The Ancient Maya Site of Lamanai, Belize

One of the few remaining original ancient Maya city names designated by the Maya that still exists today is Lamanai. This site itself is located in northern Belize on the west bank of the New River Lagoon. The ancient name of Lamanai was recorded by the Spanish in the 16th century and brought to light again by historian Grant Jones through his work in the archives in Seville, Spain. The name Lamanai is loosely translated as “Submerged Crocodile”. Knowing these two facts tells us two very important things, one, the ancient Maya were still residing at Lamanai when the Spanish arrived. And two, the site name indicates the importance of the Morelets’ Crocodile whose remains are rarely found in midden deposits indicating they were rarely consumed due to their important status within the community. As one visits this site it becomes apparent that this translation is fitting because there are numerous representations of crocodiles that appear on ceramics, stone, architecture and accompanying stucco facades.

An estimated 30 – 60,000 Maya may have resided at Lamanai during the height of the civilization and the occupational history well exceeds many other Maya cities with 3,000 years of unbroken human history. This history of occupation carries right through to contact period, and it certainly is the case that the Spanish would not have constructed two churches at this Maya site if there were not a population residing at Lamanai to convert. The first Spanish church, Structure N12-13, dates to approximately AD 1570; it was constructed some time after Lamanai became part of the Spanish encomienda system (royal grant to a Spaniard for the right to labor and tribute a native population, who is also responsible for christianizing the natives). This first church was built over an existing Tulum-style Postclassic building that contained painted murals; in this case it appears the Spanish were attempting to convert the Maya to Catholicism by substituting one religious practice for another. Conversion was difficult and the archaeological evidence for this exists in the form of a burned and destroyed first church and the caching of various figurines around and near the churches in traditional Maya fashion. Although a second Spanish church was constructed, Structure N12-11, ultimately the Spanish were never able to establish a strong hold in this area. It was in AD 1638 that there was a widespread revolt by the Maya that ended in the retreat of the Spanish at least for the time being.

The Late Postclassic and historic/colonial periods at Lamanai are certainly fascinating and are what the majority of current research is focusing on. But the fact that Lamanai has one of the tallest securely dated Preclassic structures in the Maya world, Structure N10-43, indicates that it certainly had a strong foundation upon which to build and thrive. This Preclassic stronghold may have been one of the reasons why Lamanai survived what many other major city-states suffered during the 9th century.

It was during the Late Classic period that there was a decline or collapse of the Maya civilization that consisted of a political and/or economic breakdown, a possible drought, and possibly a population increase that severely stressed the food supply. This decline affected numerous Classic period city-states such as Tikal, Copan, Palenque, and Caracol. During this time these city-states were almost completely abandoned and monumental architecture was no longer constructed, production of pottery declined, and carved stone monuments no longer told the stories of the elite ruling class of the Maya. Lamanai survived this decline or collapse and there are several theories why, one already mentioned is the strong Preclassic foundation, and a second being the construction of the city on a large body of fresh water today called the New River Lagoon. During ancient times, as well as modern, this lagoon provided food, a means of transportation, drinking and bathing water, a sacred haven for the revered crocodile, and a suitable setting to carry out sacred rituals.

Due to Lamanai’s close proximity to the New River Lagoon the ancient Maya residing there may have escaped the possible environmental degradation seen elsewhere. It has also been suggested that Lamanai was fairly isolated from other major cities, we know the Maya never had a central, capital city, and that there were constant conflicts during the Classic period. It may have been the case that Lamanai’s somewhat isolated location, to some extent still the case today, again protected it from this decline or collapse.

Ancient and more recent history of Lamanai (see Belize History: The Maya, Spanish, and British Occupation, by L. Howard) mirrors the development of the young nation of Belize with occupation by the Maya, Spanish, and British. The British commercial pursuits during the colonial period at Lamanai included production of 200 acres of sugar cane by the British who constructed a mill whose success was really never seen during the 15 years of operation from 1860 – 1875. The extensive iron works that were once one of the only steam-operated mills in Belize is located in the western portion of the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve.

