The Maya Empire, centered in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala, reached the peak of its power and influence around the sixth century A.D. The Maya excelled at agriculture, pottery, hieroglyph writing, calendar-making and mathematics, and left behind an astonishing amount of impressive architecture and symbolic artwork. Most of the great stone cities of the Maya were abandoned by A.D. 900, however, and since the 19th century scholars have debated what might have caused this dramatic decline.
Locating the Maya
The Maya civilization was one of the most dominant indigenous societies of Mesoamerica (a term used to describe Mexico and Central America before the 16th century Spanish conquest). Unlike other scattered indigenous populations of Mesoamerica, the Maya were centered in one geographical block covering all of the Yucatan Peninsula and modern-day Guatemala; Belize and parts of the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas; and the western part of Honduras and El Salvador. This concentration showed that the Maya remained relatively secure from invasion by other Mesoamerican peoples.
Within that expanse, the Maya lived in three separate sub-areas with distinct environmental and cultural differences: the northern Maya lowlands on the Yucatan Peninsula; the southern lowlands in the Peten district of northern Guatemala and adjacent portions of Mexico, Belize and western Honduras; and the southern Maya highlands, in the mountainous region of southern Guatemala. Most famously, the Maya of the southern lowland region reached their peak during the Classic Period of Maya civilization (A.D. 250 to 900), and built the great stone cities and monuments that have fascinated explorers and scholars of the region.
Early Maya, 1800 B.C. to A.D. 250
The earliest Maya settlements date to around 1800 B.C., or the beginning of what is called the Preclassic or Formative Period. The earliest Maya were agricultural, growing crops such as corn (maize), beans, squash and cassava (manioc). During the Middle Preclassic Period, which lasted until about 300 B.C., Maya farmers began to expand their presence both in the highland and lowland regions. The Middle Preclassic Period also saw the rise of the first major Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmecs. Like other Mesamerican peoples, such as the Zapotec, Totonac, Teotihuacán and Aztec, the Maya derived a number of religious and cultural traits–as well as their number system and their famous calendar–from the Olmec.
In addition to agriculture, the Preclassic Maya also displayed more advanced cultural traits like pyramid-building, city construction and the inscribing of stone monuments.
The Late Preclassic city of Mirador, in the northern Peten, was one of the greatest cities ever built in the pre-Columbian Americas. Its size dwarfed the Classic Maya capital of Tikal, and its existence proves that the Maya flourished centuries before the Classic Period.
Cities of Stone: The Classic Maya, A.D. 250-900
The Classic Period, which began around A.D. 250, was the golden age of the Maya Empire. Classic Maya civilization grew to some 40 cities, including Tikal, Uaxactún, Copán, Bonampak, Dos Pilas, Calakmul, Palenque and Río Bec; each city held a population of between 5,000 and 50,000 people. At its peak, the Maya population may have reached 2,000,000.
Excavations of Maya sites have unearthed plazas, palaces, temples and pyramids, as well as courts for playing the ball games that were ritually and politically significant to Maya culture. Maya cities were surrounded and supported by a large population of farmers. Though the Maya practiced a primitive type of “slash-and-burn” agriculture, they also displayed evidence of more advanced farming methods, such as irrigation and terracing.
The Maya were deeply religious, and worshiped various gods related to nature, including the gods of the sun, the moon, rain and corn. At the top of Maya society were the kings, or “kuhul ajaw” (holy lords), who claimed to be related to gods and followed a hereditary succession. They were thought to serve as mediators between the gods and people on earth, and performed the elaborate religious ceremonies and rituals so important to the Maya culture.
The Classic Maya built many of their temples and palaces in a stepped pyramid shape, decorating them with elaborate reliefs and inscriptions. These structures have earned the Maya their reputation as the great artists of Mesoamerica. Guided by their religious ritual, the Maya also made significant advances in mathematics and astronomy, including the use of the zero and the development of a complex calendar system based on 365 days. Though early researchers concluded that the Maya were a peaceful society of priests and scribes, later evidence–including a thorough examination of the artwork and inscriptions on their temple walls–showed the less peaceful side of Maya culture, including the war between rival Mayan city-states and the importance of torture and human sacrifice to their religious ritual.
