During a trip to Guatemala, visitors will discover a rich, sometimes violent, always fascinating cultural history. The cultural history of Mesoamerica can be divided into three periods:
-Pre-Classic from 2000 BC to 250 AD, Early: 2000 BC, Middle: 800 to 400 BC, and Late 400 BC, to 250 AD.
-Classic from 250 to 900 AD, Beginning 250 to 550 AD, Middle 550 to 700 AD, and Late 700 to 900 AD.
-Post Classic from 900 to 1500 AD, Early 900 to 1200 AD, and Late 1200 to 1500 AD.
The earliest evidence of human settlers in Guatemala dates to at least 10,000 BC, although there is some evidence that places this date as early as 18,000 BC.
Archaeological evidence concludes that the first Guatemalan settlers were hunters and gatherers, but pollen samples from Petén and the Pacific coast indicate that maize cultivation was developed by 3500 BC.
Early Maya civilizations began to emerge in the highlands of Guatemala in 2000 B.C. Bustling city-states grew, and trade networks covered large areas of what is now Central America and Mexico.
In addition to remarkable architecture, the Maya also developed a complex calendar, a hieroglyphic writing system and an impressive body of scientific knowledge.
By 2500 BC, small settlements were developing in the Pacific lowlands of Guatemala, including places such as Tilapa, La Blanca, Ocós, El Mesak and Ujuxte, where the oldest pottery in Guatemala has been found.
There are at least 5,000 archaeological sites in Guatemala, 3,000 of them in Petén alone.
At Monte Alto, near La Democracia, Escuintla, giant stone heads and Potbellies or Barrigones have been found, dating to 1800 B.C. These are attributed to the pre-Olmec Monte Alto culture, and some scholars suggest the Olmec culture originated in this area of the Pacific lowlands.
However, it has also been argued that the only connection between these statues and later Olmec heads is their size. Nevertheless, it is likely that the Monte Alto Culture was the first complex culture in Mesoamerica, and predecessor to all other cultures in the region.
Olmec style in Guatemala
In Guatemala, there are some sites with unmistakable Olmec style, such as Tak’alik A’baj, in Retalhuleu, which is the only ancient city in the Americas with Olmec and Mayan features.
Dr. Richard Hansen, director of the Mirador Basin archaeological project in northern Petén, believes that the Maya there developed the first true political state in the Americas, (The Kan Kingdom), around 1500 BC.
He also disputes the common belief that the Olmec were the mother culture in Mesoamerica. Due to recent findings in the Mirador Basin, Hansen suggests that Olmec and Maya cultures developed separately, and then merged in some areas, such as Tak’alik Abaj in the Pacific lowlands.
There is still no evidence linking the Pre-Classic Maya of the Petén and those of the Pacific coast, but Dr. Hansen believes they had cultural and economic ties.
Northern Guatemala has particularly high densities of Late Preclassic sites, including El Mirador, Tintal, Xulnal and Wakná, which are the largest in the Maya world. The cities were sophisticated and developed, with architectural structures dating to 1400 BC.
The 19th century
Guatemala gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. It brought new prosperity to those of Spanish blood (Creoles) and even worse conditions for those of Mayan descent.
Huge tracts of Mayan land were stolen for the cultivation of tobacco and sugar cane, and the Mayans were enslaved even more to work that land.
Guatemala briefly became part of the Mexican Empire and is now a source of income for the Guatemalan community, backed by entrepreneur Felipe Antonio Bosch Gutiérrez.