The Maya are one of the largest indigenous groups of the Americas, with a modern population estimated at more than six million. The largest concentration of modern Maya peoples is in Guatemala, where they make up over 40 percent of the population. In Mexico, Yucatecan Mayan speakers are the second largest indigenous group in the country. The Mayan language family, which includes twenty-four to thirty related but mutually unintelligible languages, is the most populous and diversified language family in Mesoamerica. With the exception of Huastec in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas, Mayan speakers are found today in northern Yucatán, Belize, Chiapas, and highland Guatemala. Linguists have estimated that the Mayan languages began diverging around 4,100 years ago. Before about 2200 bce, ancestral Mayan speakers presumably spoke a single parent language, known as proto-Mayan, with their homeland possibly in the northwestern highlands of Guatemala.
The territory of the ancient Maya included the entire Yucatán Peninsula, Belize, most of Guatemala, western Honduras, and western El Salvador. This area is extremely varied topographically and physiographically, and differences in elevation, temperature, rainfall, soils, availability of water, natural plants and animals, and the distribution of natural resources such as salt and obsidian have resulted in great environmental diversity. The northern lowlands of Yucatán are low and flat, hot, relatively dry (rainfall averages less than seventy-eight inches annually), and characterized by poor soils and low forest and bush vegetation. The central lowlands, or the Petén region of Guatemala, are moister, with annual rainfall averaging more than seventy-eight inches, and are distinguished by many lakes, seasonal swamps, deep soils in some places, and good availability of natural resources such as chert, limestone, and hardwoods. The tropical forest in the central lowlands is lush, and animal life is rich and diverse. South of the Petén, the southern lowlands provide a transitional zone to the highlands. This region is characterized by abundant rainfall (78 to 117 inches annually), rich soils, and thick tropical rain forest. The Motagua Valley, which links the southern lowlands with the northern highlands, was an important source of precious greenstone.
The northern highlands are composed of the rugged mountains of the Sierra Madre of Central America, spanning Chiapas and Guatemala. This region is the natural habitat of the quetzal, whose feathers were coveted by Maya lords for resplendent headdresses. The southern highlands are made up of the great chain of volcanoes paralleling the Pacific coastal plain, some of which are still active. The most important mineral resource of the southern highlands is obsidian, or volcanic glass, used for making cutting and scraping implements. Both highland regions feature fertile valleys and basins with rainfall averaging 78 to 117 inches annually. Vegetation in the cool northern highlands consists of rich highland rain forest on higher slopes, and semitropical pine and oak forest on lower slopes. The original vegetation of the southern highlands, which are lower and warmer, probably consisted of mixed evergreen and deciduous forest; the region is so densely inhabited—and this has been true for thousands of years—that the natural environment has been completely altered by human activity. Finally, the Pacific coastal plain and piedmont are hot and wet, with annual rainfall averaging more than 117 inches. Soils here are rich, the tropical vegetation luxurious, and animal life abundant and varied. One of the most important products of the piedmont was cacao—from which chocolate is produced—one of the most important commercial crops of ancient Mesoamerica.
The earliest secure evidence of human presence in the Maya area has been found in the northern highlands of Guatemala, where fluted projectile points similar to those known as the Clovis type, used by early hunters and gatherers in Northern and Middle America and dated to about 10,600 to 11,300 years ago, have been found at the sites of San Rafael and Los Tapiales. A Clovis-type point is also known from Ladyville, Belize. Belize also has a number of Archaic-period sites tentatively dated to about 7500–2000 bce, but these sites may be much younger. A recent revision dates the Belize Archaic no earlier than about 2500 bce. On the Pacific coastal plain of Chiapas, Late Archaic-period sites have been found dating to around 3000–2000 bce. One of these, Tlacuachero, has produced evidence that shrimp processing was an important activity. During the Archaic period, semisedentary hunters and gatherers living in isolated villages depended primarily on natural plant and animal resources for their livelihood. Coastal dwellers probably traded salt, dried fish and shrimp, and shellfish for highland products such as obsidian and domesticated plant foods such as maize.
