Mayan History

Nobody really knows exactly why they came to this narrow river valley in what is now western Honduras but for hundreds of years, the ancient Maya lived here and achieved a level of civilization unmatched in the Americas until many centuries later.

In the ancient Maya world, Copan was a famous polity; its site glyph appeared on numerous monuments throughout the Maya world. By the 700s AD, in the tropical pine forests of the Copan Valley, more than 27,000 people lived and worked. Here, the Maya refined their significant developments in commerce, urban planning, mathematics, astronomy, writing, architecture and art.

The Ancient Maya

The Classic Period of Maya art and architecture was between 250 – 900 AD. This includes Copan’s Golden Age: 420 – 820 AD. Sixteen rulers guided the fortunes of Copan’s citizens for those 400 years. The massive architecture and refined beauty of the carved stone monuments leaves us a reminder of the greatness of these ancient Americans.                                                                                          

Copan Features:

  • Hundreds of beautifully carved glyphs, a testament to one of the first five writing systems ever developed by humankind
  • Over 3 km of archaeologists’ tunnels representing the largest example of “arthroscopic archaeology” in the Maya world
  • The most deeply and realistically carved portraits of Maya rulers
  • The best-preserved Maya temple – “Rosalila”
  • The longest text in the pre-Contact Americas – the Hieroglyphic Stairway
  • The most renowned history of modern archaeology in the Maya world
  • UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1980.

Rich Culture in a Poor Land: The extensive ancient city moved renowned 19th Century English archaeologist Sylvanus Morley to describe Copan as “the Athens of the New World”, but in a modern country where per capita income is $810 a year, it is difficult to find the resources to protect and research Copan’s unique architecture, sculpture, and artifacts.

Maya Timelines

Maya history began more than three thousand years ago and has been shaped by the migrations of early peoples from Asia, climate changes, tremendous innovation during a five hundred year period of world-level accomplishments, European contact in the 16th Century, the Spanish conquest of Central America and the resulting domination of regional, mestizo national governments.

Extensive archaeology and other research has identified a number of periods by which to understand the Maya within the context of Native Middle American history.

Copan Timelines

1576 – 2020
While the ancient Maya history of Copan is fascinating, the archaeological history of the site is a captivating story of its own. For hundreds of years, the mystery, art and architecture of the ancient Maya have attracted men and women with a thirst for adventure, precious objects, fame and romance.

Colonel Juan Galindo (a.k.a. Irishman John Gallagher), commander of Flores, Peten, Guatemala, “excavates” the tomb that tourists can see in the sub-jaguar tunnels of Copan. His report is published in Europe.

English archaeologist Alfred Maudslay visits Copan and creates the first detailed map of the site, including Temples 11, 16, 20 and 22 (Temple 20 later fell into the Copan River), and the Hieroglyphic Stairway of Temple 26. This is the first serious archaeological excavation at Copan. Maudslay’s incredibly detailed maps and evocative photographs are published in Biologia Centrali Americana (1889-1902).

Maudslay continues excavations now as director of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University’s project at Copan, discovering Temple 21a, Tomb 1 and many new stelae.

Sylvanus G. Morley visits Copan repeatedly and publishes The Inscriptions at Copan in 1920.

The Carnegie years. Copan is explored by Sylvanus G. Morley, Gustav Stromsvik, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, Edward Shook, and Jesus Nunez Chinchilla, the first Honduran archaeologist, who later founds the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History in 1952. The stone fountain (which still stands in the town’s main plaza) is designed and built for the village by Gustav Stromsvik and Tatiana Proskouriakoff. The Copan River is diverted to protect the archaeological site; Temples 11, 22, 26 (including the Hieroglyphic Staircase) and the ball court are reconstructed. The East/Jaguar Courtyard of the acropolis is reconstructed, the first tunnels are excavated and the first museum in the town of Copan is created.

Although activity at Copan slows down from the previous decade, significant excavations continue in the Maya world along with great advances in Maya research.

Harvard University archaeologists Gordon Willey and student Richard Leventhal begin settlement survey and work in the Copan Valley away from the main site.

