Maya History on Ambergris and Surrounding Area

Ambergris Museum
Ambergris Caye History- More Detail
Maya History
Early History of Belize, Glyphs, Timeline
Field Guide to Ambergris Caye
Herman Smith's column on Archaeology in Belize
Maya History of the island
Marco Gonzales
Maya Sites in Belize
Tours to Maya World

The Maya past, present and future are an important part of the Belize experience. This history of the Maya continues today in over half the population of Ambergris Caye. To the people here on the island, this is more than a series of memories carved in limestone or glazed on pottery. A majority of the people who will greet you and feed you and dive with you here on the island have the blood of Maya running in their veins. This area long served as the maritime headquarters of the Chetumal Bay Maya population. The boat builders and maintenance crews, along with the fishing industry, kept Ambergris Caye as a very important segment of the Maya economic system.

Ambergris Caye served as a trade center for the Maya. It is estimated that during the height of the Maya civilization, a civilization that lasted six times longer than the Roman empire, over four thousand canoes were present on the water on any given day. Vast quantities of goods flowed up and down the coastline of Belize and the Yucatan. So important was access for trade that the Maya literally created Ambergris Caye. It was once the southern tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The Maya dug a canal to allow access to the sea for their dugouts, forming the present day island of Ambergris Caye. For a brief history of the island of Ambergris Caye, click here. For a more detailed look at the Maya history of Ambergris Caye, click here.

Of the many empires and cultures that flourished in preconquest Mesoamerica, the Maya have enjoyed the best press. The European travelers who rediscovered their ruined cities imagined them idealistically as a spiritual, artistic and pacific people. They were, it was said, the Greeks to the Aztecs' Romans. To this day, their majestic temples at Palenque, Uxmal, Chichen lzta and Tikal are among the most admired pre-Columbian sites.

Mayan texts:
Yucatan Before and After the Conquest by Diego de Landa, tr. William Gates [1937]
The best primary source on the Maya, ironically by the monk who burned most of their books.

The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel by Ralph L. Roys [1930]

The Mayan Calendar

The Book of the People: Popol Vuh
by Delia Goetz and Sylvanus Griswold Morley from Adrián Recino's translation from Quiché into Spanish [1954, copyright not registered or renewed]

Maya Hieroglyphic Writing (excerpts)
by J. Eric S. Thompson [1950]

The Popul Vuh excerpt from The Mythic and Heroic Sagas of the Kichés of Central America, by Lewis Spence; London [1908] 79,023 bytes

The Myths of Mexico and Peru by Lewis Spence

"Today we know much more about these peoples," writes Mercedes de la Garza, a Mexican expert. "But this does not mean that we have the absolute truth and that the 21st century will not reject many of our interpretations, just as we have discarded those of the 18th and 19th centuries."

Still, one fundamental reading of the Maya has not been challenged. It is that they had a cosmic vision of life, one that conceived their gods, nature and man as inseparable (with the first humans born of the sacred corn). Thus, their entire existence was dictated by religious beliefs, with their study of astronomy and mathematics, their social and political organization, their artistic creation and even their wars all a function of their faith.

Yet scholars believe they have recently learned much that is new about each of these facets of Maya life. Turning their focus from the gods toward the people, they have begun investigating everyday life, settlement patterns, farming practices and relations between different Maya city-states and between the sprawling Maya region (covering today's southern and southeast Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and part of Honduras and El Salvador) and other important ethnic groups, notably the Olmecs and Toltecs.

As a result, many scholars have chosen not to follow the more traditional approach of presenting the Maya chronologically through their three identifiable periods: Pre-Classic (1800 B.C. to A.D. 250), Classic (A.D. 250 to 900) and Post-Classic (A.D. 900 to 1524). This approach also tends to emphasize the so-called collapse of the Maya Empire in the late Post.-Classic era, when many great urban centers of the Yucatan Peninsula were abandoned for mountain and jungle refuges.

It is now thought that Maya lords also associated themselves with the gods to enhance their earthly powers. The gods themselves are portrayed in myriad forms, sometime as fertility figures, other times as warriors, often as birds. The religious ballgame called pelota in which the ball, like the sun, was to be kept in permanent motion, was a favorite sport.

