Postclassic period

The Postclassical Era, also called the last period of pre-Hispanic history, was suspended by the invasion of the Spanish in the Mesoamerican territory and the subsequent conquest and colonization of Mexico. While millions of Maya died or at least disappeared during the collapse years of the Classic era, the Maya civilization did not completely disappear.

The great cities of the southern lowlands were abandoned, and the remaining Maya took their civilization north to the Yucatan, where they settled. Little by little, they built new cities. Other Mayan cities already settled expanded. Maya life and society continued with a shift in emphasis from the deep religiosity of the Classic period, to a more secular society focused on economic growth and prosperity. This culture continued until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.

Major Postclassic-era cities include Chichen-Itza, Uxmal, and Mayapán. Other Mayan cities in northern Belize such as Santa Rita, Colba, and Lamanai also flourished, as did some Mayan groups in the Petén region of Guatemala in Tayasal and Zacpeten.

The Maya of the Yucatan, however, had some difficult challenges to overcome, such as moving from a tropical jungle environment to the much drier climate of the Yucatan. The Mayans of Yucatan managed to change their dependence on surface water reservoirs, for the use of groundwater resources such as underground basins and sinkholes known as cenotes. The Cenote Sagrada remains a sacred well within the grounds of Chichen-Itzá. Barren on the surface, the Yucatan keeps its water underground, which allowed the Mayans to flourish.

While in general the Postclassic Maya moved away from the religious domination of the priesthood and the divine rule of kings, they became more attentive to the rain gods, due to the aridity of the Yucatan. Carvings of “Chac,” the Mayan rain god, cover the buildings of postclassic cities, especially Uxmal.

The Mayans came under the influence of the Toltecs, a people who moved to the area from Mexico after the fall of Teotihuacan. The sculptures and architectural style reflect this influence, as do the Mayans sacrificing to the Toltec rain god, Tlaloc along with Chac. Scholars have yet to discover the exact political and social relationship of the Mayans and Toltecs, but both cultures influenced the other.

Chichén-Itzá dominated Yucatán during the early years of the postclassic era from 900 BC to 1250. After Chichén-Itzá’s decline, its rival city, Mayapán, became dominant. The Mayans could have taken their name from this great postclassic city. Maritime trade around Yucatán grew during the last years of the Postclassic, from 1250 until the arrival of the Spanish.