The ancient Maya emerged from barbarism probably during the first or second century of the Common Era; at least their earliest dated monuments cannot be ascribed to a more remote period. How long a time had been required for the development of their complex calendar and hieroglyphic system to the point of graphic record, it is impossible to say, and any estimate can be only conjectural. It is certain, however, that a long interval must have elapsed from the first crude and unrelated scratches of savagery to the elaborate and involved hieroglyphs found on the earliest monuments, which represent not only the work of highly skilled sculptors, but also the thought of intensively developed minds. That this period was measured by centuries rather than by decades seems probable; the achievement was far too great to have been performed in a single generation or even in five or ten.
It seems safe to assume, therefore, that by the end of the second century of the Common Era the Maya civilization was well established. There then began an extraordinary development where city after city sprang into prominence throughout the southern part of the Maya territory, each contributing its share to the general progress and art of the time. With accomplishment came confidence and a quickening of pace. All activities doubtless shared in the general uplift which followed, though little more than the material evidences of architecture and sculpture have survived the ravages of the destructive environment in which this culture flourished; and it is primarily from these remnants of ancient Maya art that the record of progress has been partially reconstructed.
This period of development, which lasted upward of 400 years, or until about the close of the sixth century, may be called perhaps the “Golden Age of the Maya”; at least it was the first great epoch in their history, and so far as sculpture is concerned, the one best comparable to the classic period of Greek art. While sculpture among the Maya never again reached so high a degree of perfection, architecture steadily developed, almost to the last. Judging from the dates inscribed upon their monuments, all the great cities of the south flourished during this period: Palenque and Yaxchilan in what is now southern Mexico; Piedras Negras, Seibal, Tikal, Naranjo, and Quirigua in the present Guatemala; and Copan in the present Honduras. All these cities rose to greatness and sank again into insignificance, if not indeed into oblivion, before the close of this Golden Age.
The causes which led to the decline of civilization in the south are unknown. It has been conjectured that the Maya were driven from their southern homes by stronger peoples pushing in from farther south and from the west, or again, that the Maya civilization, having run its natural course, collapsed through sheer lack of inherent power to advance. Which, if either, of these hypotheses be true, matters little, since in any event one all-important fact remains: Just after the close of Cycle 9 of Maya chronology, toward the end of the sixth century, there is a sudden and final cessation of dates in all the southern cities, apparently indicating that they were abandoned about this time.
Still another condition undoubtedly hastened the general decline if indeed it did no more. There is strong documentary evidence that about the middle or close of the fifth century the southern part of Yucatan was discovered and colonized. In the century following, the southern cities one by one sank into decay; at least none of their monuments bear later dates, and coincidently Chichen Itza, the first great city of the north, was founded and rose to prominence. In the absence of reliable contemporaneous records it is impossible to establish the absolute accuracy of any theory relating to times so remote as those here under consideration; but it seems not improbable that after the discovery of Yucatan and the subsequent opening up of that vast region, the southern cities commenced to decline. As the new country waxed the old waned, so that by the end of the sixth century the rise of the one and the fall of the other had occurred.
The occupation and colonization of Yucatan marked the dawn of a new era for the Maya although their Renaissance did not take place all at once. Under pressure of the new environment, at best a parched and waterless land, the Maya civilization doubtlessly underwent important modification. The period of colonization, with the strenuous labor by which it was marked, was not conducive to progress in the arts. At first the struggle for bare existence must have absorbed in a large measure the energies of all, and not until their foothold was secure could much time have been available for the cultivation of the gentler pursuits. Then, too, at first there seems to have been a feeling of unrest in the new land, a shifting of homes and a testing of localities, all of which retarded the development of architecture, sculpture, and other arts. Bakhalal , the first settlement in the north, was occupied for only 60 years. Chichen Itza, the next location, although occupied for more than a century, was finally abandoned and the search for a new home resumed. Moving westward from Chichen Itza, Chakanputun was seized and occupied at the beginning of the eighth century. Here the Maya are said to have lived for 260 years, until the destruction of Chakanputun by fire about 960 CE and again set them wandering. By this time, however, some four centuries had elapsed since the first colonization of the country, and they doubtless felt themselves fully competent to cope with any problems arising from their environment. Once more their energies had begun to find outlet in artistic expression. The Transitional Period was at an end, and The Maya Renaissance, if the term may be used, was fully under way.
