Earth's Ancient History

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Ancient America

Ancient America

Even as other parts of the World the ancient history of America is also still a more or less white spot in historical perspective.

8000 BC - 2000 BC

Hunters roam the landscape, subsisting on large mammals and gathering plants and other natural resources. Incipient agriculture begins about 5000 B.C., and over the next thousand years includes low-intensity crops such as chili peppers, avocados, and beans.

Excavations in the Tehuacán valley in central Mexico have uncovered small cobs of Zea mays—maize, or corn—dated to around 3000 B.C. It probably has little nutritional value at this stage, but by 2000 B.C., corn is one of the staple crops of Mesoamerican society and remains so for thousands of years.


• ca. 7000 B.C. American Archaic cultures are those that occur between Paleoindian hunters and the peoples who have realized some combination of pottery making, burial mound construction, and garden technology. The combination varies from area to area.

• ca. 5000 B.C. Settlements are established on the shores of the resource-rich lakes in the Basin of Mexico, where early gardening efforts are undertaken.

• ca. 4000 B.C. Shell-mound sites are occupied in the coastal estuaries of the Soconusco region of the Pacific coastal plain of Mexico and Guatemala.

• ca. 3114 B.C. Mythic base date (August 13, 3114) of the Maya Long Count Calendar.

• ca. 3000 B.C. An early form of corn is identified in the Valley of Tehuacán in southern Puebla/northern Oaxaca states, and subsequently evolves into a highly productive plant food.

• ca. 2800 B.C. Ceramics of the Monagrillo complex are present in small settlements around Parita Bay in central Panama, an area of rich coastal resources. Technologically conservative, Monagrillo ceramics are made for many hundreds of years.

• ca. 2300 B.C. Tlapacoya (also known as Zohapilco), a significant island community on Lake Chalco in the Basin of Mexico, yields the earliest yet identified ceramic figurine in Mesoamerica.

2000 BC - 1000 BC

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle gives way almost completely to sedentary agriculture. Villages around the Basin of Mexico and the Soconusco region of coastal Guatemala establish trade routes and social organization becomes increasingly complex. Rapid development of the Olmec site of San Lorenzo, Veracruz, after 1200 B.C., includes massive basalt sculptures. An iconographic system with its roots in the Gulf Coast spreads across Mesoamerica, as evidenced in the ceramics of central Mexico and in monumental sculpture and carvings as far south as Honduras and El Salvador.


• ca. 1800 B.C. Sedentary village life is widespread and pottery is abundant.

• ca. 1600 B.C. Villages along the Coatzacoalcos River drainage on the Gulf of Mexico flourish based on abundant riverine resources and fertile soils.

Established villages expand in the Soconusco region of the Pacific coastal plain of Guatemala and Chiapas (Mexico).

• ca. 1400 B.C. Luxury goods such as ceramic figurines, stone bowls, and greenstone beads are placed in burials in villages of the Soconusco region.

The people of San Lorenzo modify the form of the natural plateau upon which the center is built. Rising above the Coatzacoalcos River drainage in southern Veracruz, the plateau becomes home to the dominant city of the coastal lowlands, the impressive capital of an innovative people now known as the Olmec.

Highland villages in central Mexico produce numerous sophisticated works of ceramic, notably small, detailed female figurines. Certain villages, such as Tlatilco and Tlapacoya in the Basin of Mexico and Las Bocas in western Puebla, begin to establish precedence over their neighbors.

A ground and polished greenstone celt—a tear-shaped ax or adze—is placed as a dedicatory offering below a large residential mound at Paso de la Amada, a major village in the highlands of Chiapas. Ground stone celts are used as agricultural tools throughout much of Mesoamerica. They take on a revered, symbolic role, thought to be based on their primary function as tools.

• ca. 1350 B.C. The first public building in the Valley of Oaxaca is constructed at the major regional center of San José Mogote. It is a stuccoed wattle-and-daub structure built on a platformlike foundation.

• ca. 1250 B.C. At San Lorenzo, ceramics of distinctive white, gray, and black surfaces are produced, often the result of specialized firing techniques. These colors come to be identified with Olmec ceramics, as do certain design motifs, wherever they are found.

• ca. 1200 B.C. The beginning of the period known archaeologically as the Middle Formative, one of particularly significant development in Mesoamerica.

Within the precincts of the Red Palace, a large earthen and wood structure with red-stained sand floors and pigmented walls, the Olmec of San Lorenzo control raw materials and the production of stone sculpture. Volcanic stone, a rare commodity imported into the floodplains of the Gulf Coast from the distant Tuxtla mountains, is used and reused for large, unprecedented three-dimensional sculpture, including multi-ton stone heads.

• ca. 1050 B.C. Olmec stylistic traits are present in ceramics and greenstone figurine fragments in the Soconusco region of the Pacific coast.


1000 BC - 1 AD

Fundamental cultural patterns—maize agriculture, precisely aligned site plans, the construction of pyramids and plazas, and images defining the ruler as the central figure connecting the natural and supernatural realms—spread across the region. Gulf Coast and central Mexican sites carry the Olmec tradition. By 400 B.C., the artistic and cultural dominance of the Gulf Coast wanes. In Oaxaca, the earliest known calendrical glyph occurs around 600 B.C. at the Zapotec site of San José Mogote. The influential site of Teotihuacan in central Mexico is established circa 150 B.C.


• ca. 950 B.C. Olmec San Lorenzo loses political power and population. Sixty miles to the southeast, another Olmec center on the floodplain, the island site of La Venta, gains both.

• ca. 900 B.C. Chalcatzingo, in the central Mexican highlands, remodels the natural landscape into a series of broad terraces, and carves ritual scenes in low relief on living rock. At other central highland centers such as Tlatilco and Las Bocas, ceramic vessels and figures in Olmec style are present. Trade networks between important regional centers are considered to be active. They are thought to occasion numerous pan-Mesoamerican cultural similarities.

