Originally Mayas were different groups sharing
common historical tradition. As a result their
culture traits were similar, though there were
specific local variations. They had similar
physical characteristics and spoke languages
belonging to the same linguistic stock.
Studies of Maya language have led to the
conclusion that around 2500 BC there was
proto-Maya group living in the area of what is now
"Huehuetenango", Guatemala. Members of
this group spoke what researchers have called
"Proto-Maya", which in the course of
time subdivided into different Mayance languages.
Speakers of these languages later migrated and
settled on different sites that would afterwards
define Maya area and give rise to their advanced
These migrations caused both the separation of
different groups and their contact with other
cultures. This had led to various theories about
where Maya culture originated. According to some
researchers, it was in the North of Tabasco and
Southern Veracruz, where these groups intermingled
Second theory inclines toward the opinion that it
first arose in the mountains of Guatemala: The
groups created agricultural society, growing corn,
and then spread North and West, where they were
influenced by other cultures, particularly Olmecs.
Olmec civilization is regarded as the mother
culture, because it provided the basic elements
for the development of other important cultures in
Mesoamerica. Some of the most important cultural
elements that Olmecs left to Mayas were
architectural features and an elementary number
and calendar system that later evolved into the
accurate Maya calendar.
The chronology of Maya culture is similar to that
of all Mesoamerica, although the sequence is more
precise, thanks to the interpretation of its time
glyphs. These have been correlated with modern
calendar, and on this basis, J. Eric S. Thompson
established following periods:
Formative or pre-Classic: 500 BC to 325 AD,
Maya culture beings to take shape, shown
particularly in anthropomorphic clay figurines,
with the typical physical features of people at
that time. This can be seen in the decoration of
their first buildings.
Classic: 325 to 925 AD. This is divided
into Early Classic (325-625 AD), when
external influences ended and typical features
appeared, such as corbel arch and the practice of
recording historical dates with glyphs. The second
division is Flowering (625-800 AD), when
culture was at its height in mathematics,
astronomy, hieroglyphic writing, pottery,
sculpture and architecture. Collapse lasted
from 800 to 825 AD, when culture declined and
ceremonial centers were abandoned.
Transitional or Interregnum: 925-975 AD.
This marks fall in culture, almost to the level of
Maya-Toltec or Mexica: 975-1200 AD. This
was the period when influences arrived with Nahua
speaking groups of Toltec culture from central
Mexico; the cult of Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcan in
Maya) arose. Alliances were formed between towns
governed by Maya families and those ruled by
families of Nahua origin.
Mexica Absorption: 1200-1540 AD. A period
when several conflicts arose, the alliances were
broken and warfare divided the population and impoverished
the culture further. When Spanish reached Maya
region, the great ceremonial centers were already
abandoned and the culture was in complete decline.
The first contact was in 1511, when a ship on
Valdivia's expedition from Panama to Santa Domingo
sank. Two survivors, Gonzalo Guerrero and Jeronimo
de Aguilar, were taken prisoner by Mayas.
Guerrero adopted their customs, married, and
produced family. He even fought with Mayas against
his countrymen. Meanwhile, Aguilar remained slave
and in 1519 joined Cortes and was one of his
interpreters during the conquest of Mexico.
Yacatan was discovered by Francisco Hernandez de
Cordoba in 1517; between 1523 and 1525, Pedro de
Alvarado conquered the area that is now Guatemala.
In 1526, Francisco de Montejo the Elder began the
conquest of Yacatan peninsula and Francisco
Montejo the Younger finished his father's work,
founding Merida in 1542 and Valladolid in 1543.
The last refugee of the ancient Mayas was Tayasal,
city on lake Peten Itza, not conquered by Spanish