Maya Oh Maya

If you’ve come here looking for an inside scoop on the Maya Civilization, you’ve come to the right place.

In fact, I can give you several inside scoops. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the Maya, Aztec, Olmec, and a bunch of other civilizations you’ve probably never heard of cover thousands of years of Mesoamerican history, and have enough scoops to build a pyramid. Quite a few pyramids, actually.

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Mexico, with a theme of Mayan and Aztec sites. I was thinking, when I came back, I’d try to explain the overall history with an emphasis on the sites we visited across a series of posts. My first clue on the folly of that idea should have come early in the trip, when a local guide couldn’t give a coherent story; she was all over the place.

I kept hoping our primary guide would give the big picture; who did what and when they did it. The best he could do was a little booklet that looked to be aimed at school kids, but it was vague and didn’t even mention the Aztecs. The many local guides added many details, but it was mostly in one ear and out the other. I figured rather than try to remember, I’d research the details when writing the posts, as I always do.

The problem is the big picture is too big, and much of it is unknown. And even though we visited many a set of ruins, and more pyramids than I dreamed were in Mexico, we just scratched the surface.

I’ll still try, poorly, to give a big picture timeline in this post. I will leave out massive swaths of history and important tribes and probably get some of it wrong. There will be more detail in later posts.

Here goes…

The Olmec leaders had big heads…
  • Early Preclassic Period: 1500 BCE – 800 BCE
    • Note: BCE and CE are the politically correct versions of BC and AD
    • 1500 BCE – Mesoamerica is already settled by hunter/gatherers. Maize is a food crop.
    • 1200 BCE – The Olmec spring up from a group of villages on the Gulf Coast, Southeast of current day Veracruz. Their civilization survives for 900 years, until about 300 BCE.
      • The Olmec culture is considered to be the “Mother” of Mexican cultures, or at least the most significant of its time. They created early versions of what became the Mayan calendar.
      • They built a ceremonial city at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán around 1200 BCE. This lasted until 900 BCE when it was destroyed. La Venta became the new capital, it ended around 300 BCE.
      • Not much remains. The best known relics are large head sculptures.
    • 900 BCE – Tikal area first settled. (Northern Guatemala, south of the Yucatan.) This will later become an important Maya center.
  • Middle Preclassic Period: 800 BCE – 300 BCE
    • The Olmec are still going strong, and are the main civilization.
    • 500 BCE – a circular pyramid is built at Cuicuilco, near Lake Texcoco, site of present-day Mexico City. Cuicuilco inhabited since 1400 BCE. Possibly the first ceremonial city-state and forerunner to pyramid use.
    • 400 BCE Teotihuacan is founded, about 25 miles northeast of what is now Mexico City.
Quezalcoatl – Aztec Feathered Serpent god
  • Late Preclassic Period: 300 BCE – 150 CE
    • 300 BCE – Olmec ends. It’s uncertain why. Perhaps environmental, perhaps war. Maybe the ascendence of the Maya took precedence. Vestiges of the Olmec morphed into the Epi-Olmec, which lasts until around 250 CE.
    • 300 BCE – Tikal builds a ceremonial center. Tikal is the beginning of the Maya civilization.
    • 225 BCE – Palenque established, about 150 miles west of Tikal in what is now Mexico.
  • Protoclassic Period: 150 CE – 300 CE
    • 100 CE – Pyramid of the Sun built at Teotihuacan
    • 150 CE – Cuicuilco begins to diminish, perhaps due to growing influence from Teotihuacan, possibly from nearby volcanic activity
    • 250 CE – Classic Maya period begins, likely centered around Tikal
    • 250 CE – Epi-Olmac diminishes, possibly due to growing Maya influence
Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacán
  • Early Classic Period: 300-600 CE
    • 300 CE – Teotihuacan dominates in Mexico City valley area
    • 300 CE – Maya dominate in Tikal
    • 400 CE – Cuicuilco finished off by volcanic eruption. (Is Mexico City due?)
    • 400 CE – Building begins at Chichen Itza
    • 500 CE – Teotihuacan is at its height
  • Late Classic Period: 600-1000 CE
    • 600 CE – Chichen Itza becomes major player
    • 600 CE – Tikal is at its height
