Xunantunich Maya Temples

The Maya of Belize

Belize is the heartland of the Maya civilisation, and this legacy takes on even greater significance with the approach of the Winter Solstice of 2012 – an event of almost indescribable importance to the Maya and a time for major celebrations, activities and events throughout Belize.

Belize has been home to the Maya for over four thousand years, and the legacy of that ancient civilisation is still very much alive today. In fact, the two tallest buildings in modern day Belize are the imposing ancient pyramids of Caracol and Xunantunich.

The rich rainforests and river systems of Belize supported an abundance of game and fish, providing a very fertile habitat for Maya civilisation to flourish in. The soil, after eons of forest growth and decay, was rich in nutrients, and the Maya became sophisticated farmers, developing maize and other food crops, as well as fish ponds, floating gardens known as chinampas, and extensive irrigation systems. Belize’s seacoast, adjacent to the second longest Barrier Reef in the world teemed with marine life and was conducive to seacoast travel and the establishment of trade routes north along the Yucatan and as far south as present day Panama and perhaps as far as Peru.

While much of the Maya’s recorded history was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors, evidence of the accomplishments of this rich, advanced civilisation are still evident throughout Belize, from the shards of broken pottery littering farming, construction and road sites to the remnants of Maya temples, ancient cities and communities found throughout the country.

Archaeologists continue to unearth new findings and develop new theories about how this remarkable civilisation developed, rapidly advanced, and then even more quickly declined, almost disappearing back into the lush rainforests and highlands of the Yucatan and Central America. These mysteries and the continual discovery of new insights and clues make Maya archaeology an exciting, vibrant field of study.

And now, with so much attention focussed in the Maya, and the importance their scholars, mathematicians, astrologers and shamans placed on the Winter Solstice of December 21 2012, more and more people  are becoming curious about this ancient civilisation, and wonder if there are lessons for us today in the long and colourful history of the Maya. For example, research carried out at El Pilar in the Cayo District suggest that Maya farmers employed a technique now called the “Maya forest garden”, which involved growing significant volumes of food and medicinal crops within the rainforest, and without clearing large expanses of trees, feeding cities of over 100,000 inhabitants. Prominent researchers who have worked out of Chaa Creek are also closely studying Maya medical plants in hopes of finding new drugs targeting diseases such as cancers.

Research into the ancient city of Caracol in the vast Chiquibul National Forest has barely scratched the surface of this ancient metropolis, and with new technologies such as airborne light detection and range (LiDAR) sensors able to penetrate the dense forest cover, researchers are excited about the possibilities of new finds and further insights. The vast network of underground caves used by the Maya may still hold secrets, as the artefact-laden Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, recently opened to the public, highlights.

Exploring the ancient Maya civilisation is fascinating and rewarding in its own right, and who knows what discoveries await us.

The early Maya

The Maya, who were the ancient world’s most assiduous timekeepers, established a definite creation date of 11 August, 3114 BC, but as so much of their recorded history had been destroyed during the Spanish conquest, we have only the most superficial knowledge of their early habitation of Belize. Carbon dating, however, shows that the early Maya were farming at Cahal Pech in the Cayo district and Cuello in Orange Walk from around 2500 BC.

Since that time, Maya civilisation in Belize continued to grow, peaking during the Classic Period and beginning to decline around 800 AD.

During this time the Maya made incredible advancements in in science, mathematics, art and astronomy. They were among the first people to make paper, and developed an elaborate system of writing to produce beautifully illustrated folding books, known as codices, which were kept in massive libraries said to rival ancient Alexandria’s in size. Unfortunately, the libraries were burnt to the ground by Spanish conquistadors intent on wiping out “pagan” beliefs and all evidence of the Maya’s achievements. The blaze of one such library was said to light the sky for days.

Because of this destruction, and the suppression of Maya oral history through the ages, our knowledge of ancient Maya civilisation is fragmentary at best, depending on pieces of remaining codices (see the Dresden Codex) and carved inscriptions, or glyphs, on stone monuments known as stelae. From these stelae, scattered about Maya temples and archaeological sites throughout Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, archaeologists have been able to piece together a timeline and vague history of this amazing civilisation.

Based on these timelines, Maya scholars have divided Maya civilisation into three main chronological periods – the Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic.

The Maya Preclassic Period

Also referred to as the Formative Period, it is further broken down into the Maya Early Preclassic period, the Middle Preclassic period, and the late Preclassic.

The Early Preclassic Period (2500-900 B.C.)

