Petén Basin

Last updated

The Petén Basin is a geographical subregion of Mesoamerica, primarily located in northern Guatemala within the Department of El Petén, and into Campeche state in southeastern Mexico.


During the Late Preclassic and Classic periods of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican chronology many major centers of the Maya civilization flourished, such as Tikal and Calakmul. A distinctive Petén-style of Maya architecture and inscriptions arose. The archaeological sites La Sufricaya and Holmul are also located in this region.


Nakbe, Mid Preclassic (600 BCE) Palace remains, The Mirador Basin Nakbe str.JPG
Nakbé, Mid Preclassic (600 BCE) Palace remains, The Mirador Basin

By the first half of the 1st millennium BCE, the Petén and Mirador Basin of this region were already well-established with a number of monumental sites and cities of the Maya civilization. Significant Maya sites of this Preclassic era of Mesoamerican chronology include Nakbé, El Mirador, Naachtun, San Bartolo and Cival in the Mirador Basin.

Classic Period

Map of Peten Department, showing principal settlements and archaeological sites. Peten Map v3 May archaeological sites.gif
Map of Petén Department, showing principal settlements and archaeological sites.

Later, Petén became the heartland of the Maya Classic Period (c. 200 900 CE). At its height around 750 it is estimated that the Petén Basin was home to several million people, being one of the most densely populated regions of the world at the time. Some areas are estimated to have had ca 2,000 people/km². Mesoamerican agriculture was very extensive, and there is some evidence suggesting that the land was depleted by unsustainable overfarming, resulting in a famine which was an important factor in the collapse of the Classic Maya states of this area. The population is estimated to have dropped by two-thirds between the mid 9th century and the mid 10th century.

Archaeological sites

Archaeological sites preserve important remnants of the Classic Maya in Petén Basin, such as:

Tikal, rising above jungle canopy. Tikalpano.jpg
Tikal, rising above jungle canopy.

Tikal National Park is one of the only sites to be designated a World Heritage Site for both archaeological and biodiversity reasons. [1] Many thousands of house mounds where worshipers and workers once lived were discovered at Tikal. [2]

Spanish colonial period

After the Classic Period collapse the population of the area continued to drop dramatically, especially after the introduction of smallpox along with European explorers. The smallpox plague arrived around 1519 or 1520, preceding by several years the first Europeans to visit the region. Hernán Cortés led the first expedition to pass through the Petén Basin, in 1524 to 1525, and reported that the region mostly had small hamlets separated by thick forest, with Tayasal being the only sizable inhabited city they observed.

After Cortés' expedition, the colonial Spanish largely tried to conquer Petén Basin, with several attempts mainly from Belize and Alta Verapaz, for generations until an expedition from Yucatán, Belize and Cobán in Alta Verapaz, succeeded in conquering the last independent Maya polities around 1697, such as Zacpeten (capital of the Kowoj Maya), the Itza Maya center of Tayasal, and other towns in the Lake Petén Itza region such as Quexil (modern Spanish name, in Maya: Ek'ixil) and Yalain. (see: Spanish conquest of Yucatán).

The Spanish town of Flores was established atop the site of Tayasal, but this remained an isolated backwater through the colonial Viceroyalty of New Spain era and after Mexican independence. When Guatemalan President Rafael Carrera sent a small force to Flores to claim the region for Guatemala in the 1840s, the governments of Mexico and the Yucatán state decided the Petén Basin area was not worth the trouble of contesting.

See also

Related Research Articles

Petén Department Department of Guatemala

Petén is a department of the Republic of Guatemala. It is geographically the northernmost department of Guatemala, as well as the largest by area — at 35,854 km2 (13,843 sq mi) it accounts for about one third of Guatemala's area. The capital is Flores. The population at the 2018 census was 545,600.

Tayasal (archaeological site) archaeological site

Tayasal is a Maya archaeological site located in present-day Guatemala. It was a large Maya city with a long history of occupation. Tayasal is a corruption of Tah Itza, a term originally used to refer to the core of the Itza territory in Petén. The name Tayasal was applied in error to the archaeological site, and originally applied to the Itza capital. However, the name now refers to the peninsula supporting both the archaeological site and the village of San Miguel. The site was occupied from the Middle Preclassic period through to the Late Postclassic (c. 1200–1539 AD).