    • 750 CE – Teotihuacan is destroyed. Reasons are unclear, but there’s a constant theme in theories for most of the ends of the city-states that I’ll touch on in later posts.
    • 850-925 CE – Uxmal is built in NW Yucatan
    • 900-1150 CE – Toltecs flourish in their capital city of Tollan (Tula), about 50 miles north of present-day Mexico City. The advent of the Toltecs marked the rise of militarism in Mesoamerica. They also were noted as builders and craftsmen and have been credited with the creation of fine metalwork, monumental porticoes, serpent columns, gigantic statues, carved human and animal standard-bearers, and peculiar reclining Chac Mool figures. The Aztecs later looked to Toltecs as their intellectual and cultural predecessors.
Temple of Kukulcán at Chichen Itza
  • Early Postclassic Period: 1000-1250 CE
    • 1156-1168 Tula is destroyed. The remaining Toltecs flee to Lake Texcoco, site of present-day Mexico City. Chichimecs, Tepanecs, Mexica and Acolhua also settle there.
  • Late Postclassic Period: 1250-1521 CE
    • 1250 CE – Mayapan (60 miles west of Chichen Itza) becomes the new Maya capital
    • 1345 CE – The Mexica, the last of a number of Nahua people who migrated from among the Chichimeca of northern Mexico to settle in the Valley of Mexico—founded Tenochtitlan on an island in Lake Texcoco in 1325. Rising to prominence as fierce warriors, they threw off the domination of the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco in 1427–28 and established the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan soon after. This alliance would form the basis of what would become known as the Aztec Empire (“Aztec” being a mystical name for the Nahua).
    • 1450 CE – The despotic Cocom rulers of Mayapán were overthrown about 1450, and the city was abandoned. The Mayans as an organized power decline.
The Palace at Palenque
  • Colonial Period: 1521 – 1821 CE
    • 1541 CE – Cortez defeats the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan
    • Spain’s main stated goal was to convert the population to Christianity. This often meant destroying existing artifacts, which led in part to the uncertainty about Mesoamerican history. These cultures had developed their own hieroglyphics, and many records were destroyed. It’s fair to say the Spanish also looked to extract resources…
    • A perhaps unintended consequence of the Spanish arrival was the disease they brought with them. Some estimates suggest that between disease and what amounted to slavery, up to 90% of native populations died.
  • Postcolonial: 1821 – present
    • 1821 – Mexico becomes independent from Spain. This has nothing to do with Cinco de Mayo, which happened 40 years later and involved France.
    • Mexico suffered from many battles between conservative, status quo, aristocracy and Catholic Church supporting factions and liberal, indigenous population supporting factions. This peaked in a full-blown revolution from 1910-1920. The battle goes on.
    • The Americans contributed their own problems with the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). This did not end well for the Mexicans; the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, ended the Mexican-American War in favor of the United States. The war began over a territorial dispute involving Texas. Independent cusses, even then. The treaty added an additional 525,000 square miles to United States territory, including the land that makes up all or parts of present-day Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Mexico also gave up all claims to Texas and recognized the Rio Grande as America’s southern boundary.
    • Although the Maya as a formal state dissolved when the rulers of Mayapán were overthrown around 1450, the Maya as a people persist to this day. There are presently about 7 million speakers of Mayan languages. Approximately 4 million of these live in Guatemala, where almost half the population (including non-native speakers) speak a Mayan language. There are an additional 2.5 million speakers in Mexico.
    • As for the Aztecs, the closest link may be the Nahuatl family of languages, comprised of many dialects, some of which are not mutually intelligible. There are around 1.7 million Nahuatl speakers, mostly in central Mexico.
The Aztec Sun Stone

Phew! All that and we barely even touched cultures, calendars, astronomy, math, architecture, ecology, hieroglyphs, arts, sports, religion, human and animal sacrifice, agriculture, customs, or clothing.

