Southern areas underwent a dramatic decline between 150-200 AD, and most of the biggest cities were abandoned. The reason for this is unknown.

The Classic (250 - 909 AD)

Maya civilization reached its peak during the Classic period, particularly in the Central area.  It can be divided into three sub-periods:

  • Early Classic (250 – 600 AD)
  • Late Classic (600 – 800 AD)
  • Terminal Classic (800 – 909 AD)

Surviving Preclassic centres, and many new settlements, flourished during this period.  A distinctive Maya culture developed.

The Maya were never fully isolated from happenings in central Mexico, which by now was dominated by Teotihuacán (with a population of over 125,000 at its peak).  It influenced most (or all) Maya societies culturally, economically and politically.  Teotihuacán’s greatest period of contact was during the 300’s AD, when Kaminaljuyu was revitalized under strong influence; Teotihuacán also took a large area of the surrounding lowlands into its political orbit for a short time.

The Late Classic began around about the time that Teotihuacán fell. The Maya civilization reached its peak during this sub-period, but by 800 it was showing signs of decline.  Dynasties began to collapse, and population levels were dropping.

The Terminal Classic ends with the last recorded date in the Long Count calendar, 909 AD.  The northern Maya area continued to do well, though, with cities such as Chichén Itzá and Uxmal showing signs of continuing growth.

The Postclassic (909 - 1697 AD)

The Postclassic can be divided into two sub-periods:

  • Early Postclassic (909 – 1200 AD)
  • Late Postclassic (1200 – 1697 AD)

By the Early Postclassic, the Central area was sparsely inhabited, with the population concentrated in the Northern & Southern areas.

Chichén Itzá was still a regional power in the North, and had developed close ties with the Toltecs (central Mexico).  The city exhibited a mixed Maya-Mexican architectural style, and had a wide political influence.

During the Late Postclassic, Chichén Itzá declined and was replaced by Tayasal (Mayapan).  Tayasal was not as strong as Chichén Itzá, however, and while it dominated some of Chichén’s former domain, internal problems led to its abandonment around 1441.

In the Southern area, the Late Postclassic was marked by large-scale population shifts, with western arrivals to the area creating new “statelets”.  The K'iche’ were the most powerful (previously called Quiche), but by 1475 they were being overtaken by the Kaqchikel (previously their vassals).

In Mexico, the Postclassic period ended with the fall of the Aztecs to the Spanish invaders in 1521.  The Maya held out for longer, with the Southern area falling only in 1527, and the Northern area mostly by 1546.  Central Maya kingdoms held out even longer as they were more isolated, and the last one was conquered in 1697.