Ancient Maya Art-The Southern Area

Southern Area

Ceramic plate from Kaminaljuyu. Kaminaljuyu was primarily occupied by Maya peoples from 1500 BC to 1200 AD on what today is the western third of modern Guatemala City. Kaminaljuyu was probably the greatest city of the Southern Maya area in Preclassic times, particularly between 400–100 BC.

This area encompasses the highlands of Guatemala, the southern extreme of the Mexican state of Chiapas and the westernmost portion of El Salvador, as well as a narrow coastal belt located between the mountain chains and the Pacific Ocean. In pre-Hispanic times this region had, as still has today, a predominantly Mayan-speaking population. Throughout its history, this area received influences from other cultures and served as a transit corridor for certain towns from central Mexico that came to occupy some areas of Central America. During the pre-Classic period, in the millennium prior to the beginning of the current era and for the next two or three centuries, the southern Maya zone received Olmec influences from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific coast through the isthmus of Tehuantepec and later left strong influences in the Oaxaca culture (Monte Alban I); these influences later reached the highlands of Guatemala.

A Santa Lucía Cotzumalhuapa stele from the site of El Baúl. The archaeological site of Santa Lucía Cotzumalhuapa dates mainly to the Late Classic period. Cotzumalhuapa is located on the Pacific piedmont of southern Guatemala, (Escuintla Department). El Baúl (“The Chest”) is part of the archaeological site of Cotzumalhuapa along with the other acropolises of Bilbao and El Castillo (The Castle).
Decoration of an ancient Maya ceramics representing Popol-Vuh imagery. The Popol Vuh is a group of mythical and historical narratives of the Post Classic Mayan K’iche’ kingdom of the highlands of Guatemala. Popol Vuh translates as “Book of the Community”, “Book of Counsel”, or more exactly “Book of the People”. The main episodes of the Popol Vuh’s refer to a creation myth, a suggestion of a deluge, its epic tales of the Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, and its genealogical recounts. The oldest survival account of the Popol Vuh, ca. 1701, is attributed to the Spanish Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez.

During the six centuries of the Classical period (250-900 AD), the Guatemalan highlands received Teotihuacan influences recognizable in architecture and still more in ceramics (Kaminaljuyú). Then the area was influenced by the “Totonac” culture from the Atlantic coast by importing numerous art objects such as “yugos”, votive “hachas”, “palmas”, as well as decapitation sacrifice scenes associated with the Mesoamerican ball game (Santa Lucia Cotzumalhuapa). During the post-Classic period, Toltec, Chichimec and Aztec influences successively characterized the architecture and sculpture of the ceremonial centers of the Guatemalan altiplano. This situation is reflected in the Quiche and Cakchiquel chronicles, such as the Popol Vuh and the Memorial of Sololá, as well as in toponymy (or places names) since many sites in this area bear Nahuatl names.


A view of the archaeological site of Kaminaljuyu (modern Guatemala city).