In the drainages in southern Campeche, Tabasco, and Belize and on the Pacific slope of Guatemala groves of cacao trees were planted, but in the north these were restricted to the bottoms of filled-in cenotes and other natural depres-sions. The chocolate bean from this tree provided the pre-ferred drink of the Mesoamerican ruling classes, but well into Colonial times the beans served as a form of money in regional markets, so precious were they that the Maya traders en-countered off the coast of Honduras by Columbus were said to have snatched up any that had dropped as though it was their own cyes that had fallen to the canoe bottom.

Every Maya household had its own kitchen garden in which vegetables and fruit trees were raised, and fruit groves were scattered near settlements as well. Papaya, avocado, custard apple, sapodilla, and the breadnut tree were all cultivated, but many kinds of wild fruits were also eaten, especially in times of famine.

There were several breeds of dogs current among the Maya, each with its own name. One such strain was barkless; males were castrated and fattened on corn, and either eaten or sacrificed. Another was used in the hunt. Both wild and domestic turkeys were known, but only the former used as sacrificial victims in ceremonies. As he still does today, the Maya farmer raised the native stingless bees, which are kept in small, hollow logs closed with mud plaster at either end and stacked up in A-frames, but wild honey was also much appreciated.

The larger mammals, such as deer and peccary, were hunted with the bow and arrow in drives (though in Classic times the atlatl and dart must have been the principal weapon), aided by packs of dogs. Birds like the wild turkey, partridge, wild pigeon, quail, and wild duck were taken with pellets shot from blow-guns. A variety of snares and deadfalls are shown in the Madrid Coda, especially a trap for armadillo.

In the Yucatan fishing was generally of the offshore kind, by means of sweep and drag nets and hook and line, but fish were also shot with bow and arrow in lagoons. Inland, especially in the highland streams, stupefying drugs were pounded in the water, and the fish taken by hand once they bad floated into artificial dams; one of the beautifully incised bones (figure a~) from Late Classic Tikal shows that this was also the practice in the PetŽn. Along the coasts the catch was salted and dried or roasted over a fire for use in commerce.

Among wild products of the lowland forests of great cut-tural importance to the Maya was the resin of the copal tree, which (along with rubber and chewing gum!) was used as incense- so holy was this that one native source describes it as the `odour of the centre of heaven'. Another tree produced a bark for flavouring ba/eke, a `strong and stinking' mead imbibed in vast amounts during festivals.

Modern observers have also benefitted from progress made in recent years in understanding both the glyphic writing and numbers used by the Maya. The Maya's grasp of mathematics and astronomy was particularly noteworthy: they invented the concept of zero a millennium before it was introduce in Western civilization, while their numerous calendars included one of 365 days. More alarmingly, they calculated that the Maya era began on August 11, 3114 BC, and will end on Dec. 21, 2012.

On the other hand, such is the strength of Maya culture that it is no more likely to disappear 14 years hence than it was after Hernan Cortes sent Francisco de Montejo to the Yucatan in 1527 to complete the con quest that he had begun in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan six years earlier. Much of the area was subjugated by 1546, but one mountain region to the south held out until 1697.

Even then, the fashionable pacific image of the Maya seemed out of place. There were sporadic Indian uprisings until, in 1847, a broad Maya rebellion known as the Caste War erupted in the Yucatan. (With Mexico itself in disarray at the time, the besieged elite of Merida even offered to become an American colony in exchange for protection against the Maya.) The uprising was eventually put down with huge loss of life, although some Maya communities were not pacified until 1900.

More significantly, despite hardship and loss of land, Maya culture survives today, through the languages, costumes, social organization and religious practices of more than a score of ethnic groups in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas and in Guatemala. Perhaps the link between these peoples and the exhibition in Venice may at times seem tenuous, yet the new rebellion launched by the Zapatista National Liberation Front in Chiapas on Jan. 1, 1994 would suggest that, 500 years after the Spanish Conquest, a Maya identity remains intact.

Maya Civilization Timeline

Evolution of Maya culture

Olmec 1200-1000 B.C.

Early Preclassic Maya 1800-900 B.C.

