National Geographic August 2007


Dear reader, after my extensive travels within the Yucatan Peninsula in 2019 and 2021, I can finally start to try to put together a history of as much as is presently known, a layman’s look at this civilization and its evolving and previous influences. For such a huge and powerful empire to only relatively recently been found in the sprawling dense jungle, peeping out to tantalise us, is a wonder in itself, and only a very small section has actually been uncovered, However mighty, things come and go and nature will reclaim past enterprises. Whether it be by jungle or desert sand, civilizations once great become hidden and forgotten in the mists of time. We are re-writing history with the major discoveries that are being found all over the planet, pushing our ancestral dates back further and further which is frankly showing us how we haven’t had our ancestral timeline right at all.

Mysterious ‘baby dolls’

There is a major upheaval now also that it’s becoming more and more suspicious that, the world over, many places made a sudden dramatic leap forward in knowledge, art and technology which now does look suspiciously like we had external help. This is cause for heated debate however historians and archaeologists have been seen many times to have their own hidden agendas to make things ‘fit’ into their narrative. So let’s now take a brief look at the relics and try not to be set in our ways of thinking and how we were taught, as more and more we see that things are being disproved in the educational curriculum, things are not at all as we were led to believe.


At the early Tikal pyramids in Guatemala

Although much imagined, even now, as a gentle people headed by priests and scribes, the Maya have only recently been understood as more like warlords and only after their fabulous glyphs have been unravelled and more artefacts are discovered. They were a complex interactive society with warring dynasties and court tensions and rivalries that would shame the Tudors. They were strong and organised people equipped to live in that searing heat of the Yucatan peninsula and beyond. Most of their thriving centres and trading cities being inland they had to make difficult terrain their own. Modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and even entering San Salvador and Honduras were the massive spread of their influence. This huge territory would have been cleared of all jungle in and around their cities, and the irrigation for crops and dwellings was sophisticated as were the large interstate roads. The white roads and brightly painted temples and housing along with fields of maize along with other crops must have been a magnificent sight. The jungle finally however has taken back with a weedy vengeance as it has done other ancient but advanced civilizations in other parts of the world.

Ballcourt at the palace at Tikal. Ball games came from the Olmec

In order to travel back through the mist of time, we need to re-imagine the surge of people from Asia that came to this huge continent to make it their home. This swampy densely forested place with brightly coloured extravagant birds, monkeys of an exuberant nature such as the howler monkeys, big cats such as the jaguar and a plethora of other fauna, not all as welcome and beautiful, for the omnipresent mosquitoes were also there around this humid environment with its tropical downpours. The early settlers who decided to make a go of it, organised themselves well over the millennia, and small dwellings finally became villages, and thin poor soil was enriched along with the understanding of rotating their crops and leaving fields fallow so as not to deplete the soil they had had to work hard on to make more fertile. This methodology kept them fed and clearly the earlier Olmecs had a hand in teaching them many other skills that were needed. Along with the success of the earlier Mayans came the building of canals in a structured way so that when larger towns had developed they were au fait with composting and creating fields where swamps had been, they started terracing the higher land and taking silt from the boggy swamps to make thin mountain soil viable, indeed on those terraces they would also make fish ponds to have fresh fish available. Corrals were set up and woodland creatures would be flushed into them to have a ready source of fresh meat.

Palenque pyramids.

Clearly, these developments were over a long period of time but made for a durable and super imaginative spirit which is still evident in modern Mayans. When you go on a track in the jungle there now you can see it was no mean feat to not only survive but thrive in the gnarly tangle that is the jungle. Although this is seen down Central America through to South America for our purpose this is bringing forward the development of the Mayans and their ways of mastering this land until it sustained millions of human beings from what were just very small groups of migrants battling the elements and showing huge pluck and determination.

Codices at Guatemala city Museum


So at the moment, we should just appreciate this earlier movement before they became more powerful and developed into the glittering, mystical, brutal, artistic beings who developed writing and studied the stars, gave us astronomical calenders, knew the power of plants for medicine and ritual purposes and, with this fabulous arsenal, became too power-hungry.