Laura J. Howard holds a Masters’ of Science degree in Anthropology with a specilization in Maya archaeology. After researching in Belize for five years after her graduate work she now splits her time between south Florida and Belize. She has been active in Belize tourism and Maya archaeology since 1996, and now has a unique ecotourism company, Beyond Touring, that focuses soley on Belize, the ancient Maya, and natural history. Beyond Touring also offers an authentic cross-cultural experience that allows clients to ‘give back’ to the wonderful areas they visit in Belize. The projects Beyond Touring supports aim to provide sustainable economic endeavors for local residents of Belize, specifically Indian Church Village, located in northern Belize and adjacent to the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve.

Belize or Travel Information: http://www.beyondtouring.com

For Community Development: http://www.beyondtouring.com/Giveback/Scholarship.htm

Posted under History

This post was written by JB on September 12, 2008

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Belize History: The Maya, Spanish, and British Occupation

Belize is formerly known as British Honduras and is a small country of approximately 280,00 people. It is the only English speaking country in Central America and is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy that recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign. Belize, as with other Central American countries (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) and southeastern Mexico, was originally settled by the ancient Maya. There are over two-dozen documented ancient Mayan linguistic groups in this area, three of which currently reside in Belize. The Maya currently make up about 10% of the population of Belize and include the Yucatec in the north near the Yucatan border, the Q’eqchi in the south, near Punta Gorda, and the Mopan, in western Belize near the border town of Benque Viejo del Carmen.

THE MAYA OF BELIZE AND EARLIER

Paleoindian is the earliest time period recorded in Belize thus far (Ca. 11,500 – 8000 BC) this is followed by the Archaic (Ca. 8000 – 900 BC) and the approximate ancient Maya Chronology that follows these preceramic periods include:

* Preclassic – 900 BC to AD 250 (often cited as early as 1500 BC)

* Classic – AD 250 to 900

* Postclassic – AD 900 to 1500

* Historic and Colonial – AD 1500 to Present

Numerous sites and city-states existed throughout Belize that represent these time periods, notably: Cerros, Colha, Cuello, Caracol, Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, Lamanai, Altun Ha, Lubaantun, El Pilar, Santa Rita, and sacred caves that include Barton Creek, Actun Tunichil Muknal, and Che Chem Ha. The occupational history of the Maya in southeast Mexico and Central America is endless especially since today there are over 5 million Maya descendants and Belize is certainly a portion of this.

BELIZE HISTORIC PERIOD

Early 16th century records indicate that in AD 1544 the Maya city of Lamanai, in northern Belize, was to be part of the Spanish encomienda system (royal grant to a Spaniard for the right to labor and tribute a native population, they are also responsible for christianizing the natives). Although there certainly are early reports of Spanish contact in other areas of the New World, the documented reference of Lamanai and the construction of a Spanish church at Lamanai around AD 1570 provide securely dated European settlement influence in Belize.

The Maya society these first Europeans encountered were a very different population that had undergone many transformations since the height of the “Classic Period”. Contact in Belize with Europeans was detrimental to the existing Maya through disease, slavery, and fighting. During the 18th century through logging concessions given to Britain by Spain the modern boundaries of Belize were created. Spain claimed sovereignty but did not settle the land. The British settlers at this time were primarily ex-pirates who were no longer supported by their governments who were now attempting to stamp out piracy. These settlers called for British support and protection from the attacks by the Spanish and remaining Maya populations. The most famous of the British armed forces involvement was the Battle of St. George’s Caye in 1798; it was the battle that marked the end of the Spanish claims to the territory.

MORE RECENT BELIZE HISTORY

It took some two hundred years after Spanish contact for Belize to gain independence from Spain, it was in 1871 that Belize was officially declared a British Crown Colony. After this time both the population and economy grew significantly, the economy primarily centered around forest products of Mahogany, chicle, and logwood. The population increases included groups of African, Garifuna, mestizo (a mix of Spanish and Maya descent), and Maya refugees fleeing the Caste War in Mexico. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a number of Indian and Chinese indentured laborers arrived after the abolition of slavery, and Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian Arabs also began arriving, fleeing the political unrest in the Middle East. It was in the 1950’s that Belize backed a unique settlement with Mennonites from Mexico; this settlement provides Mennonites with sovereignty similar to what Native Americans in the United States were granted.

It was also in 1950 that George Price led the campaign for Belizean Independence. As with other British colonies self-government was achieved in 1964. Due to Guatemala’s continued threat to overtake Belize once the British pulled out, Belize’s true independence did not take place until September 21, 1981. Since Belize needed protection and had no army forces a full time British army remained in Belize until 1994.