This was a time of vibrant growth during which the earliest settlements were established along with the beginnings of social, economic and political structures that later evolved into more complex systems. It is from this period that we see the first examples of Maya pottery and art.

The Middle Preclassic (900-300 B.C.)

The Middle Preclassic was a very dynamic period during which the civilisation began to flourish with extended trade and rapid internal development. By 800 BC the Highland Maya had cemented control over the important jade and obsidian trade routes to the Petén, the Pacific and Caribbean Sea, while from 600 BC onwards the lowland Maya were producing and trading in cacao, maritime products and other goods.

The Late Preclassic period (300BC- AD 300)

Maya civilisation continued to evolve with more complex agriculture and expanded trade routes. There were significant advances in the cultivation of maize and other food crops, and urban centres grew with larger, more impressive pyramids being built.  Cultural and intellectual growth was phenomenal, resulting in a more sophisticated cosmology evidenced by expressions of increasingly complex ideas in mathematics, calendric systems, astronomical calculations, writing and art.

The Maya Classic period (250 to 900 AD)

As the name implies, the Maya Classic Period was the pinnacle of intellectual, artistic, social and political development as the Maya became one of the most advanced civilisations in the ancient world. During the Classic Period  Caracol, Altun Ha, Tikal, Palenque, Copán and other city states flourished, extended their influences and formed complex alliances and intrigues.

For example, by 650 AD Belize’s Caracol had an urban area that extended to a radius of some 10 km from the city centre, covering an area much larger than present day Belize City and, with over 140,000 inhabitants, more than twice the population, supported by an immense agricultural network and sophisticated city planning. Having defeated Guatemala’s mighty Tikal in 562 AD and Naranjo in 631 AD, Caracol was a vibrant, cosmopolitan powerhouse.

With the development of the concept of zero in the first century BC, the Maya were able to work with heretofore unimaginable sums and perform calculations that continue to astound researchers today. Along with detailed celestial observations, Maya astronomers were able to predict astronomic events and measure the solar year to a degree slightly more accurate than the Gregorian Calendar used today.

The average Maya lived in family units peacefully engaged in farming, fishing and hunting, even while their rulers were busy with complex political affairs, alliances, fierce combat and slave taking between city states.

However, the great Maya centres of Belize and the southern lowlands began to decline between 700 and 900 AD, and this rapid deterioration has led to a wide range of theories from the scientific to the preposterous.

Overpopulation and degradation of the ecosystem have been commonly accepted as the main reasons for the decline of the Maya Empire, especially if combined with epidemics, environmental disasters and other internal and external shocks.  Evidence of a centuries long drought leading to the exhaustion of agricultural and natural resources has been accepted by scholars and  is now widely considered by many to be the most likely cause of the sudden collapse of the ancient Maya civilisation in Belize and throughout the region.

The Post Classic period (900 – 1500)

By the time of the Post Classic Period, the Maya Empire was becoming weak and disorganised, although the Lake Petén Itza continued to rule the area around present day Flores and the Belize border, and there was some development in northern areas, especially in Yucatan centres such as Chichen Itza.

The Spanish conquest of the Maya is a long and brutal chapter in Belize’s history, with the Maya city states putting up fierce resistance against a ferocious invasion. However, one by one the Maya city states fell, and by about 1697 they were finally conquered and the Maya Empire came to an end.

Unfortunately, the final conquest of the Maya also saw the eradication of much of their history and stunning achievements.

The Mayan written language, used since 200 BC and considered, along with Sumerian cuneiform and Chinese, to be one of only three independently developed writing systems of the ancient world, was seen as a threat and effectively wiped out. Of the tens of thousands of Maya codices, only fragments of four remain.

The conquistador’s zeal in obliterating Maya history and thought resulted in the loss of one of the most important written histories the world has known, and with it the underpinnings of one of humankind’s greatest civilisations.

Today, the Maya comprise over 10% of the population of Belize,  living for the most part in communal, self-governed lands under an alcalde, or village leader system. They continue to support themselves through agriculture, hunting and, on a small scale, the production of arts and crafts.

While the Maya of Belize never experienced the civil wars and genocide indigenous people in neighbouring countries suffered, until recently they lived outside mainstream Belizean society.  However, today’s Maya leaders are increasingly playing a more active role in Belize’s democratic system and working towards improved health care, education and employment opportunities.

As a proud people with very strong ties to their history, culture and the land their ancestors cultivated for millennia, the Maya continue to preserve their cultural integrity, and all Belizeans look forward to the Maya observations of the December 21 2012 Winter Solstice when the entire nation joins together to celebrate the importance of the Maya to Belize’s national and cultural identity.


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