Mayan Ruins in Guatemala

Mayan history is an ongoing history, with many of the distinct Mayan cultures still finding representation to this day in southern Mexico and the northern regions of Central America. While the term, “Maya”, is often used as a blanket identification for the collective Indian peoples of this region, many of these distinct groups maintain separate traditional and historical identities. Some of the over 6 million contemporary Mayan people have integrated themselves into the present-day cultures of their respective countries. Others continue to live according to the traditional and cultural norms of their heritage. Today, the majority of these contemporary Mayan people can be found in the southern Mexican states, Guatemala, Belize and in the westernmost lands of El Salvador and Honduras. As for Guatemala itself, it is in the western highlands of the country where you will find the greatest pool of traditional Maya populations.

Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500"s, the Mayan people had established themselves as one of the premier ancient cultures. While united both religiously and artistically, the Mayan people of the past maintained separate, politically sovereign states that traded and sometimes warred with each other. Mayan history finds its roots in the Pre-Classic Era of Mesoamerican history, when nation-states began to spring up throughout the region. This era roughly extended from around the 20th century BC to the 2nd century AD. Prior to this period, the proto-civilizations that pre-dated the ancient Mayans had shifted from hunter-gatherer societies to more established groups with permanent villages. It was in the Preclassic Era that cities and ceremonial architecture were first developed in Mesoamerica, and civilizations such as the Olmec, Zapotec and Maya began entering into their most prolific periods. During the Preclassic Era, the early Mayan people of Guatemala established cities in what is now the northern Petén department. Included among these early Maya cities are El Mirador, Nakbe, San Bartolo and Cival.

Other civilizations of the hemisphere aside, it was the ancient Mayans who had developed the most complex writing system, as well as mastering mathematics and perfecting astrological calendars. The ancient Mayans flourished most between 250 AD and 900 AD, during what is known as the Classic Era of Mesoamerican history. During this period, the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas was the non-Mayan metropolis of Teotihuacán, which was located approximately 20 miles northeast of present-day Mexico City. The ancient Mayans continued to establish themselves south of Teotihuacán, with great cities at Palenque, Copán and Tikal. The Mayan ruins at Tikal are among modern-day Guatemala’s biggest attractions, if not the biggest. During the 6th and 7th centuries AD, Mayan history is characterized by what is termed, the “Middle Classic Hiatus”. Especially in Tikal, the “Hiatus” sees a decline in population, as well as a general lapse in writing and significant construction. The Middle Classic Hiatus would be followed by a later period of renewed growth among the ancient Mayans, which is sometimes referred to as the “Florescent Era”. Around the 10th century AD, the ancient Mayans begin their period of decline, for reasons which are not completely understood. Uncontrolled warfare and declining environmental conditions characterize some of the theories as to why the ancient Mayans began this eventual decline.

The surviving Mayan polities would see themselves subdued by Spanish Conquistadors, who made oft-failed attempts at converting Mayans into Christians. Of course, greed was an underlying motivator of the Conquistadors, most of whom were searching for gold and silver. While the great Mayans would struggle to maintain their way of life during colonial times, they never fully disappeared. The Mayan descendants continue to form relatively large populations in the Maya region, and their ruined cities of the past continue to attract scores of visitors yearly. The Mayan ruins at Tikal constitute the largest excavated Mayan site anywhere in the Americas. The great temples, Mayan art and Mayan artifacts found at Tikal, and other ruined Mayan cities, continue to educate scholars about ancient Mayan civilization. Coincidentally, Mayan art is considered by many scholars as the most beautiful and sophisticated New World art of its time. Mayan art, which was often spiritual in nature, was influenced by other Mesoamerican civilizations and it is found in many forms. From small Mayan artifacts to large Mayan pyramids, the greatness of the Mayan art form is recognized. A Guatemala tour to either El Mirador or Tikal is a great way to gain insight into the ancient Mayan culture.

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