Maybe I’ll just show you a bunch of pictures over the series and call it good.

Next up, Mexico City.

37 thoughts on “Maya Oh Maya

  1. Phew! Had to admit, I’m not good with history, the years and stuff. Thanks for putting this together. I’m a bit surprised at your guides not able to answer your questions. But it does seem quite complicated. Love the little reading and pictures. Look foward to Mexico City.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure it’s so much they couldn’t answer questions as much as: 1. Most of them were local and focused on their little slice of the pie. 2. The big picture is really big. Just the same, diving into the weeds and randomly jumping from one weedy field to the next without first laying out the farm wasn’t always useful.

      This particular post isn’t what I’d call riveting reading, but hopefully, as we move through the series it can be referred back to for context, if folks should be so inclined.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gay Julian

    Excellent! Time to copyright and send it to the Mexico historic sites people to make leaflets. Appropriate photos for each site. You have it covered. The skill in the intricate carvings is amazing.
    Went to an Ancient Greece exhibition from the British museum a week ago. The history seems so much easier.
    Look forward to seeing more of the photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The thing I found noteworthy was that despite covering millennia and many diverse groups, the overall style of the artifacts seemed to have a common theme even if the details varied. It seems weird to look at ancient Greece in comparison and call it simpler, but I don’t think it was as big an area. I suppose if you went back to the times of first settlement and tracked it to current days, it would get more complicated.

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  3. It just fascinates me to look at structures that were built so long ago! I know many people say that the cost of such things was too high, but the fact is that they live one long after the humans who built them are gone. It’s sort of humbling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Depending on how you measure costs they probably were pretty high, both in lives and ecology. Still, some of those civilizations lasted many hundreds of years, something I sometimes question whether we can emulate.

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  4. A great job with the capsule history, Dave, and excellent photos. Really brings back the feeling when I was in school, and thought about being an archeologist or historian. The history of Mexico and pre-conquest civilizations continues to fascinate me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Robert. This one’s definitely more oriented towards history buffs than Kardashian lovers, and is fascinating in a whole different way. Of course, both have aspects of a slow motion train wreck…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Glad to see a post from you, Dave, btw. I guess the Kardashians might end up a tiny footnote in history, they’re kind of monumental in a way and maybe some future civilization will puzzle over their significance to us, they’ll probably assume some sort of fertility cult or symbol of abundance.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah, it’s been a while, eh? Guess that’s what happens when you have a mostly travel oriented blog and you don’t travel much. Unlike large swaths of popular culture being taken for a ride. 😉

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  5. You won’t be surprised that the visuals did it for me. On the other hand, I’ll be referring this to my partner who likes all this civilizations in the distant past stuff….. I suspect he’ll love it!!! 😉 from a different perspective. Nice for both of us!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Dave. Mexico has been on top of my wish list for quite some time now exactly because of those ancient pyramids and ruins (not to mention the country’s other cultural heritage and traditional dishes). I love how you summarize the long history of Mexico in such a chronological order. I admit sometimes I get confused with understanding when things happened and who built what every time I read about the history of the country, especially the pre-Spanish periods. Your photos are sooo impressive! I wish when I do go one day the weather will be just as nice. Did you go in early April?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For several years it’s struck me as odd that while I’ve been to quite a few countries, I’d never visited our neighbor to the south. It was time to remedy that. I also was confused about the Maya and Aztecs, and largely ignorant of Mesoamerica. I suspect this blog series will end up educating me more than the trip did.

