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The Mayan Civilisation

A Brief History of the Mayan People

The History of the Mayan People is usually broken into five periods or eras

The Pre-Classic Era
The Classic Era
The Post-Classic Era

The Colonial Period
The Post Colonial Period

A brief description of each of these is given below. The first three are eras of the Mayan Civilisation before its collapse and the other two periods relate to Mayan history following the Spanish colonisation of the Yucatan Peninsula.

The Pre-Classic Era (2000BC - 250AD)

The pre classical period is delineated by the first Mayan constructions ( usually burial mounds ) and the population adopting a fixed location existence with identifiably Mayan artifacts and customs. However this area of the Yacatan Peninnsula had been occupied by earlier peoples from about 10000BC. Many of these were hunter/gatherer communities. The Mayan civilisation was firmly based on fixed towns and encampments. The Mayan calenders give a mayan year zero of 3113 BC.

Most of the large Mayan communities of this period were further South from Cancun. However some small to mid sized communities developed around the nothern-western Yucatan peninnsula towards the end of this period. At this time in history other Mesoamerican peoples (such as the Olmec) traded with the emerging Mayan civilisation. The Mayans had a habit of building over the top of their earlier structures and so it is likely that some of their later major structures close to Cancun were build on the top of pre-classic sites. There is not a great deal of archeological material available to the layman from the pre-classic period around Cancun.

Classic Era (250AD - 900AD)

The Mayan Classic Era saw the blossoming of the Mayan culture. The Mayans became urbanised and farmed the land intensively. Cities, such as Coba sprang up. The whole of the region was scattered with different cultures and sub cultures including the Maya. Trade between these cultures was commonplace.

Although the Maya did not invent writing, they fully adopted it early in the Classic era. Regrettibly after the arrival of the Spanish, Jesuit priests committed an act of utter vandalism in destroyiing almost all of the Mayan books. But the more resilient stealae (stone tablets) remain. Today these give us our only insight into the Maya besides the few remaining books.

It is still a matter of conjecture as to why the Classic era came to an end. Whatever the reason, the whole of the Mayan civilisation went into decline and many centres of population were abandoned. It has been suggested that the driving reason for this reversal was a 200 year drought which reduced crops to such an extent that the farming output could no longer support the newly expanded population. The collapse started in the south of the region but spread eventually northwards.

However intense this reversal was, it did not completely destroy the Mayan culture or civilisation, and while the decline was particularly severe in the south, the north suffered less.

The Post-Classic Era (900AD - 1600AD)

For unknown reasons while the Classic Era was collapsing in the south, the civilisation in the north and north-east near Cancun took far less of a downturn and eventually recovered. Sites such as Chichen Itza came to the fore and Coba continued to be developed and maintained.

One has to marvel at the buildings produced by these people. They had little or no metal so all working utilised stone on stone masonary. It is truly amazing that building such as the Kulculkan pyramid in Chichen Itza managed to be constructed using such primitive tools.

As time went on the Mayan civilisation became centralised on Mayapan but after a revolt in about 1450 it degenerated into a number of warring city states. The wars that flared up between rival clan chief and communities had a seriously debilitating effect upon the whole of the Mayan culture. By the mid 16th century it was only a mere shadow of what it had been a few hundred years earlier. A number of the important sites and cities were already abandoned before the arrival of the Spanish.

Colonial Period

The arrival of the Spanish in the middle of the 16th century was the final death blow to the Mayan civilisation. Although the Mayan civilisation was already in severe decline, the Spanish were utterly ruthless in their destruction of Mayan artifacts and cultural symbols. The most notorious incident involved the burning of almost all of the written Mayan records and Mayan books on one shameful night in July 1562 (now known as the "Auto de fe") Due to this single act of madness we are left today with only a small fragment of what was originally recorded.

But worse was to come. The Mayan people were subjugated and enslaved. Their harsh and cruel treatment lasted for centuries. They were formally regarded as second (or third) class citisens and were forced to endure the most barbaric practices.

But the Spanish did not have it all their way. Because the Mayan civilisation had fragmented into a set of city or regional states without a central leader, each city state had to be individually suppressed. This took the Spanish over a 150 years to achieve.

Post Colonial Period.

Mexico threw off the yoke of Spanish colonial rule in the early 19th century but it was some time before the Yucatan peninsula became part of Mexico. Little improved for the Mayans even when the Yucatan peninnsula became the worlds most important Sisal producer (used for manufacturing ropes). Massive amounts of money were made by the Spanish and their descendants who ran the haciendas, but the mayans were essentially treated as slave labour and saw little if any of the money produced from their hard work.

During the 1930's the Sisal industry was overtaken by the advent of synthetic fibres and the whole industry went into a short terminal decline. Most of the oppressing hacienda's that employed the Mayans closed. The whole of the Yucatan peninsula reverted to a desperately poor and insignificant backwater a long way from the power base in Mexico City.

Then in 1974 a Mexican government initiative set Cancun and the surrounding area onto a path of tourism and wealth creation. Money was injected and the famous Cancun hotel strip was born.

Today, although there are still areas of poverty within the region, Cancun and its surrounds are considered prosperous by Mexican standards. Today the Mayan people and the mainly mixed race population of this area (known as Meso-americans) are gaining honest employment providing their visitors with relaxation and insights into the ancient Mayan culture.