Time Line

Periods in Maya Civilization

The above time chart is an adaptation of the time line shown in Michael Coe's The Maya. It shows only items relevant to the northern Maya culture, the region where Uxmal and Chichén Itzá are found. For this reason the time period covered has also been shortened, as the northern Yucatán was the latest region to have places of population concentration constructed, the "cities." The purpose of showing this timeline is to make it clear at what times different invading cultures held sway in this area, and therefore to explain the mix of iconography found at the sites.

For the Early Classic period, there is little evidence found in the Northern region, in the Yucatán. There are a few isolated sites that are dated to that period, but they are more strongly associated stylistically with the Teotihuacan culture from the northern area near the current Mexico City. That culture suffered a collapse at approximately 600 AD for unknown reasons. That collapse ended their influence in the Mayan regions, and marks the separation between the Early and the Late Classic periods. In the Late Classic period the Mayan civilization flourished and reached its greatest heights. During this period the Central sites of Tikal, Palenque and Cobá flourished. In the Northern region, the areas associated with this period are Rio Bec, Chenes and Copán.

In the Terminal Classic period, the Maya cities in the Central region suffered collapse. The peak of Maya culture shifted to the north, to the Puuc Hills, centered at Uxmal. The Puuc architectural style is defined by the building styles seen here. The influence of Puuc style architecture at Chichén Itzá is seen most easily in the older southern section, in the Nunnery Annex, the Iglesia and other small buildings in this area. Some Puuc style facades can be seen in the older buildings exposed where the outer building has fallen away. The inner temple in El Castillo is also almost pure Puuc Mayan. Only 100 years after the collapse of the central Mayan cities, the cities in the Puuc hills also collapsed, ending the Classic era.

The Post-Classic period is characterized by the domination of the Yucatán by the Toltec culture of central Mexico. This military culture brought the cult of Quetzelcoatl, renamed Kulkulcán by the Mayan, to the area. They account for the introduction of the Chacmool figures into the temples and the synthesis of styles seen at Chichén Itzá . The Eagles and the Jaguars, the skulls on the Tzompantli, the warrior refiefs on the columns at the Temple of the Warriors all speak to this new influence in the culture. The movement of these cultures through the Yucatán is also documented by the pottery remains found at the sites.

The Mayan culture should not be thought of as a monolithic state. By the time the Spanish arrived, there were at least 16 rival states occupying the Yucatán peninsula, warring with each other. The major cities of that era were chosen as centers by the Spanish who dismantled them and used the stones to build their own cities, just as they destroyed the history of the culture by destroying the fragile bark paper books that recorded their history and accumulated knowledge. Currently there are only four of these books known to have survived the invasion: the Dresden codex, in which the great astronomical tables recording the positions of Venus and the eclipse predictions were recorded, the more recently uncovered Grolier codex, also containing astronomical calculations, the Madrid and Paris codices are much more fragmentary. The Popal Vul epic and the books of Chilam Balam, were written in Quiché and Mayan, and translated into Spanish. However, the recently acquired ability to translate the glyphs (other than the tables of numbers), has allowed a more complete history of the Mayan civilization to be assembled from the information written on on the stone stelae found within the city sites.

For a much fuller explanation of the current understanding of the Mayan civilization, see The Maya by Michael Coe or visit our bookshop for recommendations of books on Mayan culture, science, and travel in the Yucatan.

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© 1995 - Karen M. Strom