The government of Honduras begins the first phase of a major archaeological project under the direction of French archaeologist Claude Baudez of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. A significant settlement survey is undertaken, as well as serious sculpture studies and the excavation of Temples 4 and 18. The town of Copan gets its first sewer system.

The second phase of the Honduran government-sponsored project is directed by William Sanders of Penn State University. The project finishes the settlement surveys and excavates Las Sepulturas. The town of Copan gets regular electricity.

William Fash of Northern Illinois State University, Barbara Fash and Rudy Larios begin the Copan Mosaics project to record and protect Copan’s hundreds of stone mosaic sculptures.

The Copan Acropolis Archaeological Project and its successors begin excavations supervised by an international team of scholars. Building upon the advances in Maya knowledge from the 1960s-1990s, the most impressive and richest tombs and temples are discovered at Copan. The probable tomb of founder of the Copan dynasty, K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’, is excavated by Dr. Robert Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania. During this exciting time, three kilometers of tunnels are dug under the acropolis, Honduran archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia discovers the most complete Maya temple found to date – “Rosalila”, the East court is excavated, the Hieroglyphic Stairway continues to be deciphered and restored, and Temple 16 and El Cementerio are excavated. The Copan Sculpture Museum opens to rave reviews in 1996.

2011 Guaras en Libertad La Belleza Regresa a bilateral project between the Copan Association and the Macaw Mountain Bird Reserve begins.  The The Copan Acropolis Archaeological Project and its successors begin excavations supervised by an international team of scholars. Building upon the adUsing the latest technology, researchers are able to excavate deep in tunnels, remotely sense underneath the ground, discover where offerings were made, recreate facial features and lifestyles from ancient bones and reconstruct ancient environments. Scholars analyze and write about a variety of important discoveries. Better management plans for the archaeological park are discussed; an interpretive center for Honduran children opens in 2002.

Present and Future
2011 Guaras en Libertad La Belleza Regresa a bilateral project between the Copan Association and the Macaw Mountain Bird Reserve begins.  The award winning project has brought worldwide attention to Honduras about conservation of the Scarlet Macaw the national bird of Honduras.  Large-scale infrastructure and tourism projects have begun with a regional airport inaugurated in December 2014.

Mesoamerican Timelines
  • Migration from Asia across Bering Strait: 30,000-11,000 B.C.
  • Pre Classic Maya: 2000 B.C. – A.D. 250
  • Olmec Culture: 1500 B.C. – A.D.100
  • Teotihuacan Culture: 150 B.C – A.D. 600
  • Classic Maya: A.D. 250 – 900
  • Post Classic Maya: A.D. 900 – 1600
  • Spanish Colonial Period: A.D. 1500 – 1800
  • Independent nations of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras & El Salvador: A.D. 1821 to the present


QUESTION: Did the Maya have wars?

ANSWER: Yes. Though we know little about how an actual battle would have been fought, but we do know that the Maya waged war. There is little evidence of bow and arrow and the Maya had no metal for guns or knives. They fought their battles with spear-throwers (atlatl), hand to hand with wooden swords, lances and axes. The winners often took captives back home either to be sacrificed, made into servants, kept as prisoners in the palace court for political reasons or to serve as replacements for people lost due to war and disease.

QUESTION: Did the Maya sacrifice humans?

ANSWER: Yes, but this was not a frequent ritual. Many of those sacrificed were captives taken in battle. Sacrifice was generally reserved for elite, political captives (kings were at times beheaded). Non-elite captives were seldom sacrificed. Maya royalty would also sacrifice drops of their own blood as personal offerings to the gods.

QUESTION: Did beings from outer space build Copan, or any other Maya city?

ANSWER: No. Evidence shows that the ancestors of contemporary Maya peoples built the ancient cities. There is no evidence that people from other parts of the world – or beings from outer space – helped the Maya build these impressive cities.

QUESTION: Were all the Maya rulers men?

ANSWER: Although no female rulers are currently known at Copan, archaeologists recently excavated the largest and most complex tomb ever found at Copan, which contained the remains of a woman. She was a local woman who archaeologists believe was the wife of the founder of the Copan dynasty. At Palenque, Naranjo and a few other Maya sites, women did hold the position of ruler.

