Maya Area, 1400–1600 A.D.


1400 A.D.

1450 A.D.

Mayapan city-state, ca. 1200–1441
Regional centers, 1441–1527
K'iche' and neighboring states, ca. 1200–1530

1450 A.D.

1500 A.D.

Regional centers, 1441–1527
K'iche' and neighboring states, ca. 1200–1530

1500 A.D.

1550 A.D.

Regional centers, 1441–1527
Conquest period, 1527–35
K'iche' and neighboring states, ca. 1200–1530
Conquest period, 1530–42
Viceroyalty of New Spain, 1542–1821

1550 A.D.

1600 A.D.

Viceroyalty of New Spain, 1542–1821


Mayapan and its confederacy disintegrates. Political power in northern Yucatan reverts to provincial centers, often at war with each other. Coastal Caribbean regions with rich marine resources experience population growth. Mercantile activities and maritime trade form the economic basis for many small, independent centers. In the central Maya area, the Petén lowlands remain sparsely populated. In the Guatemalan highlands, the K’iche’ are still the most numerous and powerful group. Other independent groups, occupying fortified hilltop strongholds, feud over territory, access to resources, and trade routes. Art and architecture continue to manifest strong central Mexican influence in imagery and style, without the artistry and sophistication found in Mexico. Ceremonial and elite residential architecture throughout the Maya region is roughly constructed of uneven stonework covered with heavy layers of plaster, often carrying fresco murals. Incense burners, many of large size and multipiece construction, are mass-produced for use in public and private rituals.

In the early sixteenth century, Spaniards sailing from the Caribbean islands arrive on the coast of Yucatan. Others coming from Mexico penetrate the southern Maya area. The Captaincy-General of Guatemala is established under the jurisdiction of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

Key Events

  • ca. 1410

    The K’iche’ kingdom expands aggressively, leading to control of most of the Guatemalan highlands and parts of the cacao-producing Pacific coast lands.

  • ca. 1415

    The rulers of Mayapan erect stelae, tall stone slabs covered with relief sculpture, a common practice in the central Maya area a thousand years earlier. Now largely eroded, they depict costumed individuals, seemingly engaged in ritual activity.

  • ca. 1420

    The island of Cozumel, off the northeast coast of Yucatan, is a flourishing trading port and an important pilgrimage center. Women from all over Yucatan come to worship at shrines containing sculptures with the image of the Maya moon goddess Ixchel, patroness of childbirth, pregnancy, and fertility.

  • ca. 1441

    A revolt among competing ruling groups breaks out in Mayapan. The walled city is destroyed and eventually abandoned. The region is divided into at least sixteen autonomous provinces ruled by independent lords.

  • ca. 1450

    Utatlán, the K’iche’ capital, is an impressive city; its public stone architecture is built in central Mexican style. At its center is a large double temple with two frontal stairways, much like the Great Temple of the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan, and a ballcourt.

  • ca. 1460

    Simple, monochromatic ceramics are produced and censers, modeled of coarse clay and brightly colored, continue to be made in large numbers throughout northern Yucatan. Many of the censers depict the long-nosed, fanged rain god Chac; they are probably used in fertility rituals in household settings.

  • ca. 1470

    The Kaqchikel in southern Guatemala establish their own state independent of K’iche’ control, to the south and east of Utatlán. They build their own fortified capital at Iximché. It features four ceremonial plazas with platforms and temples, two ballcourts, and a number of elite residences. The interior walls of the largest temple are decorated with polychrome frescoes in hybrid Maya-Puebla-Mixteca style.

  • ca. 1480

    The K’iche’ empire in the Guatemalan highlands disintegrates; it continues as a small kingdom.

  • ca. 1486

    The Soconusco region on the Pacific coast, still controlled by the K’iche’, is conquered by the Aztecs of central Mexico. They wish to secure a steady supply of luxury materials such as colorful feathers, animal skins, amber, and especially cacao.

  • ca. 1500

    At Iximché, an important individual, perhaps the son of the co-founder of the Kaqchikel state, is buried near the main temple. He wears a headband of gold and a necklace with ten small jaguar heads and thirty-eight beads cast in gold, probably imports from either central Mexico or Central America.

  • ca. 1510

    The ceremonial precinct of Tulum on the Caribbean coast comprises several temples, shrines, and platforms. The Castillo is the tallest structure; it has a single central stairway leading to a 25-foot high platform with a flat-roofed temple. Feathered-serpent columns flank the temple doorway as at the main ceremonial buildings at Chichén Itzá in northern Yucatan and Tula in central Mexico.

  • 1517

    The Spaniard Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (died 1517) arrives in Yucatan. He dies