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History of Guatemala
 
 
 

Early History

The earliest human settlements in Guatemala date back to the Paleo-Indian period and were made up of hunters and gatherers. Sites dating back to 6500 BC have been found in Quiché in the Highlands and Sipacate, Escuintla on the central Pacific coast.

Though it is unclear when these groups of hunters and gatherers turned to agricultural cultivation, pollen samples from Petén and the Pacific coast indicate maize cultivation as early as 3500 BC. By 2500 BC, small settlements were developing in Guatemala’s Pacific lowlands in such places as Tilapa, La Blanca, Ocós, El Mesak, and Ujuxte, where the oldest pieces of ceramic pottery from Guatemala has been found. Excavations in the Antigua Guatemala Valley, at Urías and Rucal, have yielded stratified materials from the Early and Middle Preclassic periods (2000 BC to 400 BC). Paste analyses of these early pieces of pottery in the Antigua Valley indicate they were made of clays from different environmental zones, suggesting people from the Pacific coast expanded into the Antigua Valley.

Guatemala's Pre-Columbian era can be divided into the Preclassic period (from 2000 BC to 250 AD), the Classic period (250 to 900 AD) and the Postclassic period (900 to 1500 AD). Until recently, the Preclassic was regarded as a formative period, consisting of small villages of farmers who lived in huts and few permanent buildings, but this notion has been challenged by recent discoveries of monumental architecture from that period, such as an altar in La Blanca, San Marcos, from 1000 BC; ceremonial sites at Miraflores and El Naranjo from 801 BC; the earliest monumental masks; and the Mirador Basin cities of Nakbé, Xulnal, El Tintal, Wakná and El Mirador.

In Monte Alto near La Democracia, Escuintla, giant stone heads and potbellies (or barrigones) have been found, dating back to around 1800 BC. The stone heads have been ascribed to the Pre-Olmec Monte Alto Culture and some scholars suggest the Olmec Culture originated in the Monte Alto area. It has also been argued the only connection between the statues and the later Olmec heads is their size. The Monte Alto Culture may have been the first complex culture of Mesoamerica, and predecessor of all other cultures of the region. In Guatemala, there are some sites with unmistakable Olmec style, such as Chocolá in Suchitepéquez, La Corona, in Peten, and Tak'alik A´baj, in Retalhuleu, the last of which is the only ancient city in the Americas with Olmec and Mayan features.

El Mirador was by far the most populated city in pre-Columbian America. Both the El Tigre and Monos pyramids encompass a volume greater than 250,000 cubic metres. Richard Hansen, the director of the archaeological project of the Mirador Basin, believes the Maya at Mirador Basin developed the first politically organised state in America around 1500 BC, named the Kan Kingdom in ancient texts. There were 26 cities, all connected by Sacbeob (highways), which were several kilometres long, up to 40 metres wide, and two to four metres above the ground, paved with stucco, that are clearly distinguishable from the air in the most extensive virgin tropical rain forest in Mesoamerica.

Hansen also believes the Olmec were not the mother culture in Mesoamerica. Due to findings at Mirador Basin in Northern Petén, Hansen suggests the Olmec and Maya cultures developed separately, and merged in some places like Tak'alik Abaj on the Pacific lowlands.


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