Serious exploration of Classic Maya sites began in the 1830s. By the early to mid-20th century, a small portion of their system of hieroglyph writing had been deciphered, and more about their history and culture became known. Most of what historians know about the Maya comes from what remains of their architecture and art, including stone carvings and inscriptions on their buildings and monuments. The Maya also made paper from tree bark and wrote in books made from this paper, known as codices; four of these codices are known to have survived.
Life in the Rainforest
One of the many intriguing things about the Maya was their ability to build a great civilization in a tropical rainforest climate. Traditionally, ancient peoples had flourished in drier climates, where the centralized management of water resources (through irrigation and other techniques) formed the basis of society. (This was the case for the Teotihuacan of highland Mexico, contemporaries of the Classic Maya.) In the southern Maya lowlands, however, there were few navigable rivers for trade and transport, as well as no obvious need for an irrigation system.
By the late 20th century, researchers had concluded that the climate of the lowlands was in fact quite environmentally diverse. Though foreign invaders were disappointed by the region’s relative lack of silver and gold, the Maya took advantage of the area’s many natural resources, including limestone (for construction), the volcanic rock obsidian (for tools and weapons) and salt. The environment also held other treasures for the Maya, including jade, quetzal feathers (used to decorate the elaborate costumes of Maya nobility) and marine shells, which were used as trumpets in ceremonies and warfare.
Mysterious Decline of the Maya
From the late eighth through the end of the ninth century, something unknown happened to shake the Maya civilization to its foundations. One by one, the Classic cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned, and by A.D. 900, Maya civilization in that region had collapsed. The reason for this mysterious decline is unknown, though scholars have developed several competing theories.
Some believe that by the ninth century the Maya had exhausted the environment around them to the point that it could no longer sustain a very large population. Other Maya scholars argue that constant warfare among competing city-states led the complicated military, family (by marriage) and trade alliances between them to break down, along with the traditional system of dynastic power. As the stature of the holy lords diminished, their complex traditions of rituals and ceremonies dissolved into chaos. Finally, some catastrophic environmental change–like an extremely long, intense period of drought–may have wiped out the Classic Maya civilization. Drought would have hit cities like Tikal–where rainwater was necessary for drinking as well as for crop irrigation–especially hard.
All three of these factors–overpopulation and overuse of the land, endemic warfare and drought–may have played a part in the downfall of the Maya in the southern lowlands. In the highlands of the Yucatan, a few Maya cities–such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Mayapán–continued to flourish in the Post-Classic Period (A.D. 900-1500). By the time the Spanish invaders arrived, however, most Maya were living in agricultural villages, their great cities buried under a layer of rainforest green.
Now one of the least-populated Mexican states, Campeche was once the site of a flourishing Mayan civilization. Campeche is also home to Mexico’s oldest carnival. The state’s second largest city, Ciudad del Carmen, receives much of its annual income from tourism related to its new seaboard and quiet beaches. The off-shore oil platforms also make a significant contribution to Ciudad del Carmen’s economy.
Although pre-Mayan cultures inhabited the area of Campeche as early as 3000 B.C., relatively little is known about them. The Mayans, in contrast, left extensive evidence of their civilization, which originated on the Yucatán Peninsula. The Mayans made unique astronomical discoveries and followed their own calendar. About 6,000 Mayan buildings and ceremonial structures have been identified at the city of Calakmul in southern Campeche. Calakmul boasted a population of 50,000 at its height in the 6th and 7th centuries A.D. At about the same time, the regional capital of Chichén-Itzá rose to prominence in the neighboring state of Yucatán, extending its influence over the inhabitants of Campeche.
The Mayan tribes of Campeche included the Yucatecos, Chontales and Quejaches. These groups shared a common Mayan culture but maintained distinct architectural styles, decorative arts and dialects.