The layout of the ceremonial heart of La Venta, a specially oriented pattern of juxtaposed mounds and open plazas, is established. Such layouts will be used—with regional and temporal variations—in building sacred Mesoamerican centers for more than 2,000 years.

• ca. 800 B.C. A large earthen pyramid is constructed at La Venta, possibly conceived of as a sacred mountain. Burials at La Venta contain significant grave goods. Small carefully fashioned figures, personal ornaments, and celts of green jadeite and other greenstones are among the mortuary offerings.

• ca. 600 B.C. Major buildings at San José Mogote in the Valley of Oaxaca are built of masonry. A carved relief is set in a corridor floor that depicts a slain figure with a hieroglyph for "1 Earthquake" between its feet. It is the earliest recorded date in Zapotec, the Oaxaca hieroglyphic system.

• ca. 500 B.C. Monte Albán is established on a defensible hill above the Valley of Oaxaca, and grows rapidly into the major regional center. The populations of valley-floor villages such as San José Mogote are much diminished.

• ca. 400 B.C. Two calendars, a 365-day solar calendar and a 260-day ritual calendar, appear to be in use.

Many of the large carved stone sculptures and monuments at La Venta are damaged; the city loses political power and population, and is gradually deserted.

• ca. 300 B.C. Cuicuilco, now the largest center on the high plateau of the Basin of Mexico, has substantial public architecture, including a circular, stone-faced pyramid.

In western Mexico, deeply buried tombs at the bottom of shafts are in use. Located in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Colima, the tombs contain ceramic figures and vessels in great quantity. The stylistic names assigned to the ceramics correspond to the names of the modern states.

• ca. 200 B.C. Defensive walls are constructed on the north and west sides of Monte Albán. Low-relief carved stones with depictions of slain victims are set into the walls of Building L; known as Danzantes, from the contorted postures of the figures, they number more than 300. Also incorporated into Building L are Stelae 12 and 13, with hieroglyphs carved in an apparent early Zapotec text.

• ca. 150 B.C. The Xitle volcano erupts in the southern Basin of Mexico, overwhelming Cuicuilco and instigating resettlement of peoples further north in the basin.

• ca. 100 B.C. The settlement of Teotihuacan in the northern Basin of Mexico grows. Close to perpetual springs and obsidian sources, it is well situated for irrigation agriculture and has active obsidian workshops. Obsidian, a volcanic glass, is essential in Mesoamerica for the making of tools—points, knives, and scrapers.

• 32 B.C. The Long Count date (September 3, 32 B.C.) is carved on a stone monument, Stela C, at the Gulf Coast site of Tres Zapotes, a major Epi-Olmec community.

1 AD - 500 AD

Teotihuacan becomes the dominant political and economic force of Mesoamerica. Boasting the largest urban population in the region, it controls the nearby and highly important obsidian mines. Teotihuacan apparently sends a military force into the Maya region at the end of the fourth century. The hilltop center of Monte Albán expands to control the Valley of Oaxaca. Farther to the west, in Colima, Nayarit, and Jalisco, lively and elegant ceramic sculptures are placed in shaft tombs. On the Gulf Coast, inheritors of the Olmec tradition develop a still poorly understood hieroglyphic writing distinct from the Maya and Zapotec systems.


• ca. 1 A.D. Teotihuacan in the Basin of Mexico grows rapidly as rural populations move in, possibly coerced into doing so.

• ca. 50 A.D. The grid pattern of the city plan is established at Teotihuacan and the focus of sacred building is on the so-called Street of the Dead, where permanent construction of public architecture (such as three-temple complexes) begins. The Pyramid of the Sun, the largest structure ever raised in ancient Mesoamerica, is initiated over a narrow, tunnel-like cave adjacent to the street. Caves are associated with the origins or emergence of life in Mesoamerican thought. The city becomes a pilgrimage center.

Monte Albán grows quickly and dominates, apparently by force, the Valley of Oaxaca. Much of the mountaintop on which it is built is leveled to form the great Main Plaza; temples and palaces on its perimeter are constructed or enlarged and surfaced with white lime plaster. Tomb construction and burial contents become more elaborate.

• ca. 150 A.D. The Pyramid of the Moon at the north end of Teotihuacan's Street of the Dead is enlarged, and the axis of the city center shifts south with the building of a large permanent market structure, the Great Compound, and a religious/governing center, the Ciudadela. Teotihuacan is a major marketplace, and controls much of the essential trade in obsidian in central Mexico.

A relief-carved stela found at La Mojarra in the Papaloapan River drainage of Veracruz depicts a grandly dressed personage and bears a long inscription in what is thought to be an Epi-Olmec script.

• ca. 200 A.D. The talud-tablero, a particular architectural profile used on sacred temple platforms, appears on the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan's Ciudadela. The talud-tablero profile will be widely used in the city and elsewhere in Mesoamerica. Teotihuacan controls the Basin of Mexico.

Building J at Monte Albán incorporates the "conquest" reliefs believed to name the numerous Oaxaca locations claimed as subject to the hilltop city. I-shaped ballcourts are present at Monte Albán and the ballgame is thought to have had a role in resolving disputes.

• ca. 250 A.D. Wall paintings, done in a fresco technique, embellish temples near the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan; eventually, frescoed walls appear throughout the city. Permanent apartment compounds—walled, one-story building groups that become the standard residential unit—are initiated. Many are occupied by the city's hundreds of craftsmen. Future building efforts center on residential construction; about 2,000 apartment compounds will make up the city.

The shaft tombs of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Colima in the west of Mexico are no longer made on the grand scale of previous centuries.