Mesoamerican chronology Divides the history of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica into several periods

Mesoamerican chronology divides the history of prehispanic Mesoamerica into several periods: the Paleo-Indian, the Archaic, the Preclassic or Formative (2500 BCE–250 CE), the Classic (250–900 CE), and the Postclassic (900–1521 CE), Colonial (1521–1821), and Postcolonial (1821–present). The periodization of Mesoamerica is based on archaeological, ethnohistorical, and modern cultural anthropology research. The endeavor to create cultural histories of Mesoamerica dates to the early twentieth century, with ongoing work by archeologists, ethnohistorians, historians, and cultural anthropologists.


Naranjo is a Pre-Columbian Maya city in the Petén Basin region of Guatemala. It was occupied from about 500 B.C. to 950 A.D, with its height in the Late Classic Period. The site is part of Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park. The city lies along the Mopan and Holmul rivers, and is about 50 km east of the site of Tikal. Naranjo has been the victim of severe looting. The site is known for its polychrome ceramic style

Cival human settlement

Cival is an archaeological site in the Petén Basin region of the southern Maya lowlands, which was formerly a major city of the Pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It is located in the present-day Department of Petén, Guatemala.

Itza people Central American ethnic group

The Itza are a Guatemalan people of Maya affiliation. They inhabit the Petén department of Guatemala in and around the city of Flores on Lake Petén Itzá.

Mesoamerica Cultural area in the Americas

Mesoamerica is a historical region and cultural area in North America. It extends from approximately central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica, and within this region pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas. In the 16th century, European diseases like smallpox and measles caused the deaths of upwards of 90% of the indigenous people. It is one of five areas in the world where ancient civilization arose independently, and the second in the Americas along with Norte Chico (Caral-Supe) in present-day Peru, in the northern coastal region.

Trade in Maya civilization transfer of ownership of goods and services

Trade in Maya civilization was a crucial factor in maintaining Maya cities.


Ixlu is a small Maya archaeological site that dates to the Classic and Postclassic Periods. It is located on the isthmus between the Petén Itzá and Salpetén lakes, in the northern Petén Department of Guatemala. The site was an important port with access to Lake Petén Itzá via the Ixlu River. The site has been identified as Saklamakhal, also spelt Saclemacal, a capital of the Kowoj Maya.

Yaxha archaeological site

Yaxha is a Mesoamerican archaeological site in the northeast of the Petén Basin region, and a former ceremonial centre and city of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. Yaxha was the third largest city in the region and experienced its maximum power during the Early Classic period.

Nakum Mesoamerican archaeological site in modern-day Guatemala

Nakum is a Mesoamerican archaeological site, and a former ceremonial center and city of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It is located in the northeastern portion of the Petén Basin region, in the modern-day Guatemalan department of Petén. The northeastern Petén region contains a good number of other significant Maya sites, and Nakum is one of the three sites forming the Cultural Triangle of "Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo". Nakum is approximately 17 kilometres (10.6 mi) to the north of Yaxha and some 25 kilometres (15.5 mi) to the east of Tikal, on the banks of the Holmul River. Its main features include an abundance of visibly restored architecture, and the roof comb of the site's main temple structure is one of the best-preserved outside Tikal.

Mirador Basin

The Mirador Basin is a hypothesized geological depression found in the remote rainforest of the northern department of Petén, Guatemala. Mirador Basin consists of two true basins, consisting of shallowly sloping terrain dominated by low-lying swamps called bajos; one draining into the San Pedro River and the other into the Candelaria River. The basin is surrounded by rugged karstic limestone hills on the east and south, forming a triangular geographical "trough" covering more than 2,169 km2 (837 sq mi). The geological formation of the landscape, as well as the significance of the formation, are the subject of some controversy in Northern Guatemala. NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data indicate no depression in the area.

La Sufricaya archaeological site

La Sufricaya is an archaeological site of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in the Petén Basin region of present-day Guatemala. The site is situated approximately 1.2 km (0.75 mi) west of the site of Holmul, and the relationship between these two sites during the Classic period occupations is a main focus of ongoing investigations.

