The earliest known examples of Mesoamerican pottery have been found along the Pacific coast from Chiapas, in Mexico, south and east to El Salvador.
Scholars subdivide these ceramic styles into three phases: Barra (c. 1850–1650 b.c.e.), which apparently emerged from an earlier tradition of gourd containers; the more sophisticated Locona (c. 1650–1500 b.c.e.); and the more elaborate and diverse Ocos (c. 1500–1200 b.c.e.).
Handcrafted clay-fired figurines, many with highly individualized styles and motifs, also proliferated during this period. A wide variety of other goods made from perishable materials, including textiles, baskets, and nets, were also likely common, though they have left few traces in the archaeological record.
The origins of complex society in the Maya zone have been traced to the Pacific coast Locona phase. Evidence includes differential house sizes, part-time craft specialization, and funerary practices.
Excavations at Paso de la Amada, Chiapas, have unearthed one house considerably larger than others at the site, and renovated at least nine times, suggesting both growing social differentiation and high spiritual and aesthetic value placed on continuity of place and homage to ancestors.
The superimposition of dwellings and other buildings around a previously sanctified place is characteristic of Maya (and Mesoamerican) construction practices generally.
A nearby site has revealed a burial of a small child adorned with a mica mirror, indicating the growing importance of hereditary inequality. Further east along the coast of contemporary Belize, the Early Preclassic saw the growth of numerous maritime settlements, founded during the late Archaic (c.3000 b.c.e.) that by the Middle Preclassic had expanded west into the interior.
Similar developments may have been taking place in the highlands as well, though subsequent volcanic activity likely buried these settlements, rendering them inaccessible and thus creating an evidentiary bias in the archaeological record.
Other important Early Preclassic sites have been excavated in Honduras (Copán Valley, Cuyamel Cave, Puerto Escondido) and El Salvador (Chalchuapa). The inhabitants of these and other Early Preclassic settlements made their living through a combination of swidden agriculture, fishing, hunting, and gathering.
Bone isotope analyses show that maize constituted less than 30 percent of their diet, far less than the average for many contemporary Maya, which approaches 75 percent. Extant pottery from this period indicates the emergence and spread of a shared corpus of religious symbols, beliefs, and concepts that formed the basis for later cultural developments.
The Middle Preclassic (1000–400 b.c.e.) witnessed growing social complexity among coastal and piedmont communities and the expansion of complex societies into the highlands and, to a lesser extent, the lowlands. Social differentiation intensified, as symbols of status and power came increasingly under the control of a small group of rulers and elites.
Prestige items such as mirrors, masks, ear spools, blood letters, and specialized vessels often made or adorned with precious minerals or stones (jade, obsidian, pyrite, and others) became increasingly common and elaborate.
A shared body of religious beliefs, ritualized and controlled by a small class of ruler-priests, served as the ideological underpinnings of an increasingly unequal society. Public works also grew in size and complexity, indicating a growing degree of elite control over surplus labor.
One of the largest of the Middle Preclassic sites is La Blanca along the Río Naranjo on the Pacific coastal plain in contemporary Guatemala. Mostly destroyed by modern development, the site covered 99 acres and included at least 40 smaller houses and four large earthen mounds covering the ruins of temples or other public works.
The largest of these latter measured 182,987 sq. feet at its base and rose more than 82 feet high, making it one of the largest structures in Mesoamerica at the time.
The polity, which flourished from 900 to 650 b.c.e. and was abandoned 50 years later, ruled an estimated 60 settlements in an area of perhaps 127 sq. miles administered through at least two secondary centers.
These patterns of growth and collapse, mounting social differentiation, and multitiered administrative hierarchy typified the later rise, expansion, and decline of scores of city-states across the Maya region.
Other important Pacific coast Middle Preclassic sites include El Mesak and El Ujuxte, both of which, along with La Blanca, show close economic and cultural contact with the Olmec civilization far to the north along the Gulf of Mexico littoral.
In the highlands the city of Kaminaljuyú (place of the ancient ones) grew to become the largest highland Preclassic Maya capital. Founded in the Early Preclassic and eventually covering some 2 sq. miles, the city extended its reach to dominate numerous satellite settlements by around 500 b.c.e., waxing and waning in power until its final collapse toward the end of the Classic—some 2,000 years after its founding.
Already by the Middle Preclassic there is evidence for extensive earthworks, canals, temples, and other public works, along with a carved monument depicting a succession of rulers seated on thrones receiving homage from bound and kneeling captives.
