History of the Mayas

Archeologists believe that the ancestors of the Mayas occupied the Yucatn peninsula and northern Central America as early as 10,000 years ago. Primitive Mayan settlements have been dated to at least 2400 B.C. Few traces of Mayan culture from before the fourth century A.D. have been found, however. Mayan civilization was at its highest stage of development during the Classic Period (between 250 and 900 a.D.), especially in the southern Yucatn peninsula. During this period the Mayas built their greatest religious monuments and reached the peak of their artistic and intellectual achievements.

The cities of Uaxactn, Tikal, and Copn in the lowlands and Kaminaljuy in the Guatemalan highlands date from this period. In the ninth century, the great cities in the southern lowland region were abandoned, and the period of creative development came to an end. No one knows the reason for the sudden decline.

In the late 10th century, the Mayas came under the domination of invaders from central Mexico. The warlike Itz, a Toltec people, established themselves in the northern Yucatn peninsula and made Chichn-Itz their capital. Mayan culture survived, however, and the invaders gradually were absorbed into the Mayan civilization. About 1200, the city state of Mayapn conquered all the lowland area, and the Quich tribe in the south took control of the highlands. Warfare and rebellion brought political chaos and further cultural decline.

An expedition led by Hernando Cortez explored the Yucatn coast in 1519. One of his lieutenants, Pedro de Alvarado, subdued the Mayas of the Guatemalan highlands about 1525. Conquest of the Mayas of Yucatn was begun by Francisco de Montejo in the 1520's. Northern Yucatn was brought under Spanish control about 1545, but parts of the interior remained independent for more than a century.

The conquerors, bent on converting the Indians to Christianity as fast as they subdued them, tried to destroy all traces of their traditional religion. The Spanish bishop, Diego de Landa, ordered all Mayan books burned. (Four survived and are now in museums.) The Mayan cities were deserted and became overgrown with jungle and thicket, and the Mayan civilization disappeared.