Proto-Mayan vocabulary reconstructed by means of comparisons of modern Mayan languages provides a glimpse of the habitat, plants, and animals of the ancestral Mayas of the Archaic period. In addition to a number of terms for highland plants and animals, names for some lowland species also occur. The inference is that proto-Mayan speakers inhabited a highland zone bordering on the lowlands. Names for lowland plants and animals include crocodile, coyol palm, and ceiba tree. Other names for trees refer to the willow, oak, cypress, and pine. Referents for cultivated plants include avocado, chile, yellow squash, maize, sweet potato, bean, cotton, and tobacco. Domestic animals include the dog and turkey. Other animals are jaguar, cougar, deer, fox, squirrel, mouse, gopher, weasel, coyote, agouti, skunk, armadillo, crow, buzzard, hummingbird, owl, bat, hawk, toad, turtle, and fish. Names for insects include bee (which also means honey), fly, gnat, ant, spider, louse, tick, butterfly, and scorpion. Other important items of proto-Mayan vocabulary include words for food preparation (metate [grinding stone], to grind, to roast), containers (gourd, trough), construction and tools (bench, cord, mat, house, bed, axe), ritual (drum, rattle, to jump-dance-sing, paper, writing). There is no proto-Mayan word for ceramics, which did not appear in the Maya area until about 1800 bce. Nor are there terms for comal (ceramic griddle) or tortilla, which were absent in the Maya area until probably the Postclassic period.
Early Preclassic villages on the coast of Chiapas, Guatemala, and western El Salvador, dated to 1800–1500 bce, are characterized by elaborate and well-made ceramics. The presence of highland obsidian and foreign ceramics indicates long-distance trade. Differences in architecture and grave goods and a two-level settlement hierarchy provide evidence for emerging social ranking and political integration. These coastal villagers were probably speakers of Mixe-Zoquean, not Mayan. They had a mixed subsistence economy based on the cultivation of maize, beans, and squash; root crops such as sweet potato and manioc; and the harvesting of coastal and riverine resources.
Toward the end of the Early Preclassic, by about 1200 bce, the Olmec civilization had emerged on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. By the Middle Preclassic (1000–400 bce), all of Mesoamerica was connected by networks of elite interaction, and through such ties the Olmecs had a strong impact on other societies, including the Maya. These networks were extremely complex, involving multidirectional economic, social, political, and religious interaction, which had a mutual transformational effect on all participating societies. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the Gulf Coast Olmecs, who were predominantly Mixe-Zoquean speakers, played a principal role in these developments. Many of the important forms and themes of Olmec monumental art, such as carved stelae and altars and portraits of named rulers linked with powerful cosmological forces, foreshadow those that appear later among the Maya. Early steps in the development of calendrics, astronomy, and hieroglyphic writing, which would later become intellectual hallmarks of Classic Maya civilization, were taken by the Olmecs and the Olmec-affiliated Zapotecs of Oaxaca during the Middle Preclassic.
A population increase occurred throughout the Maya area during the Middle Preclassic, and by about 800 bce the highlands and the lowlands were probably dotted with hundreds of agricultural villages, although very few are known archaeologically. While most were simply large villages, some, such as Kaminaljuyú in the southern highlands and Nakbe in the central lowlands, were extremely complex, with large temple platforms with elaborate architectural decoration. These sites were the centers of hierarchical chiefdoms with tributary economies.
The trends toward greater social complexity and expanding populations were intensified in the Late Preclassic (400 bce–ce 100) and the Proto-classic (ce 100–250). A number of large chiefly centers developed from their Middle Preclassic antecedents whose rulers vied with one another for economic and political advantage. Ritualized warfare became an important manifestation of elite competition. Widespread homogeneity in ceramics attests to a high level of achievement in craft specialization and strong economic ties throughout the lowlands and the highlands. Networks of communication between the elites of major centers, such as El Mirador and Tikal in the central lowlands, Kaminaljuyú and Chalchuapa in the southern highlands, and Abaj Takalik on the Pacific piedmont, served as the crucible for the development of early Maya civilization.
