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The Occoquan Tourism Company

  • Writer's pictureEarnie Porta

The Ancient Maya of Belize

Mayan site of Xunantunich from the top of El Castillo

Our last blog post mentioned the modern Maya of Belize: the indigenous Mopan, the Yucatec who migrated from Mexico, and the Kechi who came east from Guatamala. Each of these groups is descended from the ancient Maya of Central America. Historians have divided the history of the Maya into three periods, the Preclassic (2000 BCE to 250 CE), the Classic (250 CE to 1000 CE), and the Postclassic (1000 CE until the coming of the Spanish in the 1500s CE). Although Belize has Maya structures from all three periods, it was during a portion of the Classic period, from roughly 500 CE to 800 CE that Maya civilization in Belize reached its peak. Much of what we know of the Maya comes from their hieroglyphic writing system, which is one of only five ever invented (the others being cuneiform, Egyptian, Harappan, and Chinese).

Mayan site of Cahel Pech

One of Belize's impressive Maya sites, not far from where Team Occoquan-Prince William will begin the 170-mile 2019 La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge, is Xunantunich (pronounced shoo-nahn-too-nech) near the border with Guatemala. The city's heyday lasted from the late 7th century into the 9th century. Xunantunich's core is approximately 1 square mile and is dominated by the pyramid known as El Castillo. Even closer to where Team Occoquan-Prince William will begin its journey is the smaller site of Cahel Pech on the outskirts of San Ignacio, where the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge begins. Thought to be the oldest Maya site in the Belize River valley, Cahel Pech is a Preclassic Mayan settlement dating from sometime between 1500 and 1000 BCE.

Belize's largest and arguably most prominent Maya site is the city of Caracol, farther to the south of San Ignacio and also on the Guatemala border. Sitting on a plateau more than 1600 feet above sea level, Caracol is thought to have stretched over 70 square miles and contained a population of some 150,000 at its peak in the middle of the 7th century. According to Maya carvings, Water Lord, the king of Caracol, in 562 CE defeated Double Bird, the king of Tikal in Guatemala, making Caracol the most powerful city in the region at that time.

Maya civilization had declined significantly during the Postclassic period by the time of the Spanish arrival in the early 1500s. European diseases ravaged the population, which some believe declined by as much as 90% as a result. Although Spanish from Mexico invaded what is now Belize in the 1540s, they found few riches to rival those of the Aztecs in the north and left behind only a few settlers and missions, which the Maya rebelled against and drove out in the early 1600s. As a result, the Spanish never established in Belize the strong colonial presence found elsewhere in Central America.

Team Occoquan-Prince William will be participating in the Belikin La Ruta Maya 2019 Belize River Challenge March 8 through March 11. Please consider supporting our efforts as we compete and raise funds for ACTS and CASA of Prince William. You can pledge 10 cents, 20 cents, or more per mile of our 170-mile journey by clicking here and filling out the pledge form. We will collect from you after the race and your entire pledge will go to ACTS and CASA.

And please remember our sponsors!


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