Belize, Central America

Belize – The Maya

This banknote from Belize celebrates the long Mayan heritage of the region.


Originating in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C., the Maya rose to prominence around A.D. 250 in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras, El Salvador, and northern Belize.  The civilization continued in its strongest form until about 900 AD, when it began to rapidly diminish for reasons yet not understood by anthropologists.

detail from front of 2 dollar banknote, Belize
detail from the front of Belize banknote.

The history of Belize evolved significantly different from that of other central American countries since the appearance of Columbus. Spanish conquistadors explored the region and declared it a Spanish colony; but did little to settle or develop it as a colony due to its lack of resources, especially silver and gold, and due to its brisk defense by the indigenous inhabitants of the Yucatán.  Thus Belize was not included under the Spanish Captaincy General of Guatemala (1524-1821), nor in the Empire of Mexico (1821-1867), nor as part of the short-lived republic of central America (1821-1841).  The first British settlers arrived in the early 17th century, but not until two centuries later (1862), did the British formally claim the region as a British Crown Colony, which they named British Honduras.  Thus the culture and politics of the region evolved substantially on its own, diverging significantly from nearby Mexico and the other Central American nations.  The ancient Mayan heritage persists in much of the region and, perhaps most strongly, in present day Belize.  The current population of Belize includes three distinct Mayan groups, the Mopan who are indigenous to the area and returned from Guatemala in the 19th century after evading slavery), the Yucatec (who came from Mexico to escape the Caste War) and the Q’eqchi (who fled from slavery in Guatemala).

Detail from back of 2 Dollar banknote of Belize, Maya ruins

Recent discoveries and expanded analyses have led many archeologists and cultural anthropologists to conclude that the center of Maya civilization was, in fact, Belize.  As such, Belize is a treasure trove of ancient Mayan temples, towns and cities.  It is anticipated that many remains have yet to be discovered and explore.The Mayans inhabited Belize for many centuries.  The massive structures combined with extensive residential remains indicate a vast and energetic civilization.


Detail from back of 2 Dollar banknote of Belize, Maya temple at Altun Ha

Altun Ha derives its name from the Yucatec Mayan words haltun, meaning stone water deposit or cistern, and ha, meaning water. According to the Belize Institute of Archaeology it means “Rockstone Water,” and is a Yucatec Mayan approximation of the name of the nearby village of Rockstone Pond. Altun Ha lies on the north-central coastal plain of Belize, in a dry tropical zone. The site was very swampy during its pre-Columbian occupation, with very few recognizable water sources. Currently, the only recognizable natural water source is a creek at some distance.

The structure, illustrated, is about 48 meters high, about the height of a five story building, and is located in the central precinct of Altun Ha.  It dates from the era of the height of the Mayan civilization, around 600 AD.  It has been called the temple of the sun god and the temple of the masonry altars; but these names are generally assigned be archaeologists while the Mayan names remain unknown.

Detail from back of 2 Dollar banknote of Belize, Maya city Lubaantun

Lubaantun is a modern Maya name meaning “place of fallen stones”.  The ancient name remains unknown.  It is located in southern Belize about 2 miles from the village of San Pedro Columbia.  The site is located on a large artificially raised platform between two small rivers.

detail of mortarless construction typical of Lubaantun

Lubaantun’s structures are built mostly of large black slate stone blocks rather than the more common limestone in the region.  The stones were laid with no mortar as illustrated in the adjacent photograph. The city dates from the Maya Classic era, flourishing from the AD 730s to the 890s, and seems to have been completely abandoned soon after. The architecture is somewhat unusual from typical Classical central lowlands Maya sites.

“Xunantunich” is from Mayan words for noble lady and stone for sculpture.  It is a modern name, the original name remaining, as yet, unknown. The “Stone Woman” refers to the ghost of a woman claimed by several people to inhabit the site, beginning in 1892. She is dressed completely in white, and has fire-red glowing eyes. She generally appears in front of “El Castillo”, ascends the stone stairs, and disappears into a stone wall.

Xunantunich is located in western Belize on top of a ridge beside the Mopan river.    It is thought to have served as a Maya civic ceremonial center, farms having been spread out widely surrounding Xunantunich.


The Maya developed astronomy, mathematics, sophisticate calendrical systems and the first writing system, hieroglyphic, in the Americas.

The Maya were fantastic Builders.  They developed elaborate and highly decorated architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories.  These were all constructed without metal tools, and, amazingly, without the “discovery” of the mechanical use of the wheel.  They cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.

The Maya were skilled agriculturalists, figuring out how to grow corn, beans, squash and cassava.  The developed agriculture methods in difficult places, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, constructing sizeable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater.

The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters.  They built complicated looms for weaving cloth.  They devised a rainbow of glittery paints made from mica, a mineral that still has technological uses today.

Until recently, people believed that vulcanization–combining rubber with other materials to make it more durable–was discovered by the American, Charles Goodyear, in the 19th century. However, historians now think that the Maya were producing rubber products for about 3,000 years, having combined the rubber tree and the morning-glory plant, producing water-resistant cloths, glue, bindings for books, figurines and the large rubber balls used in the ritual game known as pokatok.


For more stories from Central America on this website, click here.



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