Middle Preclassic Maya 900-300 B.C.

Late Preclassic Maya 300 B.C. - A.D. 250

Early Classic Maya A.D. 250-600

Late Classic Maya A.D. 600-900

Post Classic Maya A.D. 900-1500

Colonial period A.D. 1500-1800

Independent Mexico A.D. 1821 to the present

B.C. 11,000 The first hunter-gatherers settle in the Maya highlands and lowlands.

3114 or 3113 The creation of the world takes place, according to the Maya Long Count calendar.

2600 Maya civilization begins.

2000 The rise of the Olmec civilization, from which many aspects of Maya culture are derived. Village farming becomes established throughout Maya regions.

700 Writing is developed in Mesoamerica.

400 The earliest known solar calendars carved in stone are in use among the Maya, although the solar calendar may have been known and used by the Maya before this date.

300 The Maya adopt the idea of a hierarchical society ruled by nobles and kings.

100 The city of Teotihuacan is founded and for centuries is the cultural, religious and trading centre of Mesoamerica .

50 The Maya city of Cerros is built, with a complex of temples and ball courts. It is abandoned (for reasons unknown) a hundred years later and its people return to fishing and farming. A.D.

100 The decline of the Olmecs.

400 The Maya highlands fall under the domination of Teotihuacan, and the disintegration of Maya culture and language begins in some parts of the highlands.

500 The Maya city of Tikal becomes the first great Maya city, as citizens from Teotihuacan make their way to Tikal, introducing new ideas involving weaponry, captives, ritual practices and human sacrifice .

600 An unknown event destroys the civilization at Teotihuacan, along with the empire it supported. Tikal becomes the largest city-state in Mesoamerica , with as many as 500,000 inhabitants within the city and its hinterland.

683 The Emperor Pacal dies at the age of 80 and is buried in the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque.

751 Long-standing Maya alliances begin to break down. Trade between Maya city-states declines, and inter-state conflict increases.

869 Construction ceases in Tikal, marking the beginning of the city's decline.

899 Tikal is abandoned.

900 The Classic Period of Maya history ends, with the collapse of the southern lowland cities. Maya cities in the northern Yucatán continue to thrive.

1200 Northern Maya cities begin to be abandoned.

1224 The city of Chichén Itzá is abandoned by the Toltecs. A people known as the Uicil-abnal, which later takes the name Itzá, settles in the desolate city.

1244 The Itzá abandon Chichén Itzá for reasons unknown.

1263 The Itzá begin building the city of Mayapán.

1283 Mayapán becomes the capital of Yucatán.

1441 There is a rebellion within Mayapán and the city is abandoned by 1461. Shortly after this, Yucatán degenerates from a single united kingdom into sixteen rival statelets, each anxious to become the most powerful.

1511 A Spaniard named Gonzalo Guerrero is shipwrecked and washed up on the eastern shore of Yucatán. He falls in love and joins the Maya in Chachtamal (modern day Corozal in northern Belize and becomes the father of Latin America's Mestizos), tattooing his face, piercing his ears and marrying into a Maya noble family. Guerrero later becomes an implacable foe of the Spaniards and does much to help the Maya resist Spanish rule in Yucatán.

1517 The Spanish first arrive on the shores of Yucatán under Hernandez de Cordoba, who later dies of wounds received in battle against the Maya. The arrival of the Spanish ushers in Old World diseases unknown among the Maya, including smallpox, influenza and measles. Within a century, 90 per cent of Mesoamerica's native populations will be killed off.

1519 Hernán Cortés begins exploring Yucatán.

1524 Cortés meets the Itzá people, the last of the Maya peoples to remain unconquered by the Spanish. The Spanish leave the Itzá alone until the seventeenth century.

1528 The Spanish under Francisco de Montejo begin their conquest of the northern Maya. The Maya fight back with surprising vigour, keeping the Spanish at bay for several years. 1541 The Spanish are finally able to subdue the Maya and put an end to Maya resistance. Revolt continues, however, to plague the Spaniards off and on for the rest of the century.

1542 The Spanish establish a capital city at Mérida in Yucatán.

1695 The ruins of Tikal are discovered by chance by the Spanish priest Father Avedaño and his companions, who had become lost in the jungle.

