The Mysterious Maya Civilization: 3 Periods of Rapid Rise, Classic Collapse & Finally, Succumbing to a Spanish Conquest

The Mysterious Maya Civilization: 3 Periods of Rapid Rise, Classic Collapse & Finally, Succumbing to a Spanish Conquest

Patrick Lynch - March 22, 2017

The Maya civilization was one of the most advanced in Mesoamerica and survived for approximately 3,500 years before falling victim to the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. It developed in southern Mexico and modern-day Central American nations such as Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. Mesoamerica was one of the six cradles of civilization and helped create cultural advances such as the development of complex societies, agriculture, cities, and architecture.

While the first settled villages and agricultural achievements occurred during the Archaic Period from 8,000-2,000 BC, the Maya civilization began to grow and flourish at some point in the Early Preclassic Period, which began after 2,000 BC. In this article, I will look through the four periods of Maya civilization which saw the growth of a remarkable society that finally fell thousands of years later to Spanish conquistadors.

The Mysterious Maya Civilization: 3 Periods of Rapid Rise, Classic Collapse & Finally, Succumbing to a Spanish Conquest
Tikal. Grey Line

1 – Preclassic Period (2000 BC – 250 AD)

There is still some debate as to when Maya civilization began. Carbon dating suggests there was Mayan occupation in modern-day Belize in around 2,600 BC, but the first known settlements took place in 1,800 BC near the Pacific Coast in northern Guatemala. San Bartolo is one of the oldest sites, and at this early stage, the Maya were already growing crops such as beans, maize, chili pepper and squash. The Maya also created pottery in an era where sedentary communities were the norm.

The Middle Preclassic Period dates from 1,000 BC to 1 BC, and during this timeframe, the Maya started to create cities which was a departure from the small villages that were a hallmark of the Early Preclassic Period. They moved from the coast and up through river valleys before eventually penetrating the inner areas of the regions they settled in.

As well as growing in size, Mayan society became more complex with the establishment of an ‘elite’ class. So-called ‘prestige’ goods such as jade mosaics appeared, and it was a period of extensive trading with other peoples including the Olmecs. The Maya included central plazas and earth mounds in the villages and cities which suggest the development of a hierarchical and religious structure. At La Blanca, archaeologists discovered a 75-foot high mound. The city of Kaminaljuyu was one of the most important cities in the Middle Preclassic era and was one of the biggest Mayan settlements by 500 BC.

The Late Preclassic Period began in approximately 400 BC and is known for the rapidly rising population of Mayan settlements, an increased centralization of political power and a heightened interest in the military and warfare. The growing population meant the Maya had to create complex mechanisms for coordinating, feeding, and organizing people.

It was also an era of monument building as the Maya constructed a series of temples such as the one at Tikal. Suddenly and seemingly mysteriously, there was a mass decline and abandonment of important Preclassic cities such as El Mirador from 100 AD onwards. One theory suggests that the eruption of the Ilopango Volcano near San Salvador devastated thousands of square miles and rendered everywhere within a 60-mile radius uninhabitable. While there is no clear evidence that this is the case, it is an intriguing theory given what happened to Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD.

The Mysterious Maya Civilization: 3 Periods of Rapid Rise, Classic Collapse & Finally, Succumbing to a Spanish Conquest
Teotihuacan. Visionsoftravel

2 – Classic Period (250 – 900 AD)

This is deemed to be the peak of Maya civilization as it included accomplishments such as the creation of distinctive writing and calendar systems, the development of impressive public architecture and polychrome ceramics. One of the trademarks of the Mayan Classic Period is the building of dated monuments called Stelae which were likenesses of an important figure with a written record of his accomplishments. The Maya also used the Long Count, a calendrical system using a 360-day year with a start date of 3,114 BC, to record their social, religious and political history.

It was during this era that large cities grew from small villages into great cities. Towards the end of the Preclassic Period, a Mayan city called Cuicuilco rivaled Mesoamerican giant Teotihuacan, but it was possibly destroyed by a volcano sometime during the Second Century AD. (In answer to queries, while Teotihuacan was named by the Aztecs and is admittedly not a Mayan city, it possibly hosted Mayan population at some point along with the Mixtec and Zapotec. No one knows for sure who built Teotihuacan.) The growth of these cities was indicative of the flourishing society as there were several cities with populations of over 50,000.

The growth of trading networks meant an increase in contact between rival city-states. While there were many positives such as the trading of important goods, it also led to warfare between states. It was normal for warriors from one state to attack another and use prisoners as slaves or sacrifices to the gods. There were even a few instances of all-out war between states. One of the most notable occurred between Tikal and Calakmul in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The complex Maya civilization started to fall apart from 700 AD onwards. The increase in conflict between states caused a rapid fall in population. Fighting intensified as resources became more scarce and important centers such as El Pilar, once a hotbed of new construction, were allowed to fall into ruin. Crucial centers in the lowlands such as Tikal were the first to collapse although Eastern centers such as Xunantunch fared a bit better.

