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Early PreClassic


Preclassic Period (2500 B.C. – A.D. 300)

To better understand the developments that ensued during the Preclassic period we subdivide this segment of Maya prehistory into three phases: early, middle and late.

Early Preclassic (2500 – 1000 B.C.)

Despite many years of research, this phase of Maya prehistory remains largely undocumented and poorly understood. What we do know is that sometime between the end of the Archaic period and the start of the Early Preclassic some of the first agricultural communities were established in the Maya area.  Research by Dr. Mary Pohl (Florida State University) in the Orange Walk and Corozal Districts noted that the earliest settlements were relatively small and that people were still experimenting with the process of plant domestication. The early settlers also relied heavily on the consumption of terrestrial and aquatic animal resources for protein.  Some of their primary tools included large stone hoes, grinding stones, and wooden implements.  Because there is little or no evidence for the production of pottery, some researchers refer to this transitional stage as the preceramic period.

The most difficult question facing archaeologists with an interest in the Early Preclassic has to do with the cultural identity of the early settlers.  Most believe that early Maya-speaking farmers first settled along the Pacific coast of Guatemala and Chiapas or in the Gulf Coast of Veracruz-Tabasco and did not move into the Maya lowlands (Belize, the Peten Province of Guatemala and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula) until about 1200 B.C. If this is true it could mean that the first agricultural settlements were not those of Maya people.  Instead it would suggest that people of Maya culture immigrated later into Belize and the Peten and either displaced or intermarried with existing Archaic (preceramic) populations like those recorded by Dr. Pohl.

Today the best evidence for early Maya communities in Belize has been discovered in the Orange Walk and Corozal Districts in the north, and in the Cayo District to the west. It should be noted, however, that none of these communities appear to have been occupied prior to 1200 B.C.  In other words, they were settled toward the end of the Early Preclassic period.  The earliest Maya villages found in northern Belize were discovered at Cuello, Colha,  (Orange Walk) and Santa Rita (Corozal).  Work by Dr. Norman Hammond (Boston University) at Cuello documented that the site was settled around 1200 B.C. The early Cuello inhabitants constructed low apsidal (oval) platforms out of sascab, white lime and stone on which they erected their thatch houses.  Although most structures were residential, a few were reserved for ritual purposes.  One such building at Cuello contained the skeletal remains of more than 20 individuals who may have been sacrificed to commemorate the construction of the shrine.  The Maya at Cuello subsisted primarily on shell fish, deer, several small mammals, corn, beans, squash and a variety of other plants. They also produced ceramics – referred to as Swasey pottery  -- that was relatively simple in form and predominantly red in colour.

Investigations in the Cayo District by Dr. Jaime Awe (Department of Archaeology) at Cahal Pech and Dr. Jim Garber (Southwest Texas State University) at Blackman Eddy recorded patterns that are broadly similar to that of Cuello.  The first Maya settlers in Cayo appear to have moved into the area around 1200 B.C.  They established their villages on the hills overlooking the major river systems.  From their hilltop communities they farmed the rich alluvial valleys, hunted wild game, and collected many jute and other freshwater snails for consumption. Like the colonizers of Cuello, the early Maya in the Belize River Valley constructed large and small apsidal platforms on which they built wattle and daub buildings with thatched roofs.  Fragments of preserved stucco at Cahal Pech suggest that the plaster walls of these buildings were painted in red and white bands.  Some structures also served as shrines where important rituals were conducted by members of the community.  Work by Dr. Awe further noted that the Early Preclassic Maya of Belize traded and exchanged goods with local and distant people.  From the highlands and Motagua Valley of Guatemala the Cahal Pech Maya imported obsidian, jade and iron pyrite.  From the Caribbean coast they acquired conch shells for jewelry and salted (?) reef fish for consumption. Contact with the Olmec people in Veracruz is suggested by the presence of various Olmec-like symbols that were carved and painted on their relatively sophisticated pottery.