El Tintal Maya archaeological site in Guatemala

El Tintal is a Maya archaeological site in the northern Petén region of Guatemala, about 25 kilometres (16 mi) northeast of the modern-day settlement of Carmelita, with settlement dating to the Preclassic and Classic periods. It is close to the better known sites of El Mirador, to which it was linked by causeway, and Nakbé. El Tintal is a sizeable site that includes some very large structures and it is one of the four largest sites in the northern Petén; it is the second largest site in the Mirador Basin, after El Mirador itself. El Tintal features monumental architecture dating to the Middle Preclassic similar to that found at El Mirador, Nakbé and Wakna. Potsherds recovered from the site date to the Late Preclassic and Early Classic periods, and construction continued at the site in the Late Classic period.

Holmul archaeological site

Holmul is a pre-Columbian archaeological site of the Maya civilization located in the northeastern Petén Basin region in Guatemala near the modern-day border with Belize.

Preclassic Maya

The Preclassic period in Maya history stretches from the beginning of permanent village life c. 1000 BC. until the advent of the Classic Period c. 250 AD, and is subdivided into Early, Middle, and Late. Major archaeological sites of this period include Nakbe, Uaxactun, Seibal, San Bartolo, Cival, and El Mirador in Guatemala; Cahal Pech, Blackman Eddy, and Cerros in Belize; and Calakmul, Yaxnohcah, Ichkabal, Komchen, and Xocnaceh in Mexico.

Nojpetén Mayan city

Nojpetén was the capital city of the Itza Maya kingdom of Petén Itzá, located on an island in Lake Petén Itzá in the modern department of Petén in northern Guatemala. The island is now occupied by the modern town of Flores, the capital of the Petén department, and has had uninterrupted occupation since pre-Columbian times. Nojpetén had defensive walls built upon the low ground of the island, which may have been hastily constructed by the Itza at a time when they felt threatened either by the encroaching Spanish or by other Maya groups.

Spanish conquest of Petén

The Spanish conquest of Petén was the last stage of the conquest of Guatemala, a prolonged conflict during the Spanish colonisation of the Americas. A wide lowland plain covered with dense rainforest, Petén contains a central drainage basin with a series of lakes and areas of savannah. It is crossed by several ranges of low karstic hills and rises to the south as it nears the Guatemalan Highlands. The conquest of Petén, a region now incorporated into the modern republic of Guatemala, climaxed in 1697 with the capture of Nojpetén, the island capital of the Itza kingdom, by Martín de Ursúa y Arizmendi. With the defeat of the Itza, the last independent and unconquered native kingdom in the Americas fell to European colonisers.


The Kejache were a Maya people in the southern Yucatán Peninsula at the time of Spanish contact in the 17th century. The Kejache territory was located in the Petén Basin in a region that takes in parts of both Guatemala and Mexico. Linguistic evidence indicates that the Kejache shared a common origin with the neighbouring Itzas to their southeast and the Kejache may have occupied the general region since the Classic period. The Kejache were initially contacted by conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1525; they were later in prolonged contact with the Spanish as the latter opened a route southwards towards Lake Petén Itzá.

History of the Maya civilization

The history of Maya civilization is divided into three principal periods: the Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic periods; these were preceded by the Archaic Period, which saw the first settled villages and early developments in agriculture. Modern scholars regard these periods as arbitrary divisions of chronology of the Maya civilization, rather than indicative of cultural evolution or decadence. Definitions of the start and end dates of period spans can vary by as much as a century, depending on the author. The Preclassic lasted from approximately 2000 BC to approximately 250 AD; this was followed by the Classic, from 250 AD to roughly 950 AD, then by the Postclassic, from 950 AD to the middle of the 16th century. Each period is further subdivided:


  1. "Tikal National Park". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Retrieved 2018-04-14.
  2. Heider, K. (2014). Tikal. San Francisco: California, USA : Kanopy Streaming.

Further reading

Coe, Michael D. (1987). The Maya. Ancient peoples and places series (4th revised ed.). London and New York: Thames & Hudson. ISBN   0-500-27455-X. OCLC   15895415.
Culbert, T. Patrick (1995). "Ancient Maya Wetland Agriculture". The Foundation Granting Department: Reports Submitted to FAMSI. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI). Retrieved 2007-01-30.
Sharer, Robert J.; Loa P. Traxler (2006). The Ancient Maya (6th, fully revised ed.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN   0-8047-4816-0. OCLC   28067148.

Coordinates: 16°54′N89°54′W / 16.900°N 89.900°W / 16.900; -89.900