QUESTION: Did the losers get killed after the ball game?

ANSWER: The ancient American ball game was played for over 1600 years in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and it is still played in parts of Mexico. Like futbol (soccer), the ballgame’s rules have changed over time, and we do not know all of the changes. At some sites and during certain eras, there is evidence that some losers were sacrificed, but in most cases these games did not result in sacrifice.

QUESTION: Did the Maya live inside the pyramids?

ANSWER: No, the Maya did not live inside the pyramids; these are solid structures. Pyramids are typically made for supporting temples that were the symbolic houses of supernatural beings, such as specific gods and ancestors. The Maya did live, work, study and worship their gods in the buildings that were built on top of the pyramids.

QUESTION: Are the pyramids tombs, like in Egypt?

ANSWER: No, most pyramids are not technically tombs. The structures that look like pyramids were originally stepped terraces built to support a building on top. There are several different types of temples and the Maya used one type of pyramid temple for tombs. These special tomb-temples were funerary shrines dedicated to the memory of an ancestral king or other important official.

QUESTION: Where did the Maya come from?

ANSWER: The Maya creation stories tell of the Maya being created from cornmeal by a creator god. Some say that the Maya people walked fully formed out of a cave from underneath a big mountain after gods wanted someone to worship them. There is modern scientific evidence that the Maya (and perhaps all American Indians) are the descendants of people who migrated to the Americas from Asia as early as 26,000 years ago.

QUESTION: Why is it called Copan? And what does that name mean? What did the Maya call it?

ANSWER: It is called Copan because Nahuatl speakers who moved into this area in the 1400s called it Copantl, which means “little bridge.” We do not know what the ancient Maya called their city.

QUESTION: Did the Maya really eat dogs?

ANSWER: Yes. The Maya and other Native Americans raised dogs for hunting, guardians, and pets, much the way we do. There were special breeds that were used for food – usually for special rituals – not everyday meals. Maya dogs raised for food were hairless and did not bark. These were not their pets.

QUESTION: Did the Maya crawl around in the tunnels inside the pyramids?

ANSWER: No, the tunnels inside the pyramids were dug by modern archaeologists in order to learn about the history of the buildings by studying the stacked layers of them. You can now enter one of these tunnels and see the temple called Rosalila.

QUESTION: Did the trees grow out of the buildings while the Maya were here, too?

ANSWER: No. The Maya did have fruit orchards and they planted trees around the city, but the trees you see today coming out from the walls and temples have grown since the ancient Maya abandoned the site in the 800s.

QUESTION: When did the ancient Maya live at the site of Copan?

ANSWER: The Classic period of Maya architecture and art at Copan was from about 400 to about 820 AD. Maya people inhabited the Copan valley many centuries before the Classic period, and they still live in this lovely valley.


The Maya word for “lord” and for “high king”

A high priest

A device which helps a warrior to throw a spear much farther

A class of important gods

Balam (pl. Balamob)
Jaguar spirit. There are traditionally four of these, which watch to keep evil away from Maya villages and householders, even today. The balamob were benevolent but feared, and acted as guardians of the cornfields.

A natural waterhole. Cenote is a corruption by the Spanish of the Maya word dzonot, a large circular sink-hole created by the collapse of limestone caves. The water in cenotes is filtered through limestone and constituted one of the primary sources of drinking water for the Maya. Patterns of settlement among the early Maya often followed the location of cenotes.

The juice of the sapodilla tree, used in the making of chewing gum

Indian woman’s traditional full-length skirt

One of the three Maya calendars, and the one which corresponds most closely to ours in length. The haab is also known as the “Vague Year” by archaeologists, since it is 365 days in length, or about a quarter day short of the actual solar year.

Halach Uinic
Literally, “the chief of men” – a leader or king

A traditional woven cotton Maya woman’s shirt or dress, worn leaving the shoulders bare

Sustenance or alms, used as an offering to the gods. It could be any precious substance, such as blood, semen, sap, maize, dough, gum from trees, rubber, and so on. The god of sustenance is named K’awil.