• ca. 378 A.D. In Guatemala's Petén, the ninth recorded ruler of the Maya city of Tikal, Chak Toh Ich'ak I (Great Jaguar Claw), dies on the day a foreign warrior named K'ak Sih (Fire-Born)—thought to be from Teotihuacan—arrives. The following year, a new ruler is invested at Tikal, Yax Ain I (First Crocodile), who has strong ties to Teotihuacan, and there is much subsequent Teotihuacan presence at Tikal.

• ca. 400 A.D. Architectural details and ceramic vessel forms at Kaminaljuyú in the southwestern Maya highlands and in the Tiquisate region of Guatemala's Pacific coast indicate a strong Teotihuacan presence.

• ca. 450 A.D. Royal tombs at Monte Albán contain numerous large, complex funerary urns of ceramic. The urns are thought to depict deceased ancestors. A specific neighborhood, known as the Oaxaca barrio, exists in Teotihuacan for people from Monte Albán.

500 AD - 1000 AD

The fall of Teotihuacan in the seventh century precipitates a period of dislocation. Many peoples are uprooted to new territories, forming new political and trade alliances, and creating eclectic art styles. A number of smaller cities in central Mexico compete for control and prestige. On the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, El Tajín develops into an extensive site and appears to have been the center for important ceremonial games. In the Valley of Oaxaca, small regional centers increase their power at the expense of Monte Albán, and the Mixtecs have a growing presence. By 900 A.D., the Toltec culture is the new centralizing force in Mesoamerica.


• ca. 500 The city of Teotihuacan covers about eight square miles, with an estimated population between 100,000 and 200,000. Major construction activity in the city subsides, while production of prestigious craft goods for local use and export flourishes. Large quantities of ceramics—cylindrical tripods, figurines, and multipiece incense burners—and greenstone, calcite, and obsidian human figures and masks are manufactured in specialized workshops.

The Teuchitlán tradition of circular structures flourishes in the highland valleys of west central Jalisco. Elite ceremonial and administrative centers are constructed of circular, truncated pyramids arranged in large circles often associated with ballcourts.

Cholula in the fertile Puebla-Tlaxcala valley thrives. Its Great Pyramid, Tlachihualtépetl ("man-made mountain"), is enlarged; stairs on all four sides allow access to the summit. Subsequent enlargements will make it the largest, continuously used structure in ancient America.

• ca. 550 Elite tombs in regional centers in the Oaxaca valley feature door jambs and panels of stone carved with scenes and Zapotec hieroglyphs recounting the genealogies of the ruling lords.

• ca. 600 On the north central frontier of Mexico, the Chalchihuites culture exploits the mineral resources along the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Mesoamerican culture traits are transmitted into the United States Southwest.

Teotihuacan's influence over the rest of Mesoamerica ceases.

Cantona, located east of the central Mexico highlands and Teotihuacan's main competitor for control of the obsidian trade, builds fortifications.

• ca. 650 Principal temples and elite residences in central Teotihuacan are burned, and carved cult objects smashed, perhaps the result of an internal political and economic crisis. Many apartment compounds are abandoned, but parts of the site remain inhabited until about 900.

In central Veracruz, a number of regional centers produce vast quantities of ceramic sculpture for ritual purposes, among them Remojadas, Nopiloa, and El Zapotal.

• ca. 700 Xochicalco in western Morelos develops into an important regional center. Its art and architecture combine elements of traditional Teotihuacan style with aspects of contemporary styles from the Oaxaca, Maya, and Gulf Coast regions.

El Tajín dominates on the Gulf Coast, where the ballgame is the focus of ritual activity. The site has no fewer than seventeen ballcourts; hundreds of portable sculptures associated with the game, known as yokes, hachas, and palmas, have been found throughout the north central Gulf lowlands.

• ca. 750 Tula Chico is founded in the present state of Hidalgo in the northern Basin of Mexico. The city's population is composed of many disparate ethnic groups.

• ca. 800 Major construction ceases at Monte Albán and its population declines rapidly. Political power in the Oaxaca valley shifts to smaller centers on the valley floor, among them Yagul, Mitla, and Zaachila.

• ca. 800 Well-preserved mural paintings at Xochitécatl-Cacaxtla in the Valley of Tlaxcala provide evidence of the presence of powerful Maya groups in the heart of central Mexico. Xochitécatl-Cacaxtla controls trade routes between the Gulf Coast and the central highlands.

The city of Tula covers an area of about two-and-a-half square miles. Like Teotihuacan, its plan is a uniform grid, oriented north-south, with streets, terraces, plazas, and residential compounds. New architectural elements include colonnaded halls, atlantean sculptures, chacmools, skull racks, and warrior figures on columns and murals. Toltec culture and religion, which includes new gods, among them Quetzalcoátl and Tezcatlipoca, spread rapidly throughout Mexico via trade and conquest.

Metallurgy is introduced into western Mexico, probably through long-distance contact with much older South American traditions.

• ca. 850 Catastrophic destruction and rapid abandonment occur in most flourishing central Mexican city-states, a result of local revolt and/or military conquest, perhaps at the hands of the Toltecs.

• ca. 900 Toltec Tula is the powerful capital of a state that integrates the diverse peoples of Mexico into a new cultural system. Its trade network stretches from Costa Rica to the United States Southwest.

Metalworking is practiced and its popularity grows. Turquoise becomes an important luxury material.

A new polychrome ceramic ware in the Cholula area combines bright colors and designs.

• ca. 925 The Toltecs reach Yucatán, introducing new architectural forms and imagery. Toltec influence is particularly strong at the site of Chichén Itzá in northern Yucatán.

1000 AD - 1500 AD

Countless cities and small city-states exist in central Mexico; populations increase substantially. The city-states engage in constant warfare while trying to expand their political and economic base. Most are unable to establish themselves in larger domains or empires. Long-distance trade grows, and traveling merchants have an important place in the social hierarchy, as do professional soldiers. Stylistic features and symbols spread throughout large areas. About 1200, numerous Nahuatl-speaking groups from northern Mexico migrate to central Mexico, where the Aztec culture will coalesce. One of the northern groups, the Mexica, rises to prominence in the fifteenth century as rulers of the Aztec empire.


