Thousands of years before the first Europeans set foot on the continent, the native Maya people of Belize had already seen the rise and fall of impressive empires with sophisticated technologies, complex cultural and judicial norms, and a staggering grasp of large-scale construction and architecture. It’s a story that dates all the way back to the arrival of the first humans in America.
The Origins of the Maya — 35000 – 2500 CE
While the earliest humans crossed the Bering Strait into the Americas 35,000 years ago, it would take a long time for them to spread all the way into Mesoamerica — and longer still before the thawing of the ice age — when the mega-fauna that led the migration patterns of nomadic hunters began to die off and conditions became more tenable to agricultural practices. By roughly 2500 BCE, the ancestors of the Maya had begun to settle in what would eventually become modern Belize and surrounding nations. Hunting still remained a major part of life for these early Maya settlements, but they began to enjoy more varied diets — and greater amounts of food security — thanks to the development of domesticated crops like squash, beans, and corn.
Much about this period is still unknown, but the discovery of a Belize archaeological site dating back to 2500 BCE offers some greater insight into the level of sophistication that these people possessed. Cuello — located near the modern town of Orange Walk — has evidence of specialized pottery like jars and bowls, which makes it one of the oldest sites on the continent with proof of this level of development at such an early age.
The Maya as a Rising Regional Power — 2500 BCE – 250 CE
By most accounts, this level of sophistication had a lot to do with the sociability of the Mayas — and that was a trait that arose largely due to location. The Olmecs — widely regarded as one of the earliest and most advanced cultures in Mesoamerica — sat just to the north of Belize against the Gulf of Mexico. It was from the Olmecs that Belize’s Maya are believed to have developed their language, astronomical knowledge, and calendar. The Olmec influence can be seen in ceramics, jewelry, and relics for this period.
But these weren’t the only people the Maya had contact with, and our understanding of the time reveals a relatively elaborate travel infrastructure. Those in Belize were located in what’s now the Cayo District — an expanse of rainforest wilderness that’s dotted with extensive cave networks, rivers, and mountains — but the Mayas managed to build trade routes both on the water and through the jungle. The reach of the Maya in Belize extended into Guatemala — where they traded for jade and obsidian — and the presence of ocean shells in crafts from the time indicate that their reach as a trade society extended at least as far as to the Caribbean coast. There are even signs that they were mining the self-named Maya mountains for stone — and that they possessed advanced-enough travel routes to transport it in raw and uncut blocks.
The Maya Classical Age — 250 – 900 CE
The northeast coastal settlement of Chetumal Bay offers a good perspective on what life was like for the Maya by the beginning of the Common Era. As both a center of trade and a ceremonial hub, Chetumal Bay reflected the unified culture and infrastructure of a developing empire. It also serves as a prototype for the empire’s civic engineering principles. Clusters of buildings were centered around plazas, and temples within the city displayed a developed sense of both religious and artistic sophistication that could easily challenge any contemporary civilizations on the continent. The Maya had also made massive strides in agricultural technology by this point. Slash-and-burn agriculture drew from the developed Mayan calendar to maximize crops while preventing overuse of the land, and irrigation systems and terraced farming created more sustainable communities with the potential to trade outside of their small settlements.
Modern historians largely regard 250 CE as the beginning of the Maya Empire’s Classical Age, an era that unified about 40 cities that stretched from Central Mexico in the north to El Salvador in the south. Early in the Classical Age, this unified sense of government was formalized with the rise of a hierarchy topped by rich families and royals. Despite this, there was still a relative amount of autonomy on a local level. City-states formed with their own agricultural hubs and local leadership, but they found themselves unified by cultural, religious, and economic needs. Over the centuries in which the Empire waxed, the nature of the states was in flux — with many rising, falling, or becoming absorbed based on the fortunes of the ruling families. The scale of the Maya Empire was impressively expansive, but it wasn’t without conflict. Tikal and Caracol — two prominent cities that still have extant ruins in Belize — were once at war, and Belize was at one point both the heart of the empire and a prominent seat of power for some of the civilization’s most influential families.
The Mayan Empire would fall in the 10th century for reasons that aren’t entirely known. Some scholars believe that without a strong unified government, the conflicts between city-states led to the deterioration of shared values and ceremony and the eventual public abandonment of both the leaders in charge of civic life and the priests in charge of religious life. Others believe that environmental causes are to blame — either a failure of the land to support the roughly half a million people who called Mayan Belize home or a major climate event that led to drought, famine, and eventual imperial collapse.
The Maya Today
An empire like that the Mayas created doesn’t end overnight, and that’s reflected in the staggering number of extant ruins that can still be found throughout Belize. By the time that Europeans arrived in Belize, the Maya Empire had already been extinct for six centuries. European colonists rarely had an interest in these ancient buildings beyond the riches they may contain, and the diseases that they brought from across the ocean thoroughly decimated the native people.
But the Maya themselves are a lot more than the buildings they left behind. Central America is still home to large populations of Maya peoples, although it can vary wildly from state to state. Guatemala is home to some seven million Maya — or roughly 40% of the total population. By contrast, Belize has become a melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups. Maya peoples comprise about 30,000 residents — less than 10% of Belize’s relatively meager population. Despite this, their presence looms large. The lure of ancient ruins is enough to draw tourists from around the world, but the presence of the Maya is felt in everything from the food to the culture to the attitudes of the people who live here today. That’s unlikely to change any time soon.