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History of Guatemala

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Understanding Guatemala's Ancient History

During a Guatemala trip, visitors will discover a rich, sometimes violent, always fascinating cultural history. The cultural history of Mesoamerica can be divided into three periods: The Pre-Classic from 2000 BC to 250 AD, (Early: 2000 BC to 800 BC, Middle: 800 to 400 BC, and Late 400 BC to 250 AD), Classic from 250 to 900 AD, (Early 250 to 550 AD, Middle from 550 to 700 AD and Late 700 to 900 AD), and Post Classic from 900 to 1500 AD, (Early 900 to 1200 AD, and Late 1200 to 1500 AD).

The first proof of human settlers in Guatemala dates at least as far back as 10,000 BC, although there is some evidence that put this date at 18,000 BC. (The evidence includes obsidian arrowheads uncovered at various archaeological sites.) Archaeological evidence concludes that early Guatemalan settlers were hunters and gatherers, but pollen samples from Petén and the Pacific coast indicate that corn cultivation was developed by 3500 BC. The earliest Maya civilizations began to emerge in the highlands of Guatemala by as early as 2000 BC. Bustling city-states grew, and trading networks covered large areas of what is now Central America and Mexico.

In addition to the notable architecture, the Maya also developed a complex calendar, a hieroglyphic writing system, and an impressive body of scientific knowledge. By 2500 BC, small settlements were developing in Guatemala’s Pacific lowlands, including such places as Tilapa, La Blanca, Ocós, El Mesak, and Ujuxte, where the oldest ceramic pottery from Guatemala has been found. A heavy concentration of pottery on the Pacific coast has been documented dating from 2000 BC. Recent excavations suggest that the Highlands were a geographic and temporal bridge between Early Pre-classic villages of the Pacific coast and later Petén lowlands cities.

There are at least 5000 archaeological sites in Guatemala, 3000 of them in Petén alone. In Monte Alto near La Democracia, Escuintla, giant stone heads and Potbellies (or Barrigones) have been found, dating from 1800 BC. These are ascribed to the Pre-Olmec Monte Alto Culture, and some scholars suggest the Olmec Culture originated in this area of the Pacific Lowlands. However, it has also been argued the only connection between these statues and the later Olmec heads is their size. Nonetheless, it is likely the Monte Alto Culture was 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 Tak'alik A´baj, in Retalhuleu, which is the only ancient city in the Americas with Olmec and Mayan features. Dr. Richard Hansen, the director of the archaeological project of the Mirador Basin in Northern Peten, believes the Maya at that location developed the first true political state in America, (The Kan Kingdom), around 1500 BC. Further, he disputes the common belief that the Olmec were the mother culture in Mesoamerica. Due to recent findings at Mirador Basin, Hansen suggests the Olmec and Maya cultures developed separately, and then merged in some areas, such as Tak'alik Abaj on the Pacific lowlands.

There is no evidence yet to link the Pre-classic Maya from Petén and those from the Pacific coast, but Dr. Hansen believes they had cultural and economical links. Northern Guatemala has particularly high densities of Late Pre-classic sites, including El Mirador, Tintal, Xulnal and Wakná, which are the largest in the Maya world. The cities were sophisticated and developed, with architectonic structures from 1400 BC.

The Conquest

The Maya civilization was already somewhat fragmented when Europeans arrived in the early 1500's, and the weak and divided Maya were easily conquered by the Spaniards. Pedro de Alvarado, sent by Hernán Cortés, was engaged in the conquest of the highlands of Guatemala from 1523 to 1527. Alvarado was a Spanish conquistador and governor of Guatemala, and was known for his skill as a soldier and his cruelty to native populations. 

Alvarado first allied himself with the Cakchiquel nation to fight against their traditional rivals, the Quiché nation. Once he felt militarily secure, Alvarado turned against the Cakchiquels, meeting them in several battles until they were subdued in 1530. Battles with other tribes continued up to 1548, when the Kek'chí in Nueva Sevilla, Izabal were defeated, leaving the Spanish to rule.