• ca. 1000 Tula, at the height of its cultural and political influence, is the largest city in central Mexico, covering some five square miles with a population of about 60,000 persons. At its center, the sacred precinct features two large ballcourts and two stepped pyramids. One, known as Pyramid B, is decorated with carved relief panels showing feathered serpents, prowling jaguars and coyotes, and eagles with human hearts in their talons.

• ca. 1070 A small Mixtec city-state in the Mixteca Alta of highland Oaxaca—the Tilantongo kingdom—expands under the rulership of Lord 8 Deer Jaguar Claw. A warrior, he conquers several towns and forges alliances through marriage. His spectacular exploits are subsequently recorded in pictorial manuscripts. Three survive today: the Codex Bodley, the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, and the Codex Colombino-Becker.

• ca. 1100 Nahuatl-speaking peoples begin migrating toward central Mexico. They are led by their tribal god Huitzilopochtli ("Hummingbird on the Left"), his image borne on a priest's shoulders. Aztlán ("Place of the Herons"), an island in a lake in west or northwest Mexico, is said to be their point of origin.

• ca. 1150 In the far north, the city of Casas Grandes (also known as Paquimé) is an important exchange center for luxury materials from both the north and the south. Casas Grandes' own distinctive ceramic wares are traded throughout the region.

• ca. 1175 The violent destruction of the central Mexican city of Tula coincides approximately with the arrival of Nahuatl-speaking peoples from northern Mexico.

• ca. 1200 The Huastec people of the northern Gulf Coast, linguistically related to the Maya, create highly individual forms of stone sculpture and ceramics.

• ca. 1250 Cholula to the east of the Basin of Mexico is conquered by the northern Tolteca Chichimeca people and a new ceremonial precinct is built around the Pyramid of Quetzalcoátl. Cholula's Great Pyramid was the focal point of religious activity for over a thousand years.

• ca. 1300 A new geometric, vividly colored painting style—possibly originating in Cholula—appears, primarily used on ceramic vessels and in pictorial manuscripts. Named Mixteca-Puebla for the regions of its greatest concentration, depictions include gods, religious rituals and symbols, as well as events relating to dynastic histories. It is widely disseminated throughout central Mexico.

In the west, the Tarascan people of the Pátzcuaro Basin assume control of some northern trade routes. Talented craftsmen, they produce fine ornaments of gold, silver, and paper-thin obsidian (a volcanic glass).

• ca. 1325 The Mexica people settle on a marshy island in the Basin of Mexico's Lake Texcoco after almost 200 years of wandering. Naming their city Tenochtitlan, they build a sanctuary dedicated to their tribal/war god Huitzilopochtli and to the ancient rain god Tlaloc.

• ca. 1350 In the Oaxaca Valley, Mixtecs marry into Zapotec royalty, increasing their local power. Mixtec metalsmiths produce exquisite gold ornaments valued throughout Mexico.

• ca. 1371 In the Basin of Mexico, Tezozomoc becomes king at Atzcapotzalco, then the most powerful city-state in the region. He assumes control of neighboring Tenochtitlan and names Acamapichtli its king.

• ca. 1372 Acamapichtli enlarges Tenochtitlan's main sanctuary, building two temple pyramids side by side. He forges political alliances through strategic marriages.

• ca. 1391 Huitzilihuitl, son and successor of Acamapichtli in Tenochtitlan, expands the economic and political power of the Mexica in the Basin of Mexico.

• ca. 1400 The Tarascan state expands rapidly, stretching between two of Mexico's great rivers, the Lerma-Santiago in the north and the Balsas in the south. The region is rich in resources, including copper, gold, silver, obsidian, and onyx marble. The capital, Tzintzuntzan, has a population of approximately 35,000 persons.


1000 BC - 1 AD

Ceremonial centers along the Pacific coast of Guatemala, including Abaj Takalik, Izapa, and Kaminaljuyú, grow in size and stature. Pyramids and monumental stone sculpture at different sites provide evidence for connections with the ancestral Olmec style. In the tropical lowlands of the Petén, the villages of Nak'be and El Mirador emerge as major centers. Hieroglyphic writing appears by the dawn of the first millennium, and the Maya establish the architectural, sculptural, and iconographic systems that dominate their artistic production.


• ca. 900 B.C. The beginning of the era known archaeologically as the Middle Preclassic period in the Maya area.

Public structures, including a large earthen mound, are built at La Blanca, a village in the Soconusco region on the Pacific coast. The mound groups are not centrally organized.

• ca. 800 B.C. Public architecture is present in the Pacific piedmont community of Abaj Takalik together with stone sculpture in Olmec style.

Numerous villages exist in the tropical lowlands of the Petén region of Guatemala, among them, Nak'be, El Mirador, and Tikal.

• ca. 600 B.C. The community of Nak'be prospers. Public architectural projects are undertaken.

Ballcourts of an open-ended type are present at three centers on the Grijalva River in Chiapas.

• ca. 400 B.C. Located in the fertile Valley of Guatemala in the Maya highlands, the center of Kaminaljuyú becomes important for trade.

A great building effort is undertaken at Nak'be with the construction of large stone-faced platforms and pyramids. A limestone slab, or stela, with a low-relief sculpture of two dignitaries is apparently placed in association with a stone altar, an early example of an important Maya practice.

• ca. 300 B.C. Although Nak'be loses prominence to neighboring El Mirador—to which it is joined by a limestone causeway—it continues to expand its sacred buildings. Enormous stucco-surfaced limestone masks embellish a major temple, the first occurrence of a longlived Maya religious pattern.

