The Mayan Civilisation was the longest reigning civilisation of the Mesoamerican region which existed for over 3,000 years. Even today its remnants exist in various parts of Central America. The civilisation achieved its peak during what it known as its Classic Period, extending from 250AD to 900AD. During this period, there were various city-states with thriving populations. It was also during this period that the Mayans made impressive advancements in the domains of art and architecture. The civilisation flourished in the areas that comprise of present-day countries of Guatemala and Belize, in addition to some areas of Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras.
The history of the Mayan civilisation spans over thousands of years and for better understanding, it has been divided into various periods. Broadly speaking, there are three eras of Pre-classic Period, Classic Period, and Post-classic Period. These periods, however, can be further divided into sub-eras. For instance, the Pre-classic Period is divided into Early Pre-classic, Middle Pre-classic, and Late Pre-classic. Similarly, the Classic Period is divided into Early Classic, Late Classic, and Terminal Classic Periods. Finally, the Post-classic Period can be divided into Early Post-classic and Late Post-classic periods. After that there is the contact period between the Mayans and the Spanish colonisers.
It was during the Pre-Classic Period that the foundations of the Mayan civilisation were laid down. According to the archaeological evidence, Mayans were beginning to establish settlements around 1800BC in the Soconusco region of the Pacific coast. Around the same time they began cultivating their staple crops such as maize, beans, and squash. Small villages began to take the shape of towns and urban centres during the Middle Pre-classic Period. This includes one of the earliest known cities of in the Maya lowlands, Nakbe. More cities grew and gained influence during the Late Pre-classic Period including El Mirador and Tikal.
Mayan Civilisation reached its zenith during the Classic Period which extended from 250AD to 900AD. The Early Classic period is important because it was during this period that the Mayan lowlands raised dated monuments using the Long Count Calendar. During the same period the urban population grew abruptly and impressive advancements were made in architecture and art. The most important urban centre during the Early Classic Period was Teotihuacan which in 378AD deposed the ruler of Tikal and installed a Teotihuacan-backed dynasty. This change in dynasty increased the importance of Tikal whose power and size grew enormously during the following centuries.
In the Late Classic Period, Tikal city was the most powerful city state of Mayan lowlands, although it had its rivals such as Calakmul. Both cities developed alliances against each other with the help other less important cities. Various battles were fought between the two cities throughout the Late Classic Period. During the same time, Copan was the most important Mayan city in the southeastern Maya. This city state reached at the zenith of its power during the reign of Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil extending from 695 AD to 738AD. By the end of the Late Classic Period, however, the power of Tikal and Copan had already considerably declined.
The Terminal Classic Period is marked by the abrupt collapse of the Mayan civilisation for which scholars cite various reasons. This period, extending from 830AD to about 950AD, is generally known for wide-scale political collapse, abandonment of cities, and fall of various dynasties. This chaos in the region caused the main activity to be shifted northward. Various theories have been proposed to explain this sudden collapse in the Mayan Civilisation during the Terminal Classic Period. These reasons include chronic warfare, overpopulation and consequent paucity of resources, and changing weather conditions.
The Post-Classic Period of Mayan Civilisation saw many of the city states of Mayan lowlands falling into ruin. However, a significant presence of the civilisation remained in some areas, particularly near the water sources. During the same period, activity shifted from southern lowlands to northern lowlands and the Maya highlands. Due to migration from the south, populations in some urban centres in the north grew. This included the city of Chichen Itza which became the largest and most powerful city in the 10th century. However, it too declined abruptly in the 11th century and a central power did not exist in the region until the rise of Mayapan in the 12th century. Finally, Mayapan was also abandoned in 1448.
The Spaniards had their first contact with the Mayans in 1511 which did not turn out to be pleasant. The crew of the wrecked Spanish ship was captured by the Mayan lord on the coast of Yucatan. Most of the crew was sacrificed but two of the members managed to escape. Over the subsequent years, various battles were fought between the Mayans and the Spaniards. For a brief time, good relations existed between the Spaniards and the Mayan city of Iximche, but these relations also deteriorated due to excessive Spanish demands for gold.
Mayan culture continued to exist during the Colonial Era, although a lot of the defining features of the civilisation were damaged due to the Spanish conquest. However, a lot of Mayan communities continued to live in relative independence and away from the colonial authorities. Introduction of Latin alphabet considerably increased the power of the Mayan languages which gave rise to Mayan literature. Many beliefs and cultural aspects of the civilisation continue to exist in today’s Mayan societies. The Mayan calendar is also used among the modern Mayan communities and there are millions of present-day speakers of Mayan languages.
The Mayan history timeline goes back to what is known as the Pre-Classic Period of the civilisation, extending from 2000BC to 250AD. Foundations of the civilisation were laid down during this time and Mayan urban centres were also founded. During the Classic Period, Mayans made impressive advancements in architecture and art. However, different city states remain aggressive in their relations with each other and wars were frequently fought. By the end of the Classic Period, most of the major urban centres had collapsed due to various reasons. The Mayan culture, however, continued to exist beyond that and a lot of aspects of the culture survived the Spanish colonial era as well.