In Classic times, the Maya occupied much the same territory that they do today: All of the Yucatán peninsula, Guatemala, and Belize, plus neighboring areas: the eastern half of Tabasco and Chiapas, and the northwest regions of Honduras and El Salvador. (See Map)
A Mayan-speaking population, the Huasteca, occupy northern Veracruz, separated from the main Mayan-speaking region by several hundred miles. Perhaps a large population of Maya picked up and migrated west during the Early Formative. Just as likely, Mayan-speakers once stretched in a swath along the entire southern Gulf Coast –including the Olmec Heartland– and later populations intruded, separating them some time before the Classic Period. At any rate, they separated before the “heartland” Maya acquired writing; the Huastecs appear to have been innocent of hieroglyphs.
As for when, the Classic period was called “Classic” because of the Maya, whose apogee falls roughly between 250 and 800 AD/CE. However, growing evidence shows that the Maya had distinct cultural features and civilization as early as the Late Preclassic, usually dated ca. 400 BC/BCE – 250 AD/CE.
Here is a list of the major divisions of Mesoamerican eras, with their dominant cultures
1800/1500 – 900 BC/BCE: Early Preclassic or Early Formative
Olmec: San Lorenzo. “Olmec Horizon” (i.e., the dominance of Olmec artistic conventions and cultural influence) spreads across Mesoamerica.
Valley of México: “pretty lady” statuettes of Tlatilco, “babies” of Las Bocas, et al.
900 – 300 BC/BCE: Middle Preclassic or Middle Formative
Olmec: La Venta. “Olmec Horizon” reaches from El Salvador to Guerrero
Central Méxican Olmec: Chalcatzingo.
Olmec Guerrero: Teopanticuanitlán. Juxtlahuaca and Oxtotilán cave murals.
Oaxaca: Monte Albán I.
400 – 300 BC/BCE: The “Late Preclassic Collapse”
“Olmec Horizon,” i.e., the dominance of Olmec artistic conventions and cultural influence, disappears across Mesoamerica. The following era was characterized by a proliferation of small, independent city-states.
300 BC/BCE – 200 AD/CE: Late Preclassic or Late Formative
East: (Maya and Isthmian) Kaminajuyú, Izapa, Chiapa de Corzo, Takalik Abaj, El Mirador, San Bartolo, La Mojarra, Cerros. Also, underneath most Classic Maya cities lie Late Formative beginnings.
Central México: Short-lived Cuicuilco, and the beginning of Teotihuacán.
West: Mexcala, Colima, Chupícuaro
Oaxaca: Monte Albán II
200 – 600 AD/CE: Early Classic
Central México: dominant Teotihuacán, Cholula. (Teotihuacán falls ca. 650)
Oaxaca: Monte Albán III
Gulf Coast: Remojadas
West: Mezcala, Colima, Nayarit, Jalisco, Michoacán
600 – 900 AD/CE: Late Classic
Central México: Cacaxtla, Xochicalco, and other startups
Oaxaca: Monte Albán IV
Gulf Coast: Veracruz/El Tajín, Huasteca
West: Colima, Nayarit, Jalisco, Michoacán
800 – 1050 AD/CE: Terminal Classic
East: Southern Maya cities fall, but Yucatán flourishes: Chichén Itzá, Uxmál, Kabáh, Labná, Sayíl, Tulúm, et al.
The rest of Mesoamerica suffers a general Collapse.
900 – 1350 AD/CE: Early Postclassic
East: Chichén joins the Lost Cities club: abandoned about 1000 AD/CE. Mayapán and other minor Maya city-states preserve a faint echo of Maya greatness
Oaxaca: Mixteca (Monte Albán V)
Central México/Puebla: Cholula reoccupied, Tula Hidalgo
1350 – 1520’s: Late Postclassic
Central México: Mexica/Aztec hegemony. Other states: Cholula, Tlaxcala, et al. The rest of Mesoamerica dotted with civilized states, many dominated by Aztec.
East: independent but small-time Maya city-states.
1520’s – 1560’s: Early Colonial
Cortez, Alvarado, et al. conquer most of New Spain, doing their best to extirpate the old cultures and enslave the population. Construction of hundreds of major churches begins.
East: In the central Petén region of Guatemala, the Maya kingdom of Tayasal remained independent of Spanish control until 1697.
2012 FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
by Mark Van Stone — www.famsi.org