• ca. 200 B.C. Monumentally scaled public buildings are raised at El Mirador. These include a three-temple complex on a common platform, a much used architectural arrangement in subsequent times.

Tikal grows larger and construction begins on a great masonry platform located on its highest hill. Base to a number of pyramid temples, the platform and temples will be enlarged many times. Known today as the North Acropolis, it will be the sacred heart of Tikal for centuries.

Relief sculpture or stelae (as they are known in the Americas) are carved and erected at Izapa in the highlands. They are positioned in association with altars and major architectural features. Rulers and mythic beings are depicted in the sculptures.

• ca. 100 B.C. Tombs very rich in sumptuary offerings—including objects of jade, obsidian, mica, pyrite, and quartz crystal—are placed in the interior of temple platforms at Kaminaljuyú. The burials of powerful persons, they include sacrificial attendants.

• ca. 36 B.C. A fragment of stela found reused in the Guatemalan highlands at Chiapa de Corzo has the earliest yet identified Long Count date, (December 8, 36 B.C.). The Long Count Calendar has a mythic start date that correlates to 3114 B.C. in the Christian calendar.

1 AD - 500 AD

The building of large pyramids with broad stairways flanked by enormous stucco masks wanes by 250 A.D. In its place, the use of stelae carved with lengthy hieroglyphic texts emerges. These stelae combined historical narratives with mythological time, and join the carved script with images of rulers wearing elaborate headdresses and holding ceremonial bars. Placed in front of temples, these shafts makde transient rituals forever visible. At the end of the fourth century, texts at Tikal and Copán suggest that the central Mexican city of Teotihuacan controls the foundation of specific dynasties in the Maya region.


• ca. 1 A.D. In the Petén lowlands, a member of Tikal's royal family is buried in a well-provisioned vaulted tomb dug into the sacred north-south axis of the North Acropolis, the location of numerous subsequent kingly burials. A greenstone mask with inlaid eyes and teeth, possibly forming a head for the burial wrappings, is among the tomb's contents.

• ca. 37 A.D. Stela 1, bearing an eroded Long Count date of (March 4, 37 A.D.), depicts a profile figure with an elaborate headdress at the highland site of El Baúl.

• ca. 100 A.D. Ceramic vessels, many used as mortuary offerings, are very well made and enjoy a long period of formal experimentation and surface elaboration.

• ca. 200 A.D. The legendary founder of Tikal's most powerful dynasty, Yax Ch'aktel Xok (First Scaffold Shark), dies. Thirty-one rulers succeed him.

• ca. 250 A.D. The Long Count Calendar and hieroglyphic writing are in use in the lowlands, where the exploits of the ruling classes begin to be recorded permanently on stone.

• ca. 260 A.D. The eruption of the Ilopango volcano in the southwestern highlands disrupts the major centers, displaces populations, and upsets trade networks. The region begins a slow decline; Kaminaljuyú gradually loses status and authority. Large stone sculpture is no longer made.

• ca. 292 A.D. Stela 29 at Tikal bears a date of (July 8, 292 A.D.)—the first Long Count date in the lowlands—and an ornately accoutered profile figure that may represent the sixth or seventh dynastic ruler Foliated Jaguar.

• ca. 350 A.D. Peoples in the Copán valley in the southeast Maya area (now in Honduras) build plastered masonry structures in a regional Maya style and trade with the southern highlands.

• ca. 378 A.D. The ninth recorded ruler of Tikal, Chak Toh Ich'ak I (Great Jaguar Claw), dies on the day a foreign warrior named K'ak Sih (Fire-Born)—thought to be from Teotihuacan—arrives. The subsequent Tikal ruler, Yax Ain I (First Crocodile), has strong ties to Teotihuacan and there is much Teotihuacan presence at Tikal.

• ca. 400 A.D. At Kaminaljuyú, Teotihuacan presence is noted in the talud-tablero architectural profile and in cylindrical tripod vessels. The tripods are among the sumptuary goods in major tombs that also include materials such as jade earflares, pendants, and strings of beads. Cylindrical tripod vessels and other Teotihuacan ceramic forms are produced in the Tiquisate region of coastal Guatemala.

• ca. 431 A.D. The first dynastic ruler of Palenque in the hills of southern Mexico, K'uk' Balam I (Jaguar Quetzal), accedes to power on (March 11, 431 A.D.). The dynasty retains control until sometime after 799 A.D.

• ca. 435 A.D. An important period of 400 years of approximately 360 Long Count days, known as baktun, ends at (December 11, 435 A.D.). At Copán, the dynasty of Yax K'uk Mo' begins, an event marked by the erection of major buildings in the city's Principal Group. Fifteen recorded rulers succeed Yax K'uk Mo'.

• ca. 445 A.D. Tikal ruler Siyaj Chan K'awiil (Stormy Sky) erects a monument, Stela 31, which shows him in abundant ritual paraphernalia. A finely carved hieroglyphic text with the early history of Tikal's royal lineage is on the back.

• ca. 475 A.D. Powerful and belligerent, the cities of Tikal, Caracol, and Calakmul dominate the Petén. Naranjo, a smaller neighbor, begins to produce fine ceramic vessels.

• ca. 484 A.D. An extensive network of raised causeways emanates from Caracol. The causeways will be used for many hundreds of years.

500 AD - 1000 AD

In the seventh century, the central and northern Maya lowlands experience substantial population growth. Hundreds of settlements, large and small, fill a region stretching from Palenque in the west to Altun Há in the east, and from Uxmal in the north to Copán in the south. More than sixty kingdoms, each ruled by a k'uhul ajaw ("divine lord"), compete for control of land, raw materials, and trade routes. Their intense political and economic rivalry is also apparent in the unprecedented profusion of artistic production and diversity of styles. Early in the ninth century, the dynasties of the central region begin to collapse, population levels decline sharply, and most centers are abandoned by about 900 A.D., never to be substantially reoccupied. The northern centers are unaffected by these events and continue to flourish.


