Mayan Timeline

Mayan civilisation came into being in Mesoamerica during the 1st millennium B.C. There is some evidence that the Mayan civilisation was born of the older Olmec civilisation but this claim has been disputed. What is known for certain is that by 500 B.C., the earliest Mayan urban centres had already come into being.

Cities like Nakbe, El Mirador and Tikal rose to prominence during the pre-Classic period. The civilisation reached its summit during the Classic period, between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D., before undergoing significant decline in the 9th century and then finally collapsing in the 16th century.

Pre-Classic Period

According to archaeological evidence, the Maya people had already given up a nomadic lifestyle and were settling down to an agricultural lifestyle as early as 1800 B.C. The earliest settlements in this period were situated near the Pacific coast.

It was during this period that Mayans began cultivating large amount of their staple crop, maize. This was to prove a critical factor throughout the later Mayan history as maize remained the staple diet throughout their history.

These settlements soon grew populous, turning into towns and as the populations living in them grew more complex, they turned into earliest Mayan cities such as Nakbe, El Mirador and Tikal. The Pre-Classic period of the Mayan civilisation continued from 2000 B.C. to 250 A.D.

Classic Period

The Classic period of the Mayan civilisation extends from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D. It was during this period that the Mayan civilisation reached the peak of its development, making significant advancements in arts, culture, architecture and in other aspects of society.

In this period, many Mayan cities grew populous, had long-established ruling dynasties and began to develop as well-organised urban centres. Some of these cities had populations as high as 150,000 inhabitants. It was during this period that the Mayan city of Tikal, which has existed since the Pre-Classic period, grew immensely in size and prestige.

Late Classic Period

The Mayan civilisation reached such a height during the late Classic period that many highly advanced cities began rivalling each other for alliances with other cities and regional influences. While Tikal was already a major power in the Mayan lowlands, the city of Calakmul emerged as a major rival during this period. At the same time, Copan emerged as the leading Mayan urban hub in the southeastern lands. The emergence of so many great cities was a result of a rapid increase in population and resources of different cities.

Terminal Classic Period

The terminal Classic period of the Mayan civilisation continued from 830 A.D. to 900 A.D. This is the period of the rapid decline of the Mayan civilisation. To this day, historians have been unable to ascertain exactly how and why the Mayan civilisation collapsed in the 9th century A.D. Some have claimed that this was because of the steadily deteriorating environmental conditions. Others have theorised that an attack for another tribe or people from outside of the Mayan regions, such as the Toltecs, brought about the end of the civilisation. Whatever the reason, most Mayan centres in the southern lowlands rapidly declined and their populations eroded within a few decades.

Post-Classic Period

With the fall of the Mayan civilisation in the southern lowlands, the golden phase of the Mayan civilisation came to an end. It is generally regarded as the end of the Mayan civilisation proper. However, this does mean that the civilisation altogether came to an end after this period. Rather, Mayan populations shifted mostly to northern lowlands and Mayan highlands. During the post-Classic period, many Mayan cities in the northern lowlands grew in prominence and power.

Rise of Northern Lowlands

During the period between 950 A.D. and 1500 A.D., Mayan civilisation largely shifted to the northern lowlands. It was at this time that the later Mayan city of Chichen Itza rapidly grew in population. With the growth in population, the city became more prosperous and influential, becoming the most important Mayan city in the post-Classic period. However, the glory of this city was rather short-lived as it was abandoned sometime in the 11th century.

The other major Mayan city that rose in this period was Mayapan. Mayapan became the most important Mayan city during the 12th century and kept this position of central significance until it declined in the middle of the 15th century.

Arrival of the Spaniards

The Spaniards had been planning on exploring the Mayan lands since Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Early expeditions by the conquistadors were dispatched at the beginning of the 16th century but these were mostly met with failure. It wasn’t until the time of the arrival of Hernan Cortes in the 1520s that Spanish finally made direct contact with major Mayan cities and began actively conquering the Mayan lands. This took place after Cortes successfully brought about the downfall of the powerful Aztec Empire.

After the Spanish Conquest

By the end of the 16th century, the Spanish conquerors had gained control of the nearly all major Mayan urban centres, including important Mayan cities in the Yucatan region. During this period of conquest, many Mayan temples were demolished, the social life was disrupted and Mayan culture underwent rapid decline. Spanish conquerors burnt and eliminated a vast body of the Mayans literature. The Mayans survived despite many radical changes to their society and culture, but remained under the yoke of the Spanish culture in the later centuries.

Mayan Timeline Summary

Mayan civilisation came into being sometime in the 1st millennium B.C., although Mayan settlements date back to 1800 B.C. During the 1st millennium B.C., these settlements clustered into populous towns which, in turn, grew into large cities. Among the notable Mayan cities which came into being during the Pre-Classic period were Tikal, El Mirador and Nakbe.

With the advent of the Mayan Classic period beginning in 250 A.D., a large number of Mayan cities rose to power and prominence. The rapid decline of the civilisation came about in the 9th century after which the centre of the civilisation shifted from southern lowlands to northern lowlands and highlands.