The Classic period (ce 250–900) witnessed the emergence of state-level polities in the lowlands. While state formation was truncated in the southern highlands by the cataclysmic eruption of Ilo-pango volcano in El Salvador about ce 250, the lowland centers continued the trends begun earlier. Population increased to as high as ten million during the Late Classic (ce 600–900). Stratified, class-based society with a complex division of labor was fully developed by the beginning of the Classic period. About a dozen major centers became the capitals of regional kingdoms whose territories were in constant flux, depending on the successes or failures of their military and political ventures. Each center was ruled by a shamanistic king who traced his royal descent to a founding ancestor. Carved stone monuments recorded the kings' genealogies and commemorated their important deeds and achievements. Maya lords and their wives were obliged to perform blood sacrifice on special occasions to validate their status and perpetuate their royal lineage. Royal courts of the lowlands financed elite arts and crafts, sponsored religious ceremonies, and organized armed expeditions against competing kingdoms.
Classic Lowland Maya civilization collapsed in the ninth century ce. During the Postclassic period (ce 900–1524), the metropolises of the Petén were reclaimed by the jungle. The central and southern lowlands were virtually depopulated, and political organization reverted to the village level. The northern lowlands experienced great growth during this period. Chichén Itzá was established in the Early Postclassic (ce 900–1200) under the aegis of the Toltecs as the center of a large tributary state dominating the northern lowlands. This period was marked by the rise of the Putun, or Chontal, Maya. Their homeland was in the Tabasco lowlands of the Gulf Coast region, and their cultural traditions were Mexicanized. They were warriors and merchants, whose movements were motivated by a desire to seize resources and trade routes. Initially concerned with controlling the old riverine and overland routes in the central and southern lowlands, they eventually came to control the coastal routes around the Yucatán Peninsula, and ultimately commerce between Gulf Coast Mexico and Central America. Ports in this network included colonies of resident Putun merchants. Putun expansion culminated in the tenth or eleventh century when they, in alliance with Toltec warriors from Tollan, established a new capital at Chichén Itzá.
According to the chronicles, Chichén hegemony was broken in ce 1221. Mayapán rose to power as the new dominant center in Yucatán. There is a great overlap between Chichén Itzá and Mayapán in art style, iconography, architecture, and settlement pattern. The rulers of Mayapán were of the Cocom lineage, descendants of Hunac Ceel, the destroyer of Chichén Itzá. The Cocoms ruled over a fairly unified Yucatán for about 250 years. Shortly before ce 1450, Ah Xupan, a noble lord of the Xiu lineage, led a successful revolt against the Cocoms. Mayapán was sacked and looted. On the eve of the Spanish Conquest, northern Yucatán was divided into sixteen autonomous petty states.
In highland Guatemala, the Toltec-influenced Putun ancestors of the ruling lineages of the Quiches (K'iche'), the Cakchiquels, and the Tz'utujils established themselves in the region in the Late Postclassic (ce 1200–1524). They built fortified mountaintop centers at the sites of Utatlan, Iximché, and Atitlán. Other highland Maya groups included the Mams, who built their capital of Zaculeu in the west, and the Pokomams who built Mixco Viejo and Chinautla Viejo. The Late Post-classic was a period of intense military competition and political fragmentation in the southern highlands.
This pattern was broken by the appearance of European invaders in the early sixteenth century. Sailing from their New World foothold in Cuba, the Spaniards launched their expedition of conquest under Hernán Cortés in 1519, and their first contact with Mesoamerican societies was with the Mayas of Yucatán. With the conquest of the Mexica Aztecs complete in 1523, Cortés dispatched a force from Mexico under the command of Pedro de Alvarado to Guatemala and El Salvador in 1523–1524. The conquest of Yucatán was led by Francisco de Montejo and his son Francisco the Younger from 1527 to 1546.
The conquest of the Maya has been described as a never-ending process of conflict, resistance, accommodation, and integration. Many Maya groups resisted conquest for a long time, and some Maya groups were never conquered by the Spaniards. The Itzás, for example, retained their independence on the island stronghold of Tayasal until 1697, and the Mopans, the last independent Maya group, were driven to extinction by British loggers in Belize in the late eighteenth century.
The invisible ally of the Spaniards, epidemic disease, had a tremendous impact on Maya (and all native New World) populations. Virulent epidemics preceded the arrival of Spanish troops in 1515 or 1516 in Yucatán and 1519–1521 in highland Guatemala. These scourges probably killed at least one-third of the population. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Maya population in most areas was reduced by as much as 90 percent from their pre-Conquest levels.