Sun or day. Many Maya rulers names include the title K’inich.

A region of rain forest between the Petén and the eastern slopes of the Chiapas highlands. Also refers to the Maya people who inhabit this region.

A person of mixed Maya-Spanish heritage

A square of cloth, used as a cloak or blanket and still worn by the Maya today.

The Maya originated around 2600 B.C. and rose to prominence around A.D. 250 in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Inheriting the inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations, the Maya developed astronomy, calendrical systems, hieroglyphic writing, ceremonial architecture, and masonry without metal tools. Maya civilization started to decline around A.D. 900, although some peripheral centers continued to thrive until the Spanish conquest in the early sixteenth century.

The language group of the Maya peoples, composed of 28 mutually unintelligible languages. (The term should be reserved for Mayan languages. The word “Maya” should be used for the name of the people, either as a noun or an adjective.)

An ethno-geographical area in Middle America, which included Guatemala, Belize, the northwestern edges of Honduras and El Salvador, and all of Mexico.

A Maya military commander

A highly elaborate Mesoamerican culture on the Mexican gulf coast which was at its height from 1200 to 600 B.C. The Olmec influenced the rise and development of the other great civilizations of Mesoamerica, such as the Maya, and were probably the first to develop large religious and ceremonial centers with temple mounds, monumental sculptures, massive altars, and sophisticated systems of drains and lagoons. The Olmec were probably also the first Mesoamericans to devise glyph writing and the 260-day calendar.

The northern portion of Guatemala. Covered for the most part by rain forest, Petén was the center of Classic Maya civilization until its collapse, after which the area was largely abandoned.

The resin of the copal tree, used by the Maya for rubber, chewing gum and incense

A rare Central American bird. It was prized by the Maya kings for its brilliant blue-green feathers. The male bird has a tail close to 60 cm. long. Today this bird is nearing extinction.

Literally, “white road”; a Maya stone causeway linking Maya buildings and settlements.

The Toltecs ruled much of central Mexico from the tenth to twelfth centuries A.D. The Toltecs were the last dominant Mesoamerican culture before the Aztecs.  The Toltec capital was at Tula, 80 kilometres north of Mexico City. The most impressive Toltec ruins, however, are at Chichén Itzá in Yucatán, where a branch of Toltec culture survived beyond the civilization’s fall in central Mexico.

The 260-day Maya calendar, also known as the “Sacred Round”

The five unlucky days in the 365-day haab calendar of the Maya

The first mountain in the Maya creation story. Temple-pyramids are representations of Witz.

The Maya otherworld where people go when they die

Mexican Province.  Yucatan was called the “Land of Turkey and Deer” by the Maya, because of the abundance of edible wildlife found there.

Reading List
  • Migration from Asia across Bering Strait: 30,000-11,000 B.C.

The following is a recommended book list for the Ancient Maya and Mesoamerica. Each section is alphabetized by title.


Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology, D.L. Niehoff and E,A. pool Eds. 2012

A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, Linda Schele and David Freidel (1992)

Copan A Brief History and Guide for the Young Visitor Maria Amalia Guitierrez (2001)

Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens, S. Martin & N. Grube (2008)

Secrets of Two Maya Cities Copan & Tikal, Ricardo Agurcia F. and Juan Antonio Valdes (1994)

Defensive Earthworks at Becan, Campeche, Mexico: Implications for Maya Warfare, David L. Webster (1976)

Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica, Stephen & Margaret Bunson (1996)

Guaras en Libertad La Belleza Regresa Educational Modules Asociacion Copan (2011)

History Carved in Stone, Ricardo Agurcia and William L. Fash (2007)

Lowland Maya Civilization in the Eighth Century A.D., Jeremy A. Sabloff and John S. Henderson (1989)

Maya Iconography, Elizabeth P. Benson and Gillett G. Griffin (Editors) (1988)

Maya: History and Religion, J. Eric Thompson (1972)

Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Michael D. Coe (2019)

Museo Escolar casa K’inich Guia para los Maestros Dorie Reents-Budet (2018)

Protecting Sacred Space Ricardo Agurcia, Payson Sheets, Karl Taube (2016)