For reasons that are unclear, the entire Mayan civilization declined sharply during the 8th and 9th centuries, perhaps because of an epidemic, environmental changes or foreign invasion. Tribes living in Campeche suffered the same fate. The Mayan settlement on Jaina Island, which reached its peak from 900 to 1100 A.D., was one of the last to survive in Campeche. When the Spaniards reached the Yucatán Peninsula early in the 16th century, the land held far fewer inhabitants than it had several centuries earlier.
The first two Spanish explorers to reach the Yucatán Peninsula, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, were the survivors of a shipwreck in 1511. They were taken in by Mayan villagers. Guerrero married the daughter of the Chetumal tribal chief, and their son was Mexico’s first officially recorded mestizo (person of both Indian and Spanish ancestry). Jerónimo de Aguilar was later rescued by the conquistador Hernán Cortés.Even though Campeche itself was not densely populated, natives in the rest of the Yucatán Peninsula were numerous enough to repel occasional attacks by the Spaniards. In 1527 Francisco de Montejo attempted to conquer the region, but the Amerindian resistance was so strong that he fled. He returned three years later with his son, but again they were unable to overpower the Indians. Finally, a third attempt in 1537 was successful, and de Montejo established the cities of San Francisco de Campeche in 1540 and Mérida in 1542.
In an effort to convert the indigenous people to the Catholic faith, Franciscan priests built more than 30 monasteries throughout the region. Despite these modest gains, native revolts throughout the colonial period reinforced the Yucatán Peninsula’s reputation as an area fiercely resistant to Spanish rule.
When it was discovered that logwood trees near the city of Campeche produced a valuable red dye, some Spaniards became wealthy trading the commodity. The dye was also a tempting target for Caribbean pirates and thieves, and as a result the city was attacked many times during the 17th century. These attacks prompted the residents to build a wall 8 meters (26 feet) high around the entire city. The walls formed an irregular hexagon and had four gates. Much of the wall, including two of the gates, still stands today.
Shortly after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the Yucatán region became a Mexican state. At that time, the state of Yucatán included the areas that are now the separate states of Campeche and Quintana Roo. Over the next quarter of a century, frequent rebellions brought occasional changes to the region’s political status, including several periods when Yucatán declared itself an independent republic. In 1848, Yucatán rejoined Mexico for good, but internal disputes continued to plague the region. On August 7, 1857, Campeche declared itself independent of Yucatán, naming the city of Campeche as the new capital. The citizens drafted a constitution in 1861, and in 1862 the Mexican Congress ratified the proposal to recognize Campeche as a state.
In 1902, President Porfirio Díaz ordered Campeche to surrender a portion of its territory to create the province of Quintana Roo. During President Ortiz Rubio’s brief term (1930-1932), the area was returned to Campeche, but President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) restored Quintana Roo’s independence. In 1974 it became a state.
The discovery of oil fields off the coast of Campeche in the 1970s transformed the region’s economy and also increased its political volatility, requiring occasional federal intervention to maintain order.
Campeche’s chief sources of revenue are the oil industry (45 percent), tourism (15 percent) and financial and real estate services (15 percent).
Off-shore wells in the Bay of Campeche produce over half of Mexico’s oil and one-fourth of its natural gas. PEMEX, Mexico’s state-owned oil company, maintains significant facilities there.
Many tourists are drawn to the breathtaking archaeological sites scattered throughout the state as well as the capital city’s beautiful historical center. Museums, handicraft shops, night clubs and restaurants offer varied sightseeing opportunities both day and night.
Facts and Figures
- Capital: Campeche
- Major Cities (population): Campeche (238,850) Ciudad del Carmen (199,988) Champotón (76,116) Escárcega (50,106) Calkiní (49,850)
- Size/Area: 19,619 square miles
- Population: 754,730 (2005 Census)
- Year of Statehood: 1863
- Campeche’s ornate coat of arms includes only a few pictorial elements. The upper left and bottom right quarters display silver towers on a red background, denoting the strength and bravery of the Campecheans while defending their land. The upper right and bottom left quarters show a sailing ship with raised anchor against a blue background, recalling the region’s maritime connections and the loyal nature of its people. At the top, a jeweled crown signifies Campeche’s grandeur and majesty.