Belize is a fascinating country and immigrations through the years have created a unique multi-cultural friendly society.

Belize is formerly known as British Honduras and is a small country of approximately 280,00 people. It is the only English speaking country in Central America and is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy that recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign. Belize, as with other Central American countries (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) and southeastern Mexico, was originally settled by the ancient Maya. There are over two-dozen documented ancient Mayan linguistic groups in this area, three of which currently reside in Belize. The Maya currently make up about 10% of the population of Belize and include the Yucatec in the north near the Yucatan border, the Q’eqchi in the south, near Punta Gorda, and the Mopan, in western Belize near the border town of Benque Viejo del Carmen.

THE MAYA OF BELIZE AND EARLIER

Paleoindian is the earliest time period recorded in Belize thus far (Ca. 11,500 – 8000 BC) this is followed by the Archaic (Ca. 8000 – 900 BC) and the approximate ancient Maya Chronology that follows these preceramic periods include:

* Preclassic – 900 BC to AD 250 (often cited as early as 1500 BC)

* Classic – AD 250 to 900

* Postclassic – AD 900 to 1500

* Historic and Colonial – AD 1500 to Present

Numerous sites and city-states existed throughout Belize that represent these time periods, notably: Cerros, Colha, Cuello, Caracol, Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, Lamanai, Altun Ha, Lubaantun, El Pilar, Santa Rita, and sacred caves that include Barton Creek, Actun Tunichil Muknal, and Che Chem Ha. The occupational history of the Maya in southeast Mexico and Central America is endless especially since today there are over 5 million Maya descendants and Belize is certainly a portion of this.

BELIZE HISTORIC PERIOD

Early 16th century records indicate that in AD 1544 the Maya city of Lamanai, in northern Belize, was to be part of the Spanish encomienda system (royal grant to a Spaniard for the right to labor and tribute a native population, they are also responsible for christianizing the natives). Although there certainly are early reports of Spanish contact in other areas of the New World, the documented reference of Lamanai and the construction of a Spanish church at Lamanai around AD 1570 provide securely dated European settlement influence in Belize.

The Maya society these first Europeans encountered were a very different population that had undergone many transformations since the height of the “Classic Period”. Contact in Belize with Europeans was detrimental to the existing Maya through disease, slavery, and fighting. During the 18th century through logging concessions given to Britain by Spain the modern boundaries of Belize were created. Spain claimed sovereignty but did not settle the land. The British settlers at this time were primarily ex-pirates who were no longer supported by their governments who were now attempting to stamp out piracy. These settlers called for British support and protection from the attacks by the Spanish and remaining Maya populations. The most famous of the British armed forces involvement was the Battle of St. George’s Caye in 1798; it was the battle that marked the end of the Spanish claims to the territory.

MORE RECENT BELIZE HISTORY

It took some two hundred years after Spanish contact for Belize to gain independence from Spain, it was in 1871 that Belize was officially declared a British Crown Colony. After this time both the population and economy grew significantly, the economy primarily centered around forest products of Mahogany, chicle, and logwood. The population increases included groups of African, Garifuna, mestizo (a mix of Spanish and Maya descent), and Maya refugees fleeing the Caste War in Mexico. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a number of Indian and Chinese indentured laborers arrived after the abolition of slavery, and Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian Arabs also began arriving, fleeing the political unrest in the Middle East. It was in the 1950’s that Belize backed a unique settlement with Mennonites from Mexico; this settlement provides Mennonites with sovereignty similar to what Native Americans in the United States were granted.

It was also in 1950 that George Price led the campaign for Belizean Independence. As with other British colonies self-government was achieved in 1964. Due to Guatemala’s continued threat to overtake Belize once the British pulled out, Belize’s true independence did not take place until September 21, 1981. Since Belize needed protection and had no army forces a full time British army remained in Belize until 1994.

Belize is a fascinating country and immigrations through the years have created a unique multi-cultural friendly society.

Belize is formerly known as British Honduras and is a small country of approximately 280,00 people. It is the only English speaking country in Central America and is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy that recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign. Belize, as with other Central American countries (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) and southeastern Mexico, was originally settled by the ancient Maya. There are over two-dozen documented ancient Mayan linguistic groups in this area, three of which currently reside in Belize. The Maya currently make up about 10% of the population of Belize and include the Yucatec in the north near the Yucatan border, the Q’eqchi in the south, near Punta Gorda, and the Mopan, in western Belize near the border town of Benque Viejo del Carmen.

