Mayapan and its confederacy disintegrates. Political power in northern Yucatan reverts to provincial centers, often at war with each other. Coastal Caribbean regions with rich marine resources experience population growth. Mercantile activities and maritime trade form the economic basis for many small, independent centers. In the central Maya area, the Petén lowlands remain sparsely populated. In the Guatemalan highlands, the K’iche’ are still the most numerous and powerful group. Other independent groups, occupying fortified hilltop strongholds, feud over territory, access to resources, and trade routes. Art and architecture continue to manifest strong central Mexican influence in imagery and style, without the artistry and sophistication found in Mexico. Ceremonial and elite residential architecture throughout the Maya region is roughly constructed of uneven stonework covered with heavy layers of plaster, often carrying fresco murals. Incense burners, many of large size and multipiece construction, are mass-produced for use in public and private rituals.
In the early sixteenth century, Spaniards sailing from the Caribbean islands arrive on the coast of Yucatan. Others coming from Mexico penetrate the southern Maya area. The Captaincy-General of Guatemala is established under the jurisdiction of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.
The K’iche’ kingdom expands aggressively, leading to control of most of the Guatemalan highlands and parts of the cacao-producing Pacific coast lands.
The rulers of Mayapan erect stelae, tall stone slabs covered with relief sculpture, a common practice in the central Maya area a thousand years earlier. Now largely eroded, they depict costumed individuals, seemingly engaged in ritual activity.
The island of Cozumel, off the northeast coast of Yucatan, is a flourishing trading port and an important pilgrimage center. Women from all over Yucatan come to worship at shrines containing sculptures with the image of the Maya moon goddess Ixchel, patroness of childbirth, pregnancy, and fertility.
A revolt among competing ruling groups breaks out in Mayapan. The walled city is destroyed and eventually abandoned. The region is divided into at least sixteen autonomous provinces ruled by independent lords.
Utatlán, the K’iche’ capital, is an impressive city; its public stone architecture is built in central Mexican style. At its center is a large double temple with two frontal stairways, much like the Great Temple of the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan, and a ballcourt.
Simple, monochromatic ceramics are produced and censers, modeled of coarse clay and brightly colored, continue to be made in large numbers throughout northern Yucatan. Many of the censers depict the long-nosed, fanged rain god Chac; they are probably used in fertility rituals in household settings.
The Kaqchikel in southern Guatemala establish their own state independent of K’iche’ control, to the south and east of Utatlán. They build their own fortified capital at Iximché. It features four ceremonial plazas with platforms and temples, two ballcourts, and a number of elite residences. The interior walls of the largest temple are decorated with polychrome frescoes in hybrid Maya-Puebla-Mixteca style.
The K’iche’ empire in the Guatemalan highlands disintegrates; it continues as a small kingdom.
The Soconusco region on the Pacific coast, still controlled by the K’iche’, is conquered by the Aztecs of central Mexico. They wish to secure a steady supply of luxury materials such as colorful feathers, animal skins, amber, and especially cacao.
At Iximché, an important individual, perhaps the son of the co-founder of the Kaqchikel state, is buried near the main temple. He wears a headband of gold and a necklace with ten small jaguar heads and thirty-eight beads cast in gold, probably imports from either central Mexico or Central America.
The ceremonial precinct of Tulum on the Caribbean coast comprises several temples, shrines, and platforms. The Castillo is the tallest structure; it has a single central stairway leading to a 25-foot high platform with a flat-roofed temple. Feathered-serpent columns flank the temple doorway as at the main ceremonial buildings at Chichén Itzá in northern Yucatan and Tula in central Mexico.
The Spaniard Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (died 1517) arrives in Yucatan. He dies of wounds inflicted by Maya warriors at Champotón.
Following the defeat of the Aztecs in central Mexico, Pedro de Alvarado (1485–1541) reaches the Guatemalan highlands. He engages in a long battle to subdue the local populations in the southern Maya area.
In the north, Francisco de Montejo (1479–1548) undertakes the prolonged Spanish struggle to conquer numerous independent Maya groups.
Alvarado defeats the K’iche’ and Kaqchikel, who are weakened by disease and bitter rivalries between themselves. Utatlán and Iximché, their capital cities, are ravaged and burned to the ground.
Almost the entire southern Maya region is under Spanish control. Sporadic rebellions against the Spaniards’ harsh treatment of the natives continue.
Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, today known as Antigua, is founded in the southern mountains. It will eventually become the most important city in the Americas between Mexico City and Lima, Peru.
The Spaniards establish a capital in northern Yucatan at Mérida. The town is made a bishopric. Montejo builds his residence on the town square. He is plagued by continued native uprisings.
Catholic priests, and in particular Franciscan friars, arrive in Yucatan to convert the population to the Catholic faith. They build a network of huge, fortresslike monasteries, often on the sites of former Maya temples.
Brutalities by the invaders combined with the demands of tribute cause many natives to flee to the unconquered interior of the Yucatan peninsula. They concentrate in the area around Lake Petén Itzá and offer strong resistance.
The Captaincy-General of Guatemala is created incorporating the lands from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec south to the swampy lowlands of southern Panama. It is under the authority of the viceroy of New Spain.
The cathedral of Mérida is built on top of the ruins of a Maya shrine.
In the auto-da-fé in the town of Maní in northern Yucatan, the Franciscan friar Diego de Landa (1524–1579) burns all Maya hieroglyphic books. The Council of the Indies in Spain condemns his actions, forcing him to return to Spain.
In Spain, Diego de Landa writes an extensive account of the Yucatecan Maya, now called Relación de las cosas de Yucatán.
Highland Maya authors, after learning the Roman alphabet, write in their own language the Popol Vuh, or “council book.” The three-part book relates the story of the creation of the earth and its first inhabitants; the story of the Hero Twins and their forebears; and the legendary history of the founding of the K’iche’ dynasties.
The native populations of the entire Maya area are decimated by warfare, epidemic disease, and the consequences of slavery, forced labor, and abuse suffered at the hands of the invaders.
In several towns on the Yucatan peninsula, a number of texts are written in the Maya Yucatec language, using European script and paper. The books are known as Chilam Balam and relate the history, religion, ritual, literature, astronomy, and medicine of local peoples.
English-speaking populations—the descendants of African slaves, logwood cutters, and pirates—settle along the coast of present-day Belize. Through intermarriage they create a new variant of Maya culture.
“Maya Area, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08®ion=cana (October 2004)