- The city of Campeche is surrounded by walls built to protect it from pirate attacks. The massive walls took approximately 18 years to complete, from 1686 until 1704. The hexagonal enclosure has a perimeter of 2,560 meters (8,400 feet), and its height is over 8 meters (26 feet).
- The city of Campeche is one of Mexico’s best kept secrets, retaining a colonial atmosphere with its narrow streets and pastel houses—quite different from the modern tourist attractions in Cancún or Cabo San Lucas.
- The Reserva de la Biósfera Calakmul, Mexico’s largest nature preserve, gives sanctuary to most of the region’s 400 endangered species. Visitors to Campeche can see jaguars, spider monkeys, rainbow-beaked toucans and maritime turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs.
- Residents of the state are called campechanos, a term that has become synonymous with “good-natured” because the people have a reputation for welcoming visitors—even by Mexico’s already high social standards.
- Many Mayans live in Campeche, and 15 percent of them speak the Mayan language as their first language.
- Campeche’s local religious festival, the Feria San Román, is celebrated from September 14 to September 30. One of the festival’s oldest traditions is the procession of the Black Christ, an ebony statue brought to Campeche from Italy in the 16th century. Visitors to the fair enjoy religious and cultural events, games, handmade crafts and commercial exhibits.
- Campeche hosts Mexico’s oldest carnival, a pre-Lenten celebration that has been observed for over 450 years. The first day starts with a procession called “the walk to bury bad humor.” Bad humor, represented by a cloth puppet resembling a pirate, is placed inside a coffin, paraded through the streets and finally burned, symbolizing a change from bad humor to good. Each municipality elects an honorary king and queen to preside over the two-week-long festivities, which include music, dramatic performances and dancing.
- Campeche is one of the few cities in Mexico with numbered streets: Those running north-south have odd numbers, while the east-west streets have even numbers.
Calakmul (meaning “the city of two adjacent pyramids”) is one of the largest Mayan centers ever discovered. It is located in Campeche’s tropical forest approximately 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of the Guatemalan border. The well-preserved ruin is rich in historical artifacts of the Mayan culture. A smaller yet equally astonishing archaeological site, Chicanna, is located nearby. Some researchers believe Chicanna was a retreat for privileged Mayan citizens, due to the elegance and ornamental splendor of its buildings.
The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, covering almost 15 percent of the state in southeast Campeche, is Mexico’s largest nature preserve. Jaguars, eagles and over 230 bird species make their home in the sprawling sanctuary. The biosphere also features several archeological sites, including El Ramonal, Hormiguero, Chicanna, Río Bec, Becán and Calakmul.
The Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve, created in 1979, safeguards a coastal wetland environment that is home to pink flamingos, turtles and migratory birds. Together with El Palmar State Reserve in Yucatán and Los Petenes Biosphere Reserve in Campeche, Ría Celestún constitutes the largest coastal wetlands in the western Yucatán Peninsula.
The Balamkin Reserve focuses on the protection of endangered reptiles and amphibians. Other animals that live in the reserve include all five feline species indigenous to Mexico (jaguar, ocelot, tigrillo, jaguarundi and puma), monkeys, deer, toucans, grey eagles and falcons.
As required by the Spanish sovereign, the historical center of Campeche was patterned after a chessboard. The main town square and central park are situated on the square closest to the sea. Ostensibly intended to benefit the people of the community, this square was used primarily by the town’s Spanish royalty and political authorities for parties and ceremonies.
Campeche’s cathedral, Catedral de la Concepción Inmaculada, stands near the main plaza; it was completed in the early 1700s. The Government Palace is a modern building located just northwest of the plaza. St. Michael’s Fort (Fuerte de San Miguel) in the southwest quarter houses an archaeological museum containing artifacts from the Edzna and Jaina ruins. Campeche’s brightly colored homes and narrow streets filled with colonial architecture appeal to both locals and visitors. In the neighborhood of San Román, visitors can see the Black Christ, a six-foot ebony statue brought to Mexico from Italy in 1575.