Those of native blood descended to the bottom of the new social hierarchy. The lands were carved up into large estates and the people ruthlessly exploited by the new landowners. The last cities conquered were Tayasal, capital of the Itzá Maya, and Zacpetén, capital of the Ko'woj Maya, both in 1697. These cities endured several attempts, including a failed attempt by Hernán Cortés in 1542. In order to conquer these last Maya sites, the Spaniards had to attack them on three fronts, one coming from Yucatan, another from Belize, and the third one from Alta Verapaz.

The 19th century

Guatemala gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. It brought new prosperity to those of Spanish blood (creoles) and even worse conditions for those of Mayan descent. Huge tracts of Mayan land were stolen for the cultivation of tobacco and sugar cane, and the Maya were further enslaved to work that land. Guatemala briefly became part of the Mexican Empire and then for a period belonged to a federation called The United Provinces of Central America, until the federation broke up in civil war during 1838–1840.

Guatemala's Rafael Carrera was instrumental in leading the revolt against the federal government and breaking apart the Union. Carrera dominated Guatemalan politics until 1865, backed by conservatives, large land-owners and the church. Guatemala's "Liberal Revolution" came in 1871 under the leadership of Justo Rufino Barrios, who worked to modernize the country, improve trade, and introduce new crops and manufacturing. During this era coffee became an important crop for Guatemala. Barrios had ambitions of reuniting Central America and took the country to war in an unsuccessful attempt at reunification.

Guatemalan Flag
Guatemalan Flag

From Civil War to Times of Peace: Guatemala's Modern History

While on a tour of Guatemala, travelers will discover a country that is still addressing the wounds after its 36-year long civil war. Few exceptional leaders have graced Guatemala's political podium. Instead, there as been an alternating wave of dictators and economics-driven liberals, that was briefly interrupted by Juan José Arévalo.

He established the nation's social security, health systems and a government bureau to look after Mayan concerns. In power from 1945 to 1951, Arévalo's liberal regime experienced 25 coup attempts by conservative military forces. He was followed by Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who continued to implement liberal policies. He also instituted an agrarian reform law to break up the large estates and foster highly productive, individually owned small farms. The expropriation of lands controlled by foreign companies, a move supported by the country's Communist Party, brought about the controversial involvement of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

A successful military coup was organized in 1954 - Arbenz Guzmán fled to Mexico and land reform never materialized. For the next 30 years military officers dominated Guatemala. Political parties, labor groups and rural organizations were banned or severely restricted. As both protest and repression became more violent, civil war broke out. With no peaceful way to seek political or social change, many Guatemalans turned to violence. In response to a growing population of guerillas among the landless indigenous people in the 1960's, the army unleashed a campaign of terror in which thousands of people were killed and entire villages were massacred.

Over its 36-year history, the war claimed the lives of an estimated 140,000 people. Booming industrialization in the 60's and 70's helped the rich get richer. Cities became increasingly squalid as the rural dispossessed fled the countryside to find urban employment. The military's suppression of antigovernment elements finally led the USA to cut off military assistance. This led to the 1986 election of civilian Christian Democrat Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo. Five years of inconclusive government were followed by the election of conservative Jorge Serrano Elías. His attempts to end the decades-long civil war failed.

In May 1993, following a series of public protests, he carried out an auto-coup. Lacking popular support, he fled the country; an outspoken critic of the army, Ramiro de León Carpio was elected by Congress. Carpio's law-and-order mantle was taken up by a new president, Alvaro Enrique Arzú Irigoyen. In December 1996, the government signed a series of peace accords with leftist guerrillas and the army agreed to reduce its role in domestic security matters.

Recent History

In November 1999, Guatemala held its first peacetime elections in nearly 40 years. A new government was sworn in on January 14, 2000, under its recently elected right-wing president, Alfonso Portillo. An admitted murderer, Portillo won by claiming that if he could defend himself, he could defend his people. He vowed to clean up the judicial system, crack down on crime, tax the rich and respect human rights.

The subsequent 2003 elections were held amid much scandal and chicanery; the less extreme right-winger, Oscar Berger, supported by the traditional elites in banking and agriculture, was declared president. The following year, the government instituted major cuts to the army (including the retirement of 10,000 soldiers) and admitted its guilt in some high-profile human rights violation cases. In 2006, Guatemala ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States, aimed at creating a free-trade zone and reducing tariffs.

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