Pyramids and Palaces, Monsters and Masks: The Golden Age of Maya Architecture, Volume I-III, George F. Andrews (1997)

Reinterpreting Prehistory of Central America, Mark Miller Graham, Editor (1993)

Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copan and the Ancient Maya, William L. Fash and Barbara W. Fash (2001)

The Ancient Maya, Robert Sharer (2010)

The House of the Bacabs, Copan, Honduras, David Webster (1989)

The Kingdom of the Sun, Ricardo Agurcia (2007)

The Maya, Michael D. Coe (2015)

The Secrets of Rosalila Ricardo Agurcia (2014)

The Southeast Classic Maya Zone, Elizabeth Hill Boone and Gordon R. Willey (1988)

Understanding the Early Classic at Copan, Robert Sharer, Ellen Bell, Marcello Canuto (2004)

Myth & Religion

Aztec and Maya Myths, Karl Taube (1993)

Gods of the Popol Vuh: Xmukane’, K’ucumatz, Tojil, and Jurakan, Mary H. Preuss (1987)

The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion, Mary Miller and Karl Taube (1997)

The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan, Karl Taube (1992)

The Popol Vuh, Dennis Tedlock (translation) (1996)


Manual de Los Monumentos de Copán, Honduras Vol. 1 (2011)

An Introduction to the Study of Maya Hieroglyphs, S. G. Morley(2013)

An Outline Dictionary of Maya Glyphs, William Gates(2013)

Breaking the Maya Code, Michael D. Coe (2012)

Maya Glyphs: Reading the Past, Stephen D. Houston (1989)

Maya Glyphs: The Verbs, Linda Schele (1982)


The Codex Borgia, Gisele Diaz and Alan Rodgers (1993)

The Codex Nuttall, Zelia Nuttall (Editor) (1975)

The Essential Codex Mendoza, Frances F. Berdan & Patricia Rieff Anawalt (1997)

The Monument Manual of Copan Volume 1 Asociación Copan (2010)


Maya Sculpture of Copan, C.F. Baudez (1994)

A Study of Maya Art, Herbert J. Spinden (1975)

Art, Ideology and the City of Teotihuacan, Janet Catherine Berlo (1992)

Classic Maya Pottery at Dumbarton Oaks, Michael D. Coe (1975)

Collecting the Pre-Columbian Past, Elizabeth Hill Boone (Editor) (1993)

Folk Treasures of Mexico: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection, Marion Oettinger (1990)

Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period, Dorie Reents-Budet (1994)

The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec, Mary Ellen Miller (2019)

The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art, Linda Schele and Mary Miller(1986)

The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property: Whose Culture? Whose Property? Phyllis
Messenger (Editor) (1990)

The Maya of Guatemala: Their Life and Dress, Carmen L. Pettersen (1977)

The Maya Vase Book, Volumes I-IV, Justin Kerr (1989)


Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, John L. Stephens (1969)

Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, Diego de Landa (William Gates, Translator) (2015)

Modern Maya

Common Ground Garden Cookbook Cultural Exchange Project  (2015)

La Cultura Maya en Copan Asociación Copan (2015)

Living Maya, Walter F. Morris, Jr. and Jeffrey J. Foxx (1987)

The Maya’s Own Words: An anthology comprising Abridgments of the Popol-Vuh, Warrior of Rabinal, and Selections from the Memorial of Solola, the Book of Chilam-Balam of Chumayel, and the Title of the Lords of Totonicapan, by Thomas Ballantine Irving (Editor) (1985)

Time and the Highland Maya, Barbara Tedlock (1992)

Tropical Nature & Adventure

Adventuring in Central America (Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama), David Rains Wallace (1995)

Lessons of the Rainforest, Suzanne Head and Robert Heinzman (Editors) (1990)

The Quetzal and the Macaw, David Rains Wallace (1992)

Lost Kingdoms of the Maya, National Geographic Video (1993)

Sentinels of Silence, Two-time Academy Award winning film Narrated by Orson Welles (in English) or Ricardo Montalban (in Spanish) (1971)

The Last King of Copan, NOVA (1993)

Maya Links