      We did the trip in the second half of March. It’s a good time to go, as I believe the rainy season begins in late April/Early may.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I believe there was a sort of Rousseau-like attitude that they were “noble savages” with no war-like attitudes. As scholars learned to transcribe their inscriptions, they learned the Mayans were much different, and indeed, incessant warfare may have led to their downfall.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve always had trouble sorting out these civilizations, but a real breakthrough came when I learned that a poem attributed to Nezahualcoyotl still appears on the Mexican hundred-peso note. It goes:

    “I love the song of the mockingbird,
    bird of four hundred voices;
    I love the color of jade and the drowsy perfume
    of the flowers;
    but more than these, I love
    my fellow man.”

    That made me want to know more about Nezhualcoyotl, and one thing led to another. I bought a wonderful book titled Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, translated by David Bowles, and I think you’d enjoy it. There’s enough historical context to really help with time and place, and a terrific glossary. When I started digging around, I found some of Nezhualcoyotl’s poetry on YouTube — what a world! I wonder what that Aztec poet would think to know his work still is being recited in his language?

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    1. Ah Linda, why am I not surprised your comment is the most eclectic? I haven’t even stuck a toe into the histories of the various rulers, and hardly even a little piggy into the cultures in general. And here you’re quoting poetry from the kingpin of the Aztecs.

      Be kind, as I flounder around in the next post or two, trying to deal with Aztec history…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I bet that was an amazing trip and I admire your determination to grasp the big picture of those ancient civilizations. The lack of knowledge and the feeling of being overwhelmed by such a big story reminded me of the feeling we had when trying to think about the geology of southern Utah. And your timeline (the perfect way to try to organize the info) reminded me of the large gaps in knowledge about the early people in southern Utah. So much mystery. It’s a wonderment, isn’t it? Your photos are terrific!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Before the trip (and first seeing the itinerary) I had no idea there were so many pyramids and supporting ruins in Mexico. That was an eye opener, and follow up research suggests there’s a lot more we didn’t see. That’s ok, by the end of the trip we were already ODed (ruined?) on all the archeological sites. The photos I picked for the opener are some of the better ones, but hopefully I’ve left some more good ones for later posts.

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  9. Well, you did Mexican history a great service there. For one, the Olmec was new to me. Of course, I am no historian and have never visited Mexico so there’s that. But most of us probably know little about Mexico’s history, civilizations, or customs. I am sure in your next posts we will learn that Mayan and Incan civilizations were much more advanced than we might think although much of their history is taught in our schools.
    That Temple of Kukulcán at Chichen Itza is an amazing work of construction rivaling the great Pyramids

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems like a lot of their temples were oriented around astronomy and the seasons, and pretty precise too. I think the temple at Chichen Itza is considered one of the seven wonders of the “modern” world; it’s not surprising it rivals the Egyptian pyramids.

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  10. You did an outstanding job summarizing 3,500 years of Mexico’s history in a single blog post! Visiting the ancient sites leaves a lasting impression. I especially remember Chichen Itza and Uxmal on the Yucatán Peninsula and Teotihuacán, Cuicuilco, and Tula in the central highlands. I hope to visit Pelenque on a future trip.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Dave, hoping you might be able to help me or perhaps be able to direct me (search terms) clearly there are examples of “gargoyle” like structures with an example being Teotihuacan, the city of the gods, and some of your pictures. So my question is Mesoamerican excluded from the term gargoyle/grotesques or perhaps I should be searching with different verbiage? I am not familiar with why this is so difficult to find but I am positive I must not be wording my searches correctly. Thank you for your time and hopefully assistance.

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    1. In the respect that gargoyles are really rain spouts, I don’t think a lot of Mayan sculptures are created in that context. Most of them, I’d guess, represent some god in the ancient Mesoamerican context and are there to inspire fear or respect rather than spew rain. Having said that, I have vague memories of a guide talking about a few of the figurines on building corners at Uxmal acting as gargoyles. I don’t know if that will show up in a search anywhere.

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