This low, flat state still has a large indigenous population that lives primarily in rural areas. Contrary to popular belief, Tabasco was not named after the spicy peppers of the same name, though the state is a major producer of other farm products, including cacao, coconuts, corn (maize), sugarcane and tropical fruits. The commercial and manufacturing center of the state is Villahermosa. Food processing plants and companies producing wood products, cigars, soap and clothing are located throughout the city.
Beginning around 1500 B.C., the Olmec civilization established itself in Tabasco, reaching its cultural and economic peak around 500 B.C. The Olmecs were noted for their superb stone carvings, which ranged from small, finely detailed jade objects to colossal carved-basalt heads that frequently combined human and jaguar features. The state was once the location of La Venta, the largest Olmec city, which contained 18,000 inhabitants at its peak between 800 and 500 B.C.Between 100 and 1000 A.D., the Mayans emerged as the dominant culture in the region, followed by the Toltecs in the 13th century. The word Toltec means master builders, and evidence shows that they were brilliantly skilled architects and artists who smelted metals and created highly sophisticated stonework. The Toltec’s polytheistic religion seems to have centered on the god Quetzalcóatl and featured ceremonies that included human sacrifice, sun worship and a sacred ball game. They are believed to have discovered pulque (a fermented drink) and had considerable astronomical knowledge, as shown by their calendar cycle of 52 years of 260 days each.
In the 14th century, the Chontales appeared in the Tabasco area; historians believe they may have migrated there from Nicaragua. Chontales is the Mayan name for alien, which is probably the origin of the tribe’s name. Commerce between the Chontales and Mayans led to the development and rise of sizeable cities like Cimatán and Teapa. By 1500 A.D., 135,000 people inhabited the area.
In the present-day municipality of Nacajuca, the Chontales represent most of the local population; other Chontales communities are scattered throughout Centla, El Centro, Jonuta and Macuspana.
Spanish explorer Juan de Grijalva’s five-ship expedition in the Caribbean was the first to reach the Tabasco territory in 1518. Soon after, the Spaniards made contact with the Chontales natives who gave them utensils made of gold. The gifts motivated the Spaniards to explore the territory in search of gold mines.
A year later, Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés reached the region and successfully defeated the Chontales. A native woman named Malinche became Cortés’ mistress and mother of his son Martín. Malinche learned to speak Spanish and is often accused of providing Cortés with information vital to the defeat of the Aztecs.
Complete conquest of Tabasco by the Spaniards was delayed until the late 16th century due to indigenous uprisings and the Spanish preoccupation with dominating the central valley of Mexico. By the end of the 16th century, however, the native population had dwindled to less than 7,500, and fewer than 100 Spanish colonists remained in the area. As part of an initiative to promote the development of agriculture, the Spanish introduced African slaves into the region. Uprisings by these slaves and the indigenous population over their deplorable living conditions hindered the area’s economic development. New uprisings during the 18th century provoked the Spaniards to increase the slave trade and promote new settlements by colonists.
Mexico’s 1810 independence movement had little effect on the citizens of Tabasco. Nevertheless, the country’s liberation led to the state’s freedom from Spanish rule in 1821. Three years later, Tabasco joined the federation of states.
Like the rest of the country, 19th-century Tabasco was characterized by political instability and conflicts between local military leaders. U.S. troops occupied the region briefly during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), and French troops invaded in 1864 to uphold the appointment of Maximilian I, who had forced Mexico’s President Benito Juárez out of office and declared himself emperor.
Liberal forces loyal to Juárez successfully ousted Maximilian in 1867. Tabasco subsequently capitulated to the loyalists, who supported Juárez’s return to the presidency, and later to the supporters of Porfirio Díaz. Díaz gained power through a rebellion against Juárez’s successor and ruled Mexico between 1876 and 1910.
The Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, had little impact on this scarcely populated region. Following the revolution, however, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) exercised overwhelming power in Tabasco for most of the 20th century, especially after large oil fields were discovered in the state.