THE MAYA OF BELIZE AND EARLIER

Paleoindian is the earliest time period recorded in Belize thus far (Ca. 11,500 – 8000 BC) this is followed by the Archaic (Ca. 8000 – 900 BC) and the approximate ancient Maya Chronology that follows these preceramic periods include:

* Preclassic – 900 BC to AD 250 (often cited as early as 1500 BC)

* Classic – AD 250 to 900

* Postclassic – AD 900 to 1500

* Historic and Colonial – AD 1500 to Present

Numerous sites and city-states existed throughout Belize that represent these time periods, notably: Cerros, Colha, Cuello, Caracol, Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, Lamanai, Altun Ha, Lubaantun, El Pilar, Santa Rita, and sacred caves that include Barton Creek, Actun Tunichil Muknal, and Che Chem Ha. The occupational history of the Maya in southeast Mexico and Central America is endless especially since today there are over 5 million Maya descendants and Belize is certainly a portion of this.

BELIZE HISTORIC PERIOD

Early 16th century records indicate that in AD 1544 the Maya city of Lamanai, in northern Belize, was to be part of the Spanish encomienda system (royal grant to a Spaniard for the right to labor and tribute a native population, they are also responsible for christianizing the natives). Although there certainly are early reports of Spanish contact in other areas of the New World, the documented reference of Lamanai and the construction of a Spanish church at Lamanai around AD 1570 provide securely dated European settlement influence in Belize.

The Maya society these first Europeans encountered were a very different population that had undergone many transformations since the height of the “Classic Period”. Contact in Belize with Europeans was detrimental to the existing Maya through disease, slavery, and fighting. During the 18th century through logging concessions given to Britain by Spain the modern boundaries of Belize were created. Spain claimed sovereignty but did not settle the land. The British settlers at this time were primarily ex-pirates who were no longer supported by their governments who were now attempting to stamp out piracy. These settlers called for British support and protection from the attacks by the Spanish and remaining Maya populations. The most famous of the British armed forces involvement was the Battle of St. George’s Caye in 1798; it was the battle that marked the end of the Spanish claims to the territory.

MORE RECENT BELIZE HISTORY

It took some two hundred years after Spanish contact for Belize to gain independence from Spain, it was in 1871 that Belize was officially declared a British Crown Colony. After this time both the population and economy grew significantly, the economy primarily centered around forest products of Mahogany, chicle, and logwood. The population increases included groups of African, Garifuna, mestizo (a mix of Spanish and Maya descent), and Maya refugees fleeing the Caste War in Mexico. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a number of Indian and Chinese indentured laborers arrived after the abolition of slavery, and Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian Arabs also began arriving, fleeing the political unrest in the Middle East. It was in the 1950’s that Belize backed a unique settlement with Mennonites from Mexico; this settlement provides Mennonites with sovereignty similar to what Native Americans in the United States were granted.

It was also in 1950 that George Price led the campaign for Belizean Independence. As with other British colonies self-government was achieved in 1964. Due to Guatemala’s continued threat to overtake Belize once the British pulled out, Belize’s true independence did not take place until September 21, 1981. Since Belize needed protection and had no army forces a full time British army remained in Belize until 1994.

Belize is a fascinating country and immigrations through the years have created a unique multi-cultural friendly society.

Laura J. Howard holds a Masters’ of Science degree in Anthropology with a specilization in Maya archaeology. After researching in Belize for five years after her graduate work she now splits her time between south Florida & Belize. She has been active in Belize tourism and Maya archaeology since 1996, & now has a unique ecotourism company, Beyond Touring, that focuses soley on Belize, the ancient Maya, and natural history. Beyond Touring also offers an authentic cross-cultural experience that allows clients to ‘give back’ to the wonderful areas they visit in Belize. The projects Beyond Touring supports aim to provide sustainable economic endeavors for local residents of Belize, specifically Indian Church Village, located in northern Belize and adjacent to the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve.

Belize or Travel Information: http://www.beyondtouring.com

Posted under History

This post was written by JB on July 28, 2008

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