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Late PreClassic


Late Preclassic (300 B.C. – A.D. 300)

During the Late Preclassic period population continued to increase throughout the Maya area.  Many new sites were founded and those that were established before continued the developments that were began in the Middle Preclassic.  As we noted above, many important centers lay along trade routes that connected this area with the highlands and the coastal regions of Mesoamerica.  Increased trade fostered contact with other communities and new ideas were constantly exchanged from region to region.

Previously it was assumed that Maya civilization was a product of the Classic period.  Today this view has changed and we now know that all the major achievements of ancient Maya civilization were in place by the Late Preclassic, prior to the commencement of the Christian era.  Characteristic features of Late Preclassic Maya culture include the use of mathematics, calendrics, and writing.  It is during this time that we first begin to see the production of carved monuments such as stelae (vertically standing monolithic rocks) and altars.  Present evidence suggests that these monuments were initially produced in the highlands and the Pacific coastal regions of Chiapas and Guatemala (particularly at sites such as Izapa, El Baul, Kaminaljuyu and El Porton).  In the lowlands of Belize and the Peten a stucco mask tradition (with masks flanking the stairways of temples) may have preceded the use of monuments.  Preclassic stelae, however, have been found at Cahal Pech, Actuncan, Cuello, Nakbe and El Mirador.  The Cahal Pech stela (Stela 9) is dated before the time of Christ and represents the earliest carved monument yet discovered in Belize if not the Maya lowlands.  

During the Late Preclassic period monumental architecture becomes more common and we see the earliest corbelled vaults (or false arches) erected within tombs that are enclosed by important temples.  Ceramic styles also become more uniform cross-regionally and the production of polychrome (painted in three or more colours) pottery begins to become both popular and more widespread.  Most of the new painted pottery was placed in the tombs and burials of elite rulers who now displayed marked differences in status with their subjects.

altImportant Late Preclassic cities in Belize include Lamanai, Cerros, Cahal Pech, Actuncan, Nohmul, and La Milpa.  At Lamanai the most imposing temple pyramid, Structure N-10-43, rises more than 100 ft and was completely constructed in Late Preclassic times.  Of similar age is Str. 5C – 2nd at Cerros.  Both the Lamanai and Cerros temples have large sun god and Venus masks flanking the central stairways of their respective structures.  In the Peten, large Preclassic architecture has also been discovered at Uaxactun, El Mirador and Tikal.  The El Tigre and Danta Groups at El Mirador represent the most imposing Late Preclassic architecture yet found in the Maya lowlands.  Indeed, this predominantly Late Preclassic city rivals any of the later Classic period sites in the Maya area.  Coeval or contemporary developments in the Peten can be found in Group E at Uaxactun and the Mundo Perdido section of Tikal.  To the north, in the state of Campeche, Mexico, lie the sites of Edzna and Calakmul.  Preclassic developments at Edzna include a system of canals that extend some 22 kilometers from the site center.  Further east, in the Yucatan, are other important centers such as Komchen, Yaxuna, and  Dzibilchaltun.  Located along the north coast of the Yucatan, Komchen is known to have served as the primary exporter of salt at this time.