Largely a rural state and covered in marshland and forest, Tabascans today are primarily involved in agriculture and livestock breeding. In fact, consumption agriculture–whereby peasants produce enough crops to feed their family needs and supply local markets–still plays an important role in the state. The state’s most prominent crops are corn, beans, sweet potatoes, yucca, squash and rice. In addition, Tabasco produces many export crops including cacao, sugarcane, banana and coconut. Cattle is another important local commodity.
The commercial and manufacturing center of the state is Villahermosa. Food processing plants and companies producing wood products, cigars, soap and clothing are located throughout the city.
Though tropical agriculture and cattle farming were once the leading economic activities of the state and still play a role, rich oil fields discovered along the coast have since become Tabasco’s economic mainstay. Today, Tabasco is one of Mexico’s main oil-producing zones, and oil is a major factor in the state’s economy and that of the nation as a whole. Large-scale exploitation of this natural resource began after 1950.
General service-based companies account for about 21 percent of the state economy. Trade activities represent about 18 percent, followed by mining at 16 percent, finance and insurance, at 15 percent, construction at 9 percent, transportation and communications at 8 percent, agriculture and livestock at 8 percent and manufacturing at 5 percent.
Facts & Figures
- Capital: Villahermosa
- Major Cities:(population) Centro (558,524), Cárdenas (219,563), Comalcalco (173,773), Huimanguillo (163,462), Macuspana (142,954)
- Size/Area: 9,755 square miles
- Population: 1,989,969 (2005 census)
- Year of Statehood: 1824
- Tabasco’s coat of arms is divided into four areas that display castles, a shield and sword, a crowned lion ready to attack and a native warrior. In the center, the Virgin Mary is depicted within an oval frame.
- li>Tabasco is often credited as the place where chocolate originated. The ancient Olmecs developed the confection, which was later refined by the Mayans and Aztecs. Chocolate was originally consumed as a liquid made by mixing cocoa beans with water and adding spices, chilis and herbs.
- Some historians believe that the state’s name, Tabasco, is derived from the native Aztec word tlapaco, which means “humid land.” Others suggest that the name comes from a Spanish mispronunciation of Taabs-Coob, an early native chief.
- Curiously, the variety of peppers used in Tabasco sauce (capsicum frutescens) do not actually grow in this Mexican state. Nevertheless, because the state is located in a tropical zone, the sun’s rays make it feel as hot as Tabasco.
- In Tabasco, unlike the rest of Mexico, the spoken language sounds much like Caribbean Spanish due to the heavy Cuban influence in the region.
- Carlos Pellicer, a 20th century poet, was born in Tabasco. The Museo de Antropología Carlos Pellicer in Villahermosa is dedicated to Pellicer, who helped organize the museum’s construction in 1952 and then assembled its collection, which includes pieces he himself donated.
The westernmost city of the Mayan empire was Comalcalco, located in the state of Tabasco. The city’s architecture is unique among Mayan sites in that brick was used in place of stone. Comalcalco’s ruins include three large ceremonial complexes: the Grand Acropólis, the North Group and the East Acrópolis. Individual structures include the Palace, the site’s biggest building, and temples located in the Grand Acrópolis.
Due to the prominence of the Olmec culture in Tabasco, the state dedicated a museum, the Parque-Museo La Venta, to the Olmec civilization. Located in the Tomás Garrido Canabal Park, the museum includes a half-mile tour through lush tropical vegetation and valuable archaeological ruins as well as a zoo with more than 600 animal species.
A cross between a safari park and an ecological studies center, Yumka is a popular ecological attraction that covers over four square miles. Visitors can take guided tours of the Tabasco jungle by foot, boat or train to observe wildlife such as giraffes, elephants, rhinos, hippos and birds.
With its heavy rainfall and rich rainforests, Tabasco also contains beautiful rivers and waterfalls. At the confluence of the Usumacinta, Grijalva and San Pedro rivers in the Centla Biosphere Reserve and Swamplands, 1.5 million acres of reserved land contain mangrove swamps, lagoons, dense forests, canals and a wealth of natural resources