Preclassic Maya

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The Preclassic Period in Maya history stretches from the first Maya settlements until 250 AD. The major cites of this period were Kaminaljuyu and El Mirador. By the end of the Preclassic, the city state of El Mirador had united the southern Maya lowlands.[citation needed] However, from 100 to 300, this empire began to decline, and the city was eventually abandoned. It is likely, but by no means certain, that the rulers of El Mirador became the Kan dynasty of Calakmul,[1] where they would regrow to become one of the two dominant powers of the Classic Maya period, along with their rival Tikal.


Early Preclassic (2000 BC–1000 BC)[edit]

The roots of Maya civilization remain obscure, but archeology, linguistics, and modern science grant us enough tantalizing clues to allow us to loosely sketch out a broad picture. By 2000BC, speakers of the Mayan Languages had already occupied the southern Maya area. It appears that around this time the Maya people began to transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a culture based around agricultural villages. The process appears to have been a gradual one. Analysis of bones from early Maya grave sites indicate that, although maize had already become a major component of the diet (under 30% at Ceullo, Belize) by this time, fish, meat from game animals, and other hunted or gathered foods still made up a major component of the diet.[2] Along with the gradual development of agriculture, basic forms of pottery began to appear, with simple designs and some slipped vessels. Around this time, the Olmec culture began to emerge in nearby Tabasco, granting the early Maya an important trading partner and beginning a period of prolonged contact that would have profound effects on Maya society.

Middle Preclassic (1000 BC–400 BC)[edit]

By around the year 1000BC, centuries of agricultural village life had begun to form the beginnings of a complex society: Prestige goods such as obsidian mirrors and jade mosaics began to appear, increasing the demand for more extensive trade. Canals and irrigation schemes demanding coordinated human effort began to appear with increasing complexity and scale. Gradually, villages began to include central plazas and earthen mounds, occasionally enhanced by masonry. For instance, the site of La Blanca featured a central mound more than seventy-five feet tall and contained a masonry fragment strongly resembling a head in the distinctive Olmec style. Carved stone stele also began to appear during this period, adorned with portraits of rulers but still devoid of writing. Warfare appears to have intensified during this period, as evidenced by advanced weaponry, rulers beginning to be portrayed as warriors, and the appearance of mass graves and decapitated skeletons.

Beginning around 900BC, the Pacific coastal region fell under the dominance of the La Blanca statelet, which collapsed around 600BC, to be replaced by a polity centered around the El Ujuxte site. Another early statelet was probably based at the site of Chalchuapa, a town with extensive earthen mounds arranged around several plazas. However, it was likely ruled by the first true Maya city-state, Kaminaljuyu. Lying within modern-day Guatemala City on the shores of Lake Miraflores, Kaminaljuyu developed a powerful government structure that organized massive irrigation campaigns and built numerous intricately carved stone monuments to its rulers. These monuments clearly depict war captives and often show the rulers holding weapons, indicating the Kaminaljuyu polity engaged in active warfare, dominating the Guatemalan highlands for centuries. Kaminaljuyu's main export was the essential resource obsidian, a beautiful volcanic glass that easily fractured into sharp edges, providing arrowheads, knives, and other weapons as well as prestige goods like mirrors.

Although it is difficult to firmly identify the ethnicity of a people from meager archeological remains, it appears that during this period the Maya began a systematic northward expansion, occupying the Petén Basin where such cities as El Mirador, Tikal, Calakmul, and Tayasal would be built. The dominant site of these early colonists was Nakbe in the El Mirador basin, where the first attested Maya ballcourt and sacbeob (stone causeways) were built. The rulers of Nakbe constructed several stone platforms and erected intricately carved stone and stucco monuments.

During this period, the Olmec culture reached its zenith, centered around the capital of La Venta in modern-day Tabasco near the early Maya centers. Speakers of a Mixe–Zoquean language, the Olmec are generally recognized as the first true civilization in the Americas. Their capital city of La Venta contains extensive earthworks and stone monuments, including several of the distinctive Olmec stone heads. The Olmec share several features with later Maya culture, including extensive jaguar-worship, a diet dominated by maize, and the use of the cacao plant. Several words entered Mayan from a Mixe–Zoquean language, presumably due to Olmec influence. These words include the word ajaw, meaning "lord," and kakaw, which has become the English words "cacao" and "chocolate." Most of these borrowings relate to prestige concepts and high culture, indicating that the Middle Preclassic Maya were deeply impressed and influenced by their northwestern neighbors.

Late Preclassic (400 BC–100 AD)[edit]

The Late Preclassic saw the rise of two powerful states that rival later Classic Maya city-states for scale and monumental architecture, Kaminaljuyu in the highlands and El Mirador in the lowlands.

Terminal Preclassic (100 AD–250 AD)[edit]

The late or terminal Preclassic murals found in San Bartolo provide important information regarding mythology and royal inauguration ritual around 100 BC.

Preclassic "Collapse"[edit]

The story of the mysterious lost civilization that suddenly collapsed for an unknown reason has captured the popular imagination for well over a century. What is not as widely known is that there were actually two "collapses," one at the end of the Preclassic and a more famous one at the end of the Classic. The Preclassic "collapse" refers to the systematic decline and abandoning of the major Preclassic cities such as Kaminaljuyu and El Mirador in around 100 AD.[3] A number of theories have been proposed to explain this "collapse", but there is as little consensus here as there is for the causes of the more famous "collapse" between the Classic and Postclassic periods.


Social Structure[edit]


See more at Maya script.

Art and Architecture[edit]


Lingua Franca[edit]

There are actually more than thirty different Maya languages spoken today, but we now know that the Maya elite of the Classic and Postclassic periods wrote (and presumably spoke as well) in a lingua franca known as Ch'olan. This written language closely matches a linguistic reconstruction of a region in the Maya lowlands loosely matching the Classic Maya heartlands, so it is possible that there were some cities where this was not merely an elite language. However, written Ch'olan changed very little over the centuries, far less than the spoken vernacular must have changed, so it is likely that this was a separate elite language. Furthermore, we do know that Ch'olan was used for writing in the Classic cities of the Yucatán, where the common people almost certainly spoke an early form of Yucatec. Interestingly, recent work by Frederico Fahsen suggests that Ch'olan was the language used for writing at Kaminaljuyu, indicating that this lingua franca is a legacy of the Middle Preclassic dominance of this first of Maya states, where Maya writing may well have originated. This lingua franca undoubtedly contributed to the relatively strong cultural cohesion of the Maya throughout the ages and assisted in communication between the different city states, dramatically affecting the culture of the Maya for centuries.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Martin & Grube 2000, p. 102. Sharer & Traxler 2006, p. 357.
  2. ^ Sharer, Robert with Traxler, Loa. The Ancient Maya. p. 263. 
  3. ^ Acemoğlu, Daron; Robinson, James A. (2012). Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. p. 143. ISBN 978-0-307-71921-8. 


Martin, Simon; and Nikolai Grube (2000). Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. London and New York: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05103-8. OCLC 47358325. 
Sharer, Robert J.; with Loa P. Traxler (2006). The Ancient Maya (6th (fully revised) ed.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-4817-9. OCLC 57577446. 

Further reading[edit]

Estrada-Belli, Francisco (2011). The First Maya Civilization: Ritual and Power Before the Classic Period. Abingdon, Oxfordshire and New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-42994-8.