Let’s just look at the Preclassic, our BC Mayans, the dates being around 1000 BC when they had spread throughout the whole peninsula and we can say the cultural characteristics associated with the Mayan civilization were by now deeply entrenched. Much of this had been taken on by the mysterious Olmec, who date from around 1500 BC, (these you will remember from the massive basalt heads which appear negroid in their features and the ceramic ‘babies’ which conversely appear Asian in theirs.)

This era is looked at in three sections; early, mid and late, the late Preclassic being the start of the Golden Age of their riches in art and architecture too, including their pyramid building. (yes it did start that early)

It was at this time the major cities were gradually established, such as Palenque, Tikal, Copan and, further South, in Chalchuapa, and they began to prosper and the city-state concept developed. This was your interstate trading time of commodities and cultural exchange. This is the start of it becoming wealthy but still artistically blooming and merging. We are not there with the pyramids being a set part of worship in towns yet, and roads, irrigation, stone buildings and masterpieces are carved without metal, just with stone and obsidian until bronze arrived in the latter part of the Preclassic era.


Although we know the Mayan language was developed in the Southern Maya area (Chiapas-Guatemalan Highlands) in around 2000 BC, the gradual shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural villages was established by 1000 BC. As in any culture when this transformation is made, it leaves more time to acquire learning and make things.

Around this time, the Olmec culture began to emerge in nearby Tabasco, and this older culture would later become a vital trading partner to the younger Mayans and whose influence would make profound effects on Maya society and their art. This is when simple pottery is discovered and some slip vessels. The influence of the Olmec cannot be overemphasised, indeed Olmec words such as kawkaw or cocoa were from the Olmec and in some places as far South as  Chalchuapa in San Salvador, we see that they coexisted with the Tazumal as two colossal Olmec sculptures were found there in this town which has been continuously occupied by humans for at least 3200 years.

Olmec means rubber so this name was given to them much later as their actual name has been lost, and for want of anything better they were given this nickname. We still sadly don’t know their actual name as no writing was left behind and I find it rather sad that forever forward they will be known as the Rubbers! So when you see the Mayan preoccupation with the ball courts that are evident throughout all their sites, is due to the Olmec ancestors. Indeed the modern version still played by Maya these days such is the influence of that ball of rubber through thousands of years.

Olmec heads. The Mayans based a lot of their culture on the Olmec teachings

So our dear Olmec is recognised as a protoculture, and they are referred to as the “Mother Culture” for all following Mesoamerican societies.

These early Mayan farmers grew maize, fruits, cocoa and root vegetables but also foraged and of course, hunted and fished. Their simple lifestyle was more family-based at that time. Life, as they say, was simple until the feisty entry into the Middle Preclassic after these early roots had been established.


From around  1000 BC to 300 BC., followed centuries of agricultural village life had begun to form the beginnings of a complex society. This shift shows radical changes and the growth of cities and recognisable networks for trade and expansion. From the coast and lowlands further inland up rivers to river valleys. Although the community was still small and widespread things were now changing into what we recognise as the Mayan format. Writing, calenders and monumental buildings appear, along with the concept of monarchy and kings. This indeed is a recognisable milestone.

The now developing complex society now shows an elite class (who would be the owners of the stone residences still visible on the many sites as opposed to the poorer organic huts on the periphery), a military and set religious practices and worship were put in place and became the norm and formulaic for the concept of the ‘City State’

Now prestige matters, the trade with the omnipresent Olmec bring in the essentials of obsidian for mirrors, carving and weaponry. This razor-sharp volcanic glass is a must in the time before iron. From the precise carving of meat to spears for fishing and hunting, and for weaponry for battle. Checking in the mirror for your appearance for those fancy parties, religious gatherings and indeed sacrifices, must indeed have been a luxury. Jade mosaics appeared which became a must-have for funerary function as well as ornamentation. Now the art is recognisable with its unique style.