Other highland Middle Preclassic centers include El Portón and the adjacent burial site of Las Mangales, which provides clear evidence of warfare, tribute, and sacrifice of war captives.
This growing public expenditure of labor, social differentiation, and militarism along the coast and in the highlands during the Middle Preclassic contrast with the simpler constructions and relative egalitarianism found in the lowlands to the north.
Still, the overall trajectories are very similar, with the lowlands having been settled later. The most intensively studied lowland centers in the Middle Preclassic include Altar de Sacrificios and Nakbé in Guatemala, and Blackman Eddy, Cuello, K’axob, and Cahal Pech in Belize.
In particular, the El Mirador Basin at the northernmost tip of the contemporary Guatemalan Petén (where the Nakbé ruins are located) saw the rapid development of numerous major urban centers, including El Mirador, Wakna, and Tintal.
Also during the Middle Preclassic, the inhabitants at more than 20 sites in the lowlands of northwestern Yucatán built sizable urban centers with characteristic Maya ball courts and temple complexes.
The Middle Preclassic, in short, was a period of rapid transformation and growth across much of the Maya zone. Large urban centers with accompanying monumental architecture—including temples, plazas, palaces, ball courts, causeways, and elaborately carved monuments—sprang up over the course of just two or three centuries, dotting much of the landscape by the end of the period.
This rapid growth suggests a high degree of centralized control over surplus labor, as well as deepening institutionalization of inherited inequalities, though to date no tombs of lowland Middle Preclassic rulers have been uncovered. Just as significant, the evidence also shows many signs of trade and exchange and of intensifying competition, conflict, and warfare between these emergent polities.
The Late Preclassic (400 b.c.e.–100 c.e.) saw the emergence of what is conventionally termed civilization across the Maya zone. The period as a whole was characterized by surging populations, deepening social stratification, increasing centralization of political power, expanding public works, heightening militarism and warfare, and, especially significant, the full development of writing and calendrics.
The origins of Mayan writing during the Middle Preclassic remain obscure, with evidence of both Isthmian influence from the Veracruz region to the north and of independent invention.
But whatever its specific origins, Mayan writing reached full flower during the Late Preclassic, as did the practice of dating events from a fixed point in time in the past, the so-called Long Count. Surviving artifacts with Long Count dates permit scholars to determine chronologies and sequences of events with considerable accuracy.
The largest and most important polity in the southern Maya zone in the Late Preclassic was Kaminaljuyú. Control of quarries with valued minerals combined with control over vital trade routes—both north to south and east to west—permitted the city’s rulers to consolidate their power over an area of hundreds of sq. miles.
Sadly, because this site lies adjacent to contemporary Guatemala City, most of it has been destroyed by commercial and residential development. Other important Late Preclassic sites in the south include El Ujuxte, Tak’alik Ab’aj, Chocola, Chalchuapa, and El Guayabal in the Copán Valley in contemporary Honduras.
In the lowlands to the north the largest polity of this period was El Mirador, which, like Kaminaljuyú, was the center of an expansive regional trade and political network.
With a massive triadic pyramid at its western edge (a structure dubbed El Tigre), and its ceremonial and civic core extending about a mile to the east—a core that included temples, palaces, ball courts, tombs, and vaulted masonry buildings—El Mirador rivaled in size and complexity the largest Classic Period urban centers, including Tikal and Palenque. Some scholars consider El Mirador the earliest preindustrial state (as opposed to chieftaincy) to emerge in the Maya lowlands.
Other important Late Preclassic lowland sites include Cerros, Nohmul, Lamanai, Tikal, Uaxactún, and San Bartolo (the latter, not discovered by archaeologists until 2001, contained some of the most magnificent Maya murals ever uncovered, pushing the date of the full flowering of Maya art back centuries, to at least 100 b.c.e.).
For reasons that remain murky these and other Late Preclassic centers underwent a period of precipitous decline during the Terminal Preclassic (100–250 c.e.). Some have pointed to the catastrophic eruption of Ilopango volcano (near contemporary San Salvador), which covered thousands of sq. miles in ash and rendered the entire area within a 62-mile radius uninhabitable for at least a century, as partly responsible. Others have suggested that shifts in migratory patterns, disruptions in trade routes, ecological bottlenecks, dynastic crises, and other factors also played a role.
Whatever the exact causes, it is clear that many important Maya polities experienced dramatic declines during the Terminal Preclassic, setting the stage for the extraordinary cultural, economic, and political renaissance of the Classic Period.