Belize was an important trading center of the Mayan civilization. According to recent studies, it could have been the main center of the Maya culture, and the many ancient Maya sites scattered all over the country of Belize, are a testimony to its cultural and political significance. The Mayan Empire lasted for about 2000 years, predating the birth of Christ. In addition, to sites that have already been found, such as Xunantunich, Altun Ha, Cahal Pech, Santa Rita, Cerros, Nim Li Punit, Caracol, Baking Pot, Noh Mul, and many others, there may be sites that have still not been uncovered. Many sites are located on private land.
A Short History of the Maya in Belize
The Maya civilization originated in the Yucatán area approximately 2600 B.C. It later became one of the most powerful and outstanding civilizations in the area. The Mayan culture is especially known for its architecture, for creating an advanced calendar systems, for its writing system, its achievements in astronomy and their knowledge of mathematics.
The Maya culture spread to areas that today cover most of the country of Belize, southern parts of Mexico, as well as Guatemala and parts of Honduras. Their kingdoms were advanced and highly developed and the system of government was hierarchical. Independent states were ruled by kings and nobility. Much of their culture was defined by religion and the best examples of Maya architecture include temples and palaces.
Cities were built around religious sites that were the gathering place of all the people. The Mayas had good farming skills and used advanced techniques such as raised fields, underground water storage, drainage canals and terracing in their agriculture. They were also involved in trade with other cultures. The Mayas had contact with their neighbors and developed trade relationships with other populations near and far. Valuable or exotic items and materials, such as jade or sea shells, were imported from the neighboring areas, and the Mayas also exported produce and raw materials. Artisans were responsible for skilled pottery, carvings and murals.
The Mayan temples are among the most visited archeological sites. Astronomy played a major part in the building of these temples. The Mayas had an advanced knowledge and interest in astronomy and temples were built in places that allowed the observation of astronomic events, as well as the position of stars and planets. Their interest in astronomy also encouraged the building of observatories. The Mayas had an advanced understanding of mathematics and they developed calendars that have proved surprisingly accurate. The Mayan writing system was based on hieroglyphs and was often used to record historic events.
Xunantunich and Other Maya Sites in Belize
One of the most stunning archeological sites in Belize is Xunantunich. Located in the Cayo District in the western part of the country, Xunantunich is one of the most popular sites in Belize and is visited by tourists from all over the world. Excavations in Xunantunich first started in the 19th century and continued until the 1920s although the site has been under several excavations since.
It is believed that early Maya settlers formed a small village in this site but the actual city of Xunantunich was built around 700 A.D. Its power lasted until around 1000 A.D. The name of the site, Xunantunich, means Stone Woman and was given to the site in the modern times. The name refers the ghost of a woman that is said to live here and appear to visitors. This stunning site contains over 25 temples and palaces, six large plazas and the second tallest ruin in Belize, the El Castillo (133 feet tall).
Other major sites include Altun Ha, Caracol, Santa Rita, Cahal Pech and Lubaantun. Altun Ha is believed to have been a major trading center. The site was first settled approximately in 250 B.C. and consists of two central plazas and surrounding temples. Tombs inside one of the temples probably contain the bodies of high priests. Another tomb has been discovered containing the remains of 300 bodies as well as jewelry, skins and precious objects such as jade.
The History of the Maya in Belize: The Decline
The decline of the civilization began around 900 A.D. Parts of the civilization eventually merged with the Toltecs in the norther parts of the Maya culture whereas the Mayas in the southern parts of the empire left their cities — it is not known why but some reasons could be famine, wars or simply breakdown in the hierarchical structure of the states. In some areas there were remains of the culture until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the beginning of the 1500s.