• ca. 504 A major expansion of Copán's ceremonial center, the Acropolis complex, is undertaken by Waterlily Jaguar, the seventh dynastic ruler of the southeastern Maya city.

• ca. 562 Tikal ruler Wak Chan K'awiil (Double Bird) is taken captive, apparently by the ruler of Calakmul. His capture begins a period of decline at Tikal that lasts more than a hundred years, during which no major construction is carried out nor dated monuments erected. Calakmul is the most powerful kingdom in the central area.

• ca. 600 On the Yucatán Peninsula, three distinct architectural and ceramic traditions are established and flourish for the next 300 years: Río Bec, Chenes, and Puuk. Hieroglyphic inscriptions and dates are rare in Yucatán.

At Cotzumalhuapa on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, a Mexicanized culture produces many finely carved stone monuments featuring ballgame rituals played by humans and supernatural beings.

• ca. 615 At Palenque in the west, K'inich Janaab' Pakal I (Sun Shield) becomes ruler on (July 26, 615 A.D.) at the age of twelve. Ruling for sixty-eight years, he aggrandizes the site with impressively planned and elegantly decorated buildings such as the Palace and the Temple of the Inscriptions.

• ca. 636 The fifty-year reign of Yuknoom Ch'een II (Yuknoom the Great) at Calakmul brings new construction of palace compounds, and the dedication of eighteen stone monuments, or stelae.

• ca. 692 At Palenque, three related temples known as the Cross Group are dedicated. Carved limestone panels with a unified imagery are placed on the inner walls of the shrines. Images and hieroglyphic texts include mythic and historic subjects.

• ca. 695 Artistic and literary traditions are revived at Tikal after Jasaw Chan K'awiil (Ruler A) defeats the king of Calakmul. Later in his reign, Great Temples 1 and 2 are built on the east and west sides of the Great Plaza in front of the North Acropolis.

Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil (18 Rabbit) of Copán becomes ruler on (July 6, 695 A.D.). A prolific builder, he commissions the initial Hieroglyphic Stairway, remodels the Ballcourt, and has seven stelae erected between 711 and 731. Carved almost in the round, they depict him as the all-powerful k'uhul ajaw ("divine lord") covered with a proliferation of royal and supernatural insignia.

• ca. 700 Jaina, a small island off the coast of Campeche, is used as a necropolis. The burials contain hundreds of small ceramic figures. Both hand-modeled and mold-made, the small sculptures are produced in a variety of colorful images.

• ca. 734 Jasaw Chan K'awiil (Ruler A) dies at Tikal and is buried beneath Temple 1 on the Great Plaza. He is laid out on jaguar skin, arrayed in much fine jade jewelry, and accompanied by objects of shell, pearl, and bone. Numerous painted ceramic vessels are present.

• ca. 738 Copán's ruler, 18 Rabbit, is taken captive on (May 3, 738 A.D.) and decapitated by ruler K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yoaat (Fire-burning Sky Lightning God) of Quiriguá in the Motagua valley. The victor will erect three of the tallest stelae—approximately twenty-four feet—ever put up by the Maya.

• ca. 750 Several Puuk-style buildings are begun at Chichén Itzá in northern Yucatán. The Sacred Well, a large natural sink-hole some eighty feet deep, is used as a repository for offerings.

• ca. 790 Well-preserved unfinished polychrome wall paintings at Bonampak in the central lowlands depict a battle scene, the dispatching of prisoners witnessed by Chan Muwan, king of Bonampak, and victory celebrations.

• ca. 800 Conflict between neighboring cities in the central area increases, trade declines, and long-standing alliances break up, leading to the abandonment of many cities. Some larger centers persevere for a time.

Coba, in northeastern Yucatán, sprawls across more than twelve square miles, its architecture designed and built using southern Petén-style methods. The central urban core includes several temple pyramids, two ballcourts, over thirty carved stelae, and a network of sixteen elevated causeways (sakbe), some of which extend outwards as much as forty miles.

• ca. 849 Five stelae are erected at Seibal on the Pasión River recording the katun—ending (December 1, 849 A.D.). Details of the imagery and the calendric glyphs on the stelae are carved in a foreign, non-Maya style.

• ca. 850 Uxmal becomes the capital of a large state in the Puuk hills region of northern Yucatán which lasts about a hundred years. Uxmal is connected by causeways (sakbe) to other important Puuk sites, such as K'abah, Sayil, and Labna.

• ca. 869 The last stela is erected in Tikal by Jasaw Chan K'awiil II in the Great Plaza. Subsequently the city is deserted and taken over by squatters.

• ca. 900 The construction of the House of the Governor and the Nunnery Quadrangle are commissioned by Lord Chak at Uxmal.

Dedicated by an unidentified ruler on (January 15, 909 A.D.), Monument 101 at Toniná is the last monument inscribed with a Long Count date in the entire Maya area. Toniná is located south of Palenque in the hills of central Chiapas.

• ca. 1000 Chichén Itzá rules over most of northern and western Yucatán.

1000 AD - 1500 AD

The collapse of the dynastic Maya city-states in the central region during the tenth century creates a political vacuum. The northern and southern regions remain more viable, but they are strongly influenced by central Mexican peoples. In Yucatan, Chichén Itzá falls, to be replaced by Mayapan as the dominant center. In the Guatemalan highlands in the south, the K'iche', a warrior people from the Mexican Gulf Coast, establish a modest empire. Art is produced primarily for deity worship and religious ritual rather than for use by divine rulers. Warriors and gods, both local and Mexican, are frequent themes. Only a few dated monuments are erected.