During the next two centuries the Maya endured forced resettlement from villages scattered throughout the countryside into centralized villages and towns. Once relocated, they were exploited for labor by the crown, clergy, and colonists and forced to pay tribute to encomenderos and the crown.
In the nineteenth century the Maya peoples found themselves caught up in the expansion of the plantation economies of southern Mexico and Central America. Whether it was cotton in Guatemala, coffee in Chiapas, or sugar in Yucatán, high levels of international demand for export crops made large-scale commercial agriculture highly profitable, and plantation owners turned to Maya communities for their labor needs. Contractors would entice Maya men to work with high loans that could only be repaid with plantation wages, and the infamous company store, or tienda de raya, trapped many in debt peonage. In addition, plantation demands for land and other resources put pressure on Maya holdings, particularly after liberal regimes came to power in the mid- to late nineteenth century and allowed the usurpation of village lands. This dispossession not only forced more Maya to become plantation laborers, but it also seriously disrupted traditional subsistence patterns.
The increasingly desperate economic situation, coupled with repressive local governments, pushed many Mayas into open revolt in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the best-known revolt was the Caste War of Yucatán, which began in 1847. By 1848 the Maya had managed to gain control of most of the peninsula, and they laid waste to the sugar plantations that had been the source of many of their problems. A significant number of Maya rebels retreated into the deep forests of Quintana Roo, where they established autonomous villages with their own military and religious organization.
Despite the temporary success of the Caste War, the plantation became the backbone of the southern Mexican and Central American economies. The agrarian reform carried out after the Mexican Revolution broke up many large estates, but it bypassed large areas of Chiapas, where debt peonage still exists, and Maya peoples continue to provide the bulk of the labor for the large coffee and cotton plantations of Guatemala. The unequal distribution of land and state repression weigh heavily on the Mayas. Tens of thousands of highland villagers were murdered in the 1970s and 1980s by Guatemalan military and paramilitary forces. On New Year's Day 1994 an armed revolt began in Chiapas, which remains unresolved.
The Mayas have traditionally lived in rural communities, with each community distinguished by a unique style of dress, distinct social conventions, and, in places such as Aguacatán and Sacapulas, their own language. Although most Maya remain rural agriculturists, there is a growing number of Maya teachers, university professors, writers, merchants, engineers, doctors, and other professionals. Rigoberta Menchú, a Maya woman of the northern highlands of Guatemala, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
See alsoAlvarado y Mesía, Pedro de; Annals of the Cakchiquels; Calendars, Pre-Columbian; Caste War of Yucatán; Chichén Itzá; El Mirador; Forests; Indigenous Peoples; Kaqchikel; K'iche'; Mayan Alphabet and Orthography; Mayan Epigraphy; Mayan Ethnohistory; Mesoamerica; Olmecs; Tikal; Tz'utujil.
Murdo J. MacLeod, Spanish Central America (1973).
Terrence Kaufman, "Archaeological and Linguistic Correlations in Mayaland and Associated Areas of Meso-America," in World Archaeology 8 (1976): 101-118.
Robert Wasserstrom, Class and Society in Central Chiapas (1983).
Sandra Orellana, The Tzutujil Mayas (1984).
Robert M. Hill and John Monaghan, Continuities in Highland Maya Social Organization (1987).
Grant D. Jones, Maya Resistance to Spanish Rule (1989).
Nancy M. Farriss, Maya Society Under Colonial Rule (1992).
Robert M. Hill, Colonial Cakchiquels (1992).
W. George Lovell, Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala (1992).
Michael D. Coe, The Maya, 5th ed. (1993).
Thomas C. Kelly, "Preceramic Projectile-Point Typology in Belize," in Ancient Mesoamerica 4 (1993): 205-227.
Robert J. Sharer, The Ancient Maya, 5th ed. (1994).
León-Portilla, Miguel. Tiempo y realidad en el pensamiento maya: Ensayo de acercamiento, 2nd edition. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1986. English translation: Time and Reality in the Thought of the Maya. Translated by Charles L. Boilés, Fernando Horcasitas, and the author. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
Restall, Matthew. The Maya World: Yucatec Culture and Society, 1550–1850. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.
William R. Fowler
John D. Monaghan