1712 The Maya of the Chiapas highlands rise against the Mexican government. They will continue to do so off and on until the 1990s.

1724 The Spanish Crown abolishes the system of encomienda , which had given Spanish land barons the right to forced Maya labour, as long as they agreed to convert the Maya to Christianity.

1821 Mexico becomes independent from Spain. In general, life becomes more tolerable for the Maya than it had been under Spanish rule.

1822 An account of Antonío del Río's late eighteenth-century explorations of Palenque is published in London. The book raises a great deal of interest in further exploration of the "lost" Maya civilization and settlements.

1839 American diplomat and lawyer John Lloyd Stephens and English topographical artist Frederick Catherwood begin a series of explorations into Maya regions, revealing the full splendour of classical Maya civilization to the world for the first time.

1847 The Yucatán Maya rise up against the Mexican government, rebelling against the miserable conditions and cruelty they have suffered at the hands of the whites. The rebellion is so successful that the Maya almost manage to take over the entire peninsula in what has become known as the War of the Castes.

1850 A miraculous "talking cross" in a village in central Quintana Roo predicts a holy war against the whites. Bolstered by arms received from the British in Belize, the Maya form into quasi-military companies inspired by messianic zeal. The fighting continues until 1901.

1860 The Yucatán Maya rebel again.

1864 Workmen digging a canal on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala discover a jade plaque inscribed with a date of A.D. 320. The plaque becomes one of the oldest known objects dated in the Maya fashion.

1880 A new tide of government intervention in Maya life begins as governments attempt to force the Maya to become labourers on cash-crop plantations. This destroys many aspects of Maya cultural traditions and agricultural methods preserved over 4,000 years. Towns which had been protected for the Maya soon become a haven for mixed-race ladinos who prey economically on the indigenous Maya and usurp all positions of social and economic power.

1910 Rampant government corruption leads to the Mexican Revolution .

1946 American photographer Giles Healey is taken to the Maya city of Bonampak by the native Lacandón who live nearby. Healey becomes the first non-Maya ever to see Bonampak's stunning wall-paintings, which reveal new details about Maya civilization.

1952 The Priest-king Pacal's tomb at Palenque is discovered and excavated by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz, marking the first time a tomb has been found inside a Maya pyramid. Prior to this, Maya pyramids were believed to be temples with a purely religious or ceremonial purpose.

1962 Maya hieroglyphic signs are first catalogued. Uncontrolled looting of Maya tombs and other sites begins around this time in the southern lowlands, continuing until well into the 1970s.

1992 A Quiché Maya woman from Guatemala named Rigoberta Menchu , who has lost most of her family to the death squads and is known for speaking out against the extermination of the Maya, wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

It's difficult to present Maya sites to the tourist on Ambergris Caye, for Ambergris has no huge temples or pyramids. On the other hand, the entire island is a Maya site, and excavations for any projects often turn up Maya artifacts. There is an active excavation being done the south. We have pictures of artifacts recovered from Ambergris Caye. Check the Ambergris Museum for these and other information. Also, a tremendous amount of information about the Maya is available in the Early Belize History section of this site. There is an excellent timeline of Belizean history as well as some photos of Maya ceramicware.

Also browse through the fantastic MundoMaya tours that depart from Ambergris Caye.

  • Click here for a for a look at a trip up the New River to the large Maya settlement of Lamanai.
  • Click here for a rotating panorama of the view from the top of the largest temple at Lamanai.
  • Click here for a rotating panorama of the "Center Court" of the Grand Plaza at Tikal.

Related Links:

History Home | Ambergris Caye History- In Depth | Ambergris Museum | Maya History | Early History of Belize, Glyphs, Timeline | 150th Anniversary of San Pedro Town | Field Guide to Ambergris Caye | Angel Nuñez' column "25 Years Ago on Ambergris Caye" | Herman Smith's column on Archaeology in Belize | Maya History of the island | Marco Gonzales | Maya Sites in Belize | Alternative Medicine in Belize | Aztec Account of Spanish Conquest | Excavations on Ambergris Caye

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