• ca. 1000 In the formerly dynamic central region of the southern lowlands, dramatically diminished populations are clustered in small settlements largely in riverine, coastal, and lake-side areas maintaining close trade relations with sites to the north.

• ca. 1100 Construction activity at Chichén Itzá ceases, the population decreases, and the city falls into decline. Mayapan is founded.

• ca. 1150 At Chichén Itzá, a treasure in gold, jadeite, wood, shell, and bone objects is cast into the Sacred Well.

• ca. 1200 At Lamanai in northern Belize, elite burials contain gold and copper objects from Oaxaca, West Mexico, and the Veraguas region of Panama in addition to quantities of local and Yucatec ceramics.

• ca. 1250 Mayapan is the political capital of a confederation of provinces in northwestern Yucatan. With about 12,000 inhabitants, the city covers some two square miles and is surrounded by a defensive wall over five miles long. Its architecture features pyramids, temples, and palaces showing strong central Mexican ties.

Chichén Itzá is largely abandoned. Pilgrims continue to come to the site to worship Maya deities. They offer large quantities of ceramics, copal incense, and occasionally jade ornaments to the Sacred Well.

• ca. 1300 Numerous small, mostly coastal communities and city-states with modest, crudely built pyramids, temples, shrines, and residential structures exist in northern Yucatan and eastern Quintana Roo. Among the larger regional centers are San Fernando, El Meco, and Chetumal.

• ca. 1350 Polychrome frescoes on the walls of two buildings at the fortified city of Tulum on the Caribbean coast of Yucatan are painted in hybrid Maya-Puebla-Mixteca style.

• ca. 1400 Screenfold books (manuscripts called codices) are painted by a priestly elite on fig-bark paper. They portray deities of the Maya pantheon and include tablets of astronomical or calendrical information. While many such books were made, only four survive today.

Central America

8000 BC - 1 AD

Cultures in Central America develop a system of social organization in many respects distinct from the pattern seen in Mesoamerica. Geographic diversity in this area encourages broader cultural heterogeneity, most visible in varied ceramic traditions. Greenstones—including high-quality jadeite—become status markers in some areas, particularly the Greater Nicoya region of Costa Rica, after 500 B.C. Evidence in the form of reworked Olmec jades suggests some contact with cultures to the north.


• ca. 800 B.C. The village of La Mula-Sarigua on Parita Bay in central Panama becomes a regional center. The greater presence of metates (grinding tables) and manos (grinding stones) indicates the increased availability of corn as a food crop.

• ca. 500 B.C. Budares (flat griddles), used in the processing of bitter manioc for food, are present at the site of La Montana in the Turrialba valley of Costa Rica.

A jadeite pendant in the form of a celt with a bird-head top is placed in a bundle burial on the shores of the Gulf of Nicoya in Costa Rica. The bird-headed celt form will be used for pendants in northern and central Costa Rica for many centuries.

• ca. 300 B.C. An identifiable ceramic type, known for its distinctive, incised surface patterning, is placed in burials in Greater Nicoya, a region that encompasses southern Nicaragua and northwestern Costa Rica.

• ca. 200 B.C. Small villages are present in Greater Chiriquí, a region including southern Costa Rica and northern Panama.

• ca. 100 B.C. Semiprecious green-colored stones, frequently jadeite, are worked into personal ornaments in northern and central Costa Rica. Primarily pendants to be worn suspended about the neck, the jades are much revered and many are used as funerary offerings.

The population of Costa Rica's Central Highlands and Atlantic Watershed increases. Mortuary offerings include carefully sculpted stone objects.

1 AD - 500 AD

Cultural development continues along patterns laid down in prior centuries. Jade and greenstone production increases considerably. Intricately carved metates, grinding tables for the processing of maize, are included in elite burials and perhaps used as thrones. Other forms of monumental sculpture occur at the Panamanian site of Barriles, a sculptural tradition that influences southern Costa Rica. Metallurgy, focusing on the use of gold and copper, is introduced from northern Colombia perhaps as early as the third century, and it moves steadily northward thereafter.


• ca. 1 A.D. Well-made sculptural ceramics with incised details, known as Zoned Bichrome, are present throughout much of Greater Nicoya (southwestern Nicaragua/northwestern Costa Rica).

• ca. 100 A.D. Many objects of jade are placed as offerings in burials at the large cemetery of La Huacas on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica.

Elaborate three-legged metates (grinding tables), carved from single blocks of stone, are used as ceremonial/funerary objects. Formal variation exists between the metates of Greater Nicoya and those of the Atlantic Watershed of eastern Costa Rica. In burials, the metates are often placed together with carved stone mace heads and pendants of jade.

• ca. 250 A.D. An important personage in Costa Rica's central highlands at Talamanca de Tibás dies and is laid to rest stretched out along the tops of three carved stone metates. The mortuary offerings include three mace heads and two large jade pendants, one an heirloom of Mexican manufacture of Olmec date.

• ca. 300 A.D. Mortuary offerings in burials in the Tonosí Valley of Panama's Azuero Peninsula begin to include ceramic vessels with bright polychrome surfaces and personal ornaments of carved shell and bone.

Rectangular houses with foundations of river cobbles are used at the site of Severo Ledesma in the eastern lowlands of Costa Rica. Burials and caches are placed beneath the floors.

• ca. 400 A.D. The Diquís region of southern Costa Rica's Greater Chiriquí increases in population, and stone sculpture in the form of human figures is made.

Barriles, a regional center in the Greater Chiriquí region of Panama, begins to flourish. Human images appear in stone sculpture.

• ca. 450 A.D. Pendants and other ornaments of gold—the technology of goldworking is considered to have come from Colombia to the south—are among the mortuary goods present at the community of El Indio on the Azuero Peninsula of central Panama.

