Ancient Maya Culture in Copán

Presenting: The Mayas!

Where did the Mayas live?

The different periods in the history of the ancient Mayas




Presenting: The Mayas!

Archaeological Park Copán Ruinas
In the Copán Ruinas valley, in Honduras (very close to the border with Guatemala), everyone has heard of the Mayas. We know that a long time ago, they built big buildings that now are famous ruins. Thousands of tourists from all around the world come to visit them. Mayan culture surrounds everyone who lives in the valley. Sometimes people find pieces of ceramic on their land.
Mayan people, called the Chortí, still leave in Copán. Ancient Mayan culture is very present, but at the same time seems very far away. With this web site, we are trying to know the Mayas better  the ones from back in history, and the ones from today!

Who were the Mayas?

Day glyph of the sacred calendar Tzolk'in

The ancient Mayas lived in a similar way to the Mayas of today, but also somewhat differently. First, they didn't have the technology that people have today: no radios, cars, or TVs. But even without these modern things, they knew a lot about astronomy, architecture, and agriculture. They were very intelligent: they invented the calendar and the number ‘"zero".

Head of a sky bearer
The Mayas lived off agriculture, fishing, and hunting. The ancient Maya grew crops the same way that many farmers still do today. They respected nature very much and tried to take good care of it. Their sources of water were sacred and fire was considered a gift from heaven.

Where did the Mayas live?

The Mayas didn't only live in Copán Ruinas. The lived in an area of 500,000 square kilometers in the south of Mexico, Belize, all of Guatemala, the west of Honduras, and the north of El Salvador. Even though they didn't have highways, cars, or planes back then, they did travel. Those that lived on the coast visited the villages in the mountains to sell their seashells, salt, and other treasures from the sea. The people in the mountains traded jade and tools made of obsidian (a type of volcanic rock) with people from the jungle, who had parrot feathers or ceramics. And they had a type of money.
The Maya World
Cocoa fruit and seeds
It wasn't Lempira bills (the Honduran currency today) but rather seeds of the cocoa tree. The Mayas loved to have chocolate as a drink, but the seed was so precious that they used it as their money. Maybe this seems strange to you, but remember that our money today is just a piece of paper!

How did the Mayas get to Copán?

About 300 years before Christ (or about 2300 years ago) the first people arrived in the Copán valley. They found a river with crystalline water, lots of jungle filled with animals, and a good climate. Up until this point, these people, who, by the way, were not Mayas, had been nomads, traveling from place to place. But they liked this place so much that they decided to stay. About seven hundred years later, the establishment was occupied by Yas K'uk Mo', a Maya prince from the city of Tikal, now in Guatemala. He became the first king of Copán. His people started mingling with the original habitants and while the little town grew, it's people were soon considered Mayas.
Typical house
Temple Popol Nah
These Mayas built small houses and planted corn, chili peppers, and tobacco. They kept bees and made tools from stone that they got from the mountains. Things were going well for them. The founders of this little community had children, and these children eventually had more children, and the town grew little by little. The Mayas started to build bigger, more elaborate houses and also temples to honor their gods. As the years passed, a majestic city eventually grew in the Copán valley.

Who ruled the Mayas?

Around the year 400 A.D., about 700 years after arriving in Copán, the town was getting very big and powerful. The first king, as mentioned earlier, was Yax K'uk Mo', which means "First Quetzal Macaw" . A macaw is a type of parrot, and a quetzal is a smaller, green, bird. They considered these birds to be so special, so it was a big honor for the leader to be named like that.
Yax K'uk Mo' & Yax Pasah en Altar Q
The king - or ruler - was the most important person in the community. The Mayas believed that he could talk with ancestors and the gods. Because he was such a special man, they built him a beautiful palace. When Yax K'uk Mo' died, his son took his place and the Mayas built him a palace, too. It went like this for years, and in about the year 800, the little Maya village had turned into a big city with a population of more than 25,000 people. The rulers, who were very powerful, commanded artists to build enormous "stelae", or carved blocks of stone.  

Why did the Mayas disappear from Copán?

And then all of a sudden... the Mayas disappeared from Copán. Well, it wasn' t really all of a sudden. A lot of years passed before the last Maya left Copán. What happened was that the city grew a lot in its last thousand years. There were lots more people than before, and everyone needed to eat. So, the Mayas cut down more trees so they could plant more corn, until there were almost no forests left where the animals could live, or firewood for cooking, or wood for building. And by cutting down trees, they dried up their sources of water, and this reduced their crop yields, and as a consequence, there was hunger and sickness. But these weren't the only problems. The last rulers of Copán fought continuously with the nobility, the most rich and powerful people. Everyone wanted a part of the power and the riches of the king, so that in addition to the hunger, there were political problems, too.
Because of the hunger and the drought and the political problems, many Mayas decided to leave Copán. They looked for a better life in other places, just like people today go to places like the United States with the hope of earning more money there.

It's not certain why in the end the Mayas abandoned Copán. It could be because there were natural disasters or wars at that time. We know that around the year 800 A.D. the most powerful people left Copán, and little by little the workers and farmers followed them. When no one lived in the palaces or houses anymore, nature covered them up with a layer of plants and trees. The beautiful Mayan city turned into what we know today as the ruins of Copán.
But it's not the case that all the Mayas disappeared! They just went to live in other places, and they're still around today!
Archaeological Park Copán

The different periods in the history of the ancient Mayas

Mayan history can be divided into three periods:

The Pre-Classic Period (2000 B.C. –- 250 A.D.) was the start of Mayan rule in many parts of Central America and Mexico.
The Classic Period (250-900 A.D.) was the most glorious time in Copán, when the rulers had majestic temples built and had a lot of power and wealth.
The Post-Classic Period (900-1697 A.D.) was an important era in Yucatán (Mexico), more than anywhere else, where the city of Chichén Itzá was one of the most powerful ever. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, Mayan culture changed quickly and wasn't as strong as before.

Did you know that &

The name 'Copán' probably first came into being around 500 years ago. In nahuatl (an indigenous language in Mexico), it means "bridge". We still don't know what the ancient Maya named this place.
Even though we don't know what the Mayas called Copán when they ruled there, we do know that they used glyphs for the name, and that it was related to the bat (‘"Zotz"), as we can see in the glyph that appears at the right.
Mat pattern
This decoration can be found on the front part of Temple A in the Copán archaeological park. It's a woven mat, a symbol of political power. The community leaders met in this building, named Popol Nah (House of the Mat).