Waterways in the form of canals were another great achievement at this time, only just possible with the level of organisation as it necessitated a lot of manpower. Lying within modern-day Guatemala City on the shores of Lake Miraflores, Kaminaljuyu developed a powerful government structure that organized massive irrigation campaigns and built numerous intricately carved stone monuments for its rulers. These monuments clearly depict war captives and often show the rulers holding weapons. These images indicate the Kaminaljuyu polity engaged in active warfare and dominated the Guatemalan highlands for centuries

Central plazas were integrated into even smaller villages. Villages began to include earthen mounds, occasionally enhanced by masonry. For instance, the site of La Blanca featured a central mound more than seventy-five feet tall. It contained a masonry fragment strongly resembling ahead in the distinctive Olmec style. These plazas also suggest a developing religious and hierarchical social structure. tunnel at El Pillar, and Nomu. The famous stelae (seen to develop across the world) with portraits of rulers but frustratingly no writing on them in the early part of this era. At about 700 BC we see writing start to emerge across the board, with its beauty and intricacies.

An intensification of warfare as affluence of the classes now becomes more marked and the population swells in all the emerging city-states. Friction mounts as egotism from opposing leaders and the desire to grab more land and power. Realistically this is what is the crucial time for any great civilization in the birth throes which inevitably end in death throes. The comparison of hunter-gatherers, to settled family units via farming, inevitably results in swelling populations in a more comfortable existence. This is always the fatal flaw. This is when the trouble brews and the Mayans were no exception to the rule and tragically this path was heading directly, albeit much later, to an easy capture of most Mayan cities by the Spanish, as lords of different parts constantly betrayed one another.

An analogy of our times? Cities and warfare correlation? Organised elites? Large bodies of influence creating fall of empires? Subsequent division of human ‘strata’, an elite and the ‘workers’ or ‘lower class’ Division created by organised society. Chiefs and Indians? Yes, all these things came into play as seemingly they have done on a continuously revolving passage of time, lessons seemingly never learnt. The Mayan concept of time seemingly is spot on. More about that later.


From around 300 BC to 300 AD we can place the Late Preclassic and we arrive at the start of the real pyramid building at around 100 BC. and some of the first records in the form of glyphs. In these, we see the complex religious motifs such as jaguar worship, blood-letting by the elites and offerings to the deities in ‘temples’ both man-made and natural (caves for example).

Funerary jade mask

We have the concept of the number zero in this era and the first written record of it might be the first worldwide. With this number calculations in astronomy and architecture in aligning monuments to the four cardinal points for social and religious purposes.

Pyramid close to Villa Hermosa and the Olmec giant heads

The huge burst of intellectual, artistic and religious activity The Late Preclassic also saw the rise of two powerful states Kaminaljuyu in the highlands and El Mirador in the lowlands. Both cities display the continued refinement in stonework, artistic friezes, and architecture during this era. I will go into this in more detail later as it was a truly amazing time for a culmination of ideas and organisation.

Cholula Museum

Hence we move to the death throes and the collapse of the Preclassic era and yet still we don’t know why some cities were abandoned at this time. So let’s look at the Terminal Preclassic.


This will likely remain a mystery until more excavations are made or there is a lucky strike that occurs. The striking similarities between Olmec art and Mayan due to their hundreds of years cohabiting and or trading, and the subsequent disappearance of the Olmecs is a puzzle, but collapse it did. Its bloated rapid rise must have been so fast and furious that something went wrong and decline it did, most notably at around 200 to 250 AD. (the murals found in San Bartolo are a fine example of the age)

We see this most notably in Chiapas, El Petén and the Yucatán peninsula. This collapse is still not fully understood but it would reasonably seem that food and drought played a part and the sheer volume of people was no longer sustainable on the dwindling resources. This would be an indicator that this dynamic civilization had two major crashes and presumably many smaller ones as yet not been investigated. This would give rise to speculation that this has happened many times over as we push back human history ever further with archaeological discoveries all over the world. The rise and fall of ‘civilizations’ on a regular basis seems to be a pattern eternal on the face of the planet.

We will later have a look more closely at this vital emergence and demise of these fated people and what wonderful things they created for later use and the basis of the Classic era.


ART-WITH-ATTITUDE.CO.UK is my website for modelling, acting, sculpture ceramics and photography.