In the Diquís region of southern Costa Rica, stone spheres, some measuring up to seven feet in diameter, are carved and set on platforms of cobbles. Some are grouped in alignments, perhaps of astronomical significance, and/or placed in the vicinity of cemeteries. Their meaning is unknown.

500 AD - 1000 AD

Permanent settlements increase in number and size, probably the result of greater contact with peoples from the north—Mesoamerica—and the south—Colombia in northern South America. Trade and communication networks appear to be well established. Impressive quantities of luxury goods in elite burials indicate growing distinctions of social class, with a concentration of valued objects in fewer hands. Several new polychrome ceramic styles appear. Jade and greenstone carvings, important status markers for over a thousand years in north-central Costa Rica, cease to be made, and gold, abundant in alluvial deposits in the region's rivers, becomes the preferred material for the manufacture of prestige items.


• ca. 500 Goldworking is fully established in the region and gold objects remain locally significant until the coming of Europeans in the mid-sixteenth century.

Polychrome ceramic traditions begin to blossom in many regions of both Costa Rica and Panama. Bowls, jars, ollas, and figurines are colored in vivid yellows, reds, oranges, maroons, and blacks.

• ca. 550 A.D. The populations of the islands of the Greater Antilles—Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and Cuba—are increasing. The islands have been inhabited by people who centuries, perhaps millennia, earlier migrated from various mainland locations in Mexico and northern South America.

• ca. 600 Improved stone carving techniques lead to extraordinary detail on Costa Rican effigy metates (grinding tables). Complex human, animal, and composite beings, often part of multifigure scenes, embellish the stone "tables." The metates go out of favor by about 900 A.D.

The boldly drawn Conte polychrome ceramics of central Panama feature creatures that may relate to myths, shamanism, or cosmology.

Worked jade from the Maya area is traded to Costa Rica, where it is recarved.

• ca. 700 A shift in house shape away from the preferred rectangular plan to circular dwellings, as seen in the site of La Fábrica in the central highlands of Costa Rica, is thought to be evidence of contact with Colombia to the south.

Along Panama's Parita River, an important cemetery comes into use at a center today known as El Hatillo. Many spectacular gold objects—embossed plaques, flange-footed frogs, bat- and saurian-human figure pendants—come from its burials.

• ca. 750 A powerful chief dies and is buried at Sitio Conte on the banks of Río Grande de Coclé in central Panama. The chief is laid to rest with twenty-two sacrificed companions and a wealth of gold finery, including large pectoral plaques embossed with sacred images. It is the richest Precolumbian tomb documented for Central America.

• ca. 800 In central and eastern Costa Rica, freestanding stone sculptures of warriors, some reaching five feet in height, and masked human figures are placed around ceremonial spaces at important sites such as Las Mercedes and Guayabo de Turrialba in the Atlantic Watershed.

In Greater Nicoya, a shift of population toward the coast takes place, possibly for greater exploitation of marine resources.

Regionally distinct ceramic traditions begin to take shape in the Greater Antilles.

• ca. 900 Polychrome ceramics continue in popularity. Some styles in northern Costa Rica have Maya-type images.

• ca. 950 In the Atlantic Watershed of Costa Rica, several centers flourish that share similar architectural features, among them Guayabo de Turrialba and Las Mercedes. At Guayabo, there are over forty circular mounds as well as three aqueducts, two plazas, and one causeway. The circular plans of house mounds and foundations indicate relationships to some Colombian sites.

• ca. 1000 Metalworkers in the Chiriquí region of southern Costa Rica and adjacent western Panama produce large numbers of spectacular gold ornaments, primarily pendants, among them frog and turtle depictions, as well as bat- and crocodile-headed figures.

1000 AD - 1500 AD

Settlements in the region remain small; certain strong leaders or chiefs organize alliances that bring several centers together for brief periods. The architecture continues to consist largely of buildings with river cobble foundations and retaining walls. Lashed cane covered with adobe make up the rest of the structures. In Costa Rica, stone sculpture takes on three-dimensional human form, gaining prominence over functional forms such as metates, probably the result of changes in ritual activity. While the quality and quantity of ceramic manufacture generally diminish except for some elite wares, production of fine gold objects is at a peak. The Taino people, one of the groups inhabiting the islands of the Greater Antilles, create works of great individuality in a variety of mediums.


• ca. 1000 Figurative motifs that decorate earlier polychrome ceramics in Panama are replaced by increasingly abstract and geometric designs.

• ca. 1050 Ornately carved ceremonial metates, important ritual/funerary objects in northern and central Costa Rica for at least the past thousand years, are produced only in limited numbers. Those made in the Atlantic Watershed are often round and feature atlantean figures.

• ca. 1100 Sitio Conte, a major burial ground in central Panama for about 700 years, is no longer used as an elite cemetery.

• ca. 1150 A new, technically accomplished ceramic ware, known as Tarragó Biscuit, is made in the Diquís region of southern Costa Rica. The thin-walled, buff-colored vessels of simple yet elegant shape or various animal forms have smooth, unpolished surfaces.

• ca. 1200 Ceramic vessels of the Guanacaste-Nicoya region that earlier had Maya-style images now have white-slipped surfaces with Mexican design elements outlined in black.

• ca. 1250 Highly stylized, almost two-dimensional stone figures from the Diquís area show strong affinities to Colombian forms in South America.

• ca. 1300 The Taino of the Greater Antilles islands in the Caribbean make ritual objects of wood, stone, and shell for use in ceremonies that include the taking of hallucinogenic snuff, or cohoba. Plazas and ballcourts are built and used in communal ritual activities.

• ca. 1350 At Palmar Sur in the Diquís region, an important chief is entombed with eighty-eight gold ornaments; some appear to have been specifically made for burial.

• ca. 1400 In central and eastern Costa Rica, thousands of small, seated human figures, known as sukias, are produced. Typically holding tubes, perhaps flutes, to their mouths, they may have been used in domestic contexts.

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