The Mayan collapse of the ninth century involved the widespread abandonment of several major cities. While an average of 40 dated monuments were built per annum at the start of the 700s, practically none were built in 900. Copan Valley is a prime example of the rapid depopulation of centers throughout the civilization. Its population was approximately 28,000 between 750-800. A century later and it had almost halved to 15,000. By 1200, there were fewer than 1,000 inhabitants.

There are a number of theories that attempt to explain this sudden collapse of what was once a vibrant civilization. The Maya could have been invaded by a foreign power or else they fell victim to an epidemic. Other historians blame drought for the abandonment while the collapse of trade routes could have caused the Classic Period Mayans to leave their settlements. Despite the depopulation, this was not the end of the Maya.

The Mysterious Maya Civilization: 3 Periods of Rapid Rise, Classic Collapse & Finally, Succumbing to a Spanish Conquest
Chichen-Itza. Pinterest

3 – Postclassic Period (950 – 1511)

Although the Maya never again reached the heights of the Classic Period, they did retain a significant presence in Mesoamerica. Admittedly, most of the major cities were abandoned by the tenth century, and unlike the beginning of the Classic Period, the Maya did not quickly resettle in the empty lands. Overall, millions of Maya died during what is called the Terminal Classic Period, but it is a mistake to believe they practically vanished.

Many scholars have a less than favorable impression of this era; they suggest it was marked by decadence and was overly militaristic compared to previous periods. However, while their accomplishments and artwork are not as impressive as their ancestors, it is unfair to dismiss them completely.

The center of Mayan urban development moved to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico in the late tenth century. The most important cities in this era of Mayan settlement include Uxmal, Chichen-Itza, and Mayapen. These cities had large central cores with enormous buildings complete with carved or plastered motifs on the blocks. The Casa Del Gobernador at Uxmal is a splendid structure containing 24 chambers. At Chichen-Itza, the pyramid and its temple rise 30 meters above the central plaza.

Chichen-Itza was the dominant city at the start of the Postclassic Period, but it declined dramatically by the 11th century. As a consequence, there was no important city in the civilization until the growth of Mayapen in the 12th century. The Maya enjoyed a lengthy period of successful maritime trade around the Yucatan until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.

While the official end of the Maya civilization didn’t occur for another century, it was practically finished when Mayapen was abandoned in the 1440s. Some sources suggest the city was destroyed by the Maya that once ruled Uxmal. They founded a new city at Mani, but for the rest of the civilization’s history, it was embroiled in warfare between rival tribes over the territory. A number of natural disasters in the Yucatan Peninsula coupled with disease weakened the Maya and made them easy pickings for the Spanish.

The Mysterious Maya Civilization: 3 Periods of Rapid Rise, Classic Collapse & Finally, Succumbing to a Spanish Conquest
Yucatan. Pinterest

4 – Spanish Conquest (1527-1697)

When a Spanish ship wrecked off the Caribbean in 1511, it was the beginning of the end of the Maya civilization. This was nine years after Christopher Columbus’ brother, Bartholomew, made contact with Mayan traders on an island off the coast of Honduras. The Spanish vessel crashed off the coast of Jamaica, but about a dozen survivors reached the coast of Yucatan where they were captured by a Maya lord named Halach Uinik. One of the men, Gonzalo Guerrero, was offered to another lord as a slave, but he soon adapted to the Mayan culture and reached the status of war leader within three years of his capture.

A number of explorers subsequently reached the Yucatan Peninsula until in 1526, Francisco de Montejo was given permission to conquer Yucatan by the King of Spain. He left his homeland in 1527 with just 400 men, four ships, cannon, small arms, and provisions. He reached the island of Cozumel off the coast of Yucatan in September 1527 and was peacefully received by a Mayan lord.

After running out of provisions, de Montejo took the dramatic step of burning his ships to quell unrest amongst his troops. The tactic worked as the men acclimatized to the harsh conditions they faced and in early 1528, he reached the town of Conil where his forces rested for two months. The next city they encountered was Chauaca; instead of welcoming the Spaniards or opposing them, the inhabitants fled the city overnight. They returned to attack the Spanish the next morning, but de Montejo’s men defeated them.

Emboldened by this victory, the Spaniards moved on to Ake and won a major battle which left 1,200 Maya dead. The Maya leaders in the surrounding areas all surrendered soon after. De Montejo was dismayed to find that only 12 of the 40 men he stationed at Xelha survived while all 20 men situated at Pole were dead. Eventually, a support ship arrived, and de Montejo used it to sail down south where he found the booming city of Chaktumal.

The Spanish conquest of the Maya wasn’t officially completed for 170 years. Much of the territory was conquered in the 16th century including northern Yucatan in 1546, but the Spaniards found that taking over the Petén lowlands of Guatemala was a much harder task. They spent most of the 17th century fighting local tribes until they finally conquered Petén in 1697.

Those who live in the former Mayan regions still travel the same rivers and farm the same lands as their ancestors. Although the Maya civilization has supposedly vanished, there are six million people who continue to follow the old traditions. The Maya may have abandoned their cities for reasons historians can’t agree on, but they left behind plenty of evidence of their existence including a range of impressive structures such as the stunning complex at Tikal.