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Mayan Culture Mexico Riviera Maya

The Maya people were spread out over a territory of about 500 thousand square kilometers, covering the present-day Mexican states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Chiapas and Campeche, and the Central American countries of Guatemala, Belize, the western portion of El Salvador and Honduras. Their origins go back some 5000 years, or perhaps further, although the first recorded settlements are more recent, as in Guatemala, around 2500 B.C. or in Yucatan, dating from 1600 B.C.

From a historian's point of view, the evolution of the Maya people is divided into three main periods : the Pre-classic (1600 B.C. - 250 A.D.), the Classic (250 - 900 A.D.) and the Post classic (900 - 1542). Each represents a different phase in the development that characterized the social and cultural activities of the different Maya groups up to their conquest by the Spaniards in 1548. The first contact between the two occurred much earlier, in 1511, when an expedition arrived in the area where the sole survivors were Jeronimo de Aguilar, who would later become a guide and interpreter for Hernan Cortes, and Gonzalo Guerrero, the first Spaniard to become integrated into everyday Maya life. Dating from its collapse under Spanish domination, the Maya people would retreat to the jungle where they continued to evolve in silence up to the present. For this reason, it cannot be said that the Maya culture is a dead culture; to the contrary, it survives in its people, in the form of legends, sayings and customs which keep the magic and knowledge of a millennial wisdom alive.

The Maya culture left an enormous cultural legacy, developing a unique architecture, the design of jewelry and ceramics, the construction of an advanced written language, and an amazing knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, more advanced than that of European civilization at the time.

There are not many facts concerning the beginnings of the Pre-classic Period known as the Early Pre-classic Period (1800 - 1000 B.C.) - which developed in the area that is now Guatemala and Chiapas - that can be obtained from remains hidden in the ground, since the state of evolution was still rudimentary. Nevertheless, all observations seem to indicate that this was the era when agriculture developed based on planting maize, and when hunting weapons were perfected using arrows with obsidian points.

The application of irrigation techniques allowed for better crops which were the basis for demographic expansion during this period. It is upon this foundation that the Middle Pre-classic Period is established (1000 - 500 B.C.) when stone constructions began to appear, such as those found at the excavations in Nakb'e, in El Pet'en, North of Guatemala. During the Late Pre-classic (500 B.C. - 250 A.D.) the distinctive signs of Maya culture became evident such as writing, the first calendars and limestone constructions. During this period altar temples were built, such as the Kiminaljuyu in Guatemala, mythical scenes in two dimensions were painted, and monuments were erected. Mathematics and astronomy also began during this final evolutionary phase.

The Classic Period (250 - 900 A.D.) represents the most complex and richest stage. The vigesimal system was adopted and the cycles of the Moon, Venus and Saturn were studied, giving rise to the invention of two superimposed calendars which completed 52-year cycles, and hieroglyphic writing also made its appearance. During this time of economic expansion, commercial networks were strengthened and cacao grains were used as currency for commercial exchange. The principal cities during this period were Tikal, North of Guatemala, Uxmal, West of Yucatan, and Edzn'a in the State of Campeche. Techniques for painting murals were perfected and stucco (a mixture of quicklime, water and "sascab" - limestone gravel) was used to decorate the walls and façades, and also as a basic material for sculptures. Small statues were crafted out of clay, dated stone carvings ("estelas") were erected and ceramic objects were created using refined techniques.

ancient mayan ball gameIn the Post classic Period, the cultural mix increased and predominance passed to Chichen Itza (Tour Chichen Itza (with Transportation)) and Mayapan, to Uxmal in the West, and to the city of Coba in the East. Tulum and Xel Ha, located in the State of Quintana Roo, were also part of this culture. It was in this zone where the Mexican-Toltec and the Itzaes influence were combined to implant the cult of Kukulcan, the plumed serpent of the Toltecs. Maya civilization reached its twilight after the fall of Chichen Itza as a result of internal conflicts.

The arrival of the Spaniards brought about the demise of the Maya civilization's independence. Nevertheless, its culture, mythology and science stood fast against the onslaught of Western culture and remain alive today.


 Even though the Maya culture remains present in the Riviera Maya, through the many indigenous communities still found here which preserve the traditions, religion and social structure of the Maya people, the splendor of ancient Maya civilization is most evident in the numerous archaeological sites in this area. It is through the pyramids, "pelota " ( ball ) playing fields, sculpted stone pillars, plazas and temples that some of the mysteries still surrounding one of America's most important cultures have been partially deciphered.

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