The opening of the eleventh century witnessed important and far-reaching political changes in Yucatan. After the destruction of Chakanputun the horizon of Maya activity expanded. Some of the fugitives from Chakanputun reoccupied Chichen Itza while others established themselves at a new site called Mayapan. About this time also the city of Uxmal seems to have been founded. In the year 1000 these three cities—Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Mayapan—formed a confederacy, in which each was to share equally in the government of the country. Under the peaceful conditions which followed the formation of this confederacy for the next 200 years the arts blossomed forth anew.
This was the second and last great Maya epoch. It was their Age of Architecture as the first period had been their Age of Sculpture. As a separate art sculpture languished; but as an adjunct, an embellishment to architecture, it lived again. The one had become handmaiden to the other. Façades were treated with a sculptural decoration, which for intricacy and elaboration has rarely been equaled by any people at any time; and yet this result was accomplished without sacrifice of beauty or dignity. During this period probably there arose the many cities which to-day are crumbling in decay throughout the length and breadth of Yucatan, their very names forgotten. When these were in their prime, the country must have been one great beehive of activity, for only a large population could have left remains so extensive.
This era of universal peace was abruptly terminated about 1200 CE by an event which shook the political culture to its foundations and disrupted the Triple Alliance under whose beneficent rule the land had grown so prosperous. The ruler of Chichen Itza, Chac Xib Chac, seems to have plotted against his colleague of Mayapan, one Hunnac Ceel, and in the disastrous war which followed, the latter, with the aid of Nahua allies, utterly routed his opponent and drove him from his city. The conquest of Chichen Itza seems to have been followed during the thirteenth century by attempted reprisals on the part of the vanquished Itza, which plunged the country into civil war; and this struggle in turn paved the way for the final eclipse of Maya supremacy in the fifteenth century.
After the dissolution of the Triple Alliance a readjustment of power became necessary. It was only natural that the victors in the late war should assume the chief direction of affairs, and there is strong evidence that Mayapan became the most important city in the land. It is not improbable also that as a result of this war Chichen Itza was turned over to Hunnac Ceel’s Nahua allies, perhaps in recognition of their timely assistance, or as their share in the spoils of war. It is certain that sometime during its history Chichen Itza came under a strong Nahua influence. One group of buildings in particular shows in its architecture and bas-reliefs that it was undoubtedly inspired by Nahua rather than by Maya ideals.
According to Spanish historians, the fourteenth century was characterized by increasing arrogance and oppression on the part of the rulers of Mayapan, who found it necessary to surround themselves with Nahua allies in order to keep the rising discontent of their subjects in check. This unrest finally reached its culmination about the middle of the fifteenth century, when the Maya nobility, unable longer to endure such tyranny, banded themselves together under the leadership of the lord of Uxmal, sacked Mayapan, and slew its ruler.
All authorities, native as well as Spanish, agree that the destruction of Mayapan marked the end of strongly centralized government in Yucatan. Indeed there can be but little doubt that this event also sounded the death knell of Maya civilization. As one of the native chronicles tersely puts it, “The chiefs of the country lost their power.” With the destruction of Mayapan the country split into a number of warring factions, each bent on the downfall of the others. Ancient jealousies and feuds, no longer held in leash by the restraining hand of Mayapan, doubtless revived, and soon the land was rent with strife. Presently to the horrors of civil war were added those of famine and pestilence, each of which visited the peninsula in turn, carrying off great numbers of people.
These several calamities, however, were but harbingers of worse soon to come. In 1517 Francisco de Cordoba landed the first Spanish expedition on the shores of Yucatan. The natives were so hostile, however, that he returned to Cuba, having accomplished little more than the discovery of the country. In the following year Juan de Grijalva descended on the peninsula, but he, too, met with so determined a resistance that he sailed away, having gained little more than hard knocks for his efforts. In the following year (1519) Hernando Cortez landed on the northeast coast but reembarked in a few days for Mexico, again leaving the courageous natives to themselves. Seven years later, however, in 1526, Francisco Montejo, having been granted the title of Adelantado of Yucatan, set about the conquest of the country in earnest. Having obtained the necessary “sinews of war” through his marriage to a wealthy widow of Seville, he sailed with 3 ships and 500 men for Yucatan. He first landed on the island of Cozumel, off the northeast coast, but soon proceeded to the mainland and took formal possession of the country in the name of the King of Spain. This empty ceremony soon proved to be but the prelude to a sanguinary struggle, which broke out almost immediately and continued with extraordinary ferocity for many years, the Maya fighting desperately in defense of their homes. Indeed, it was not until 14 years later, on June 11, 1541, that, the Spaniards having defeated a coalition of Maya chieftains near the city of Ichcanzihoo, the conquest was finally brought to a close and the pacification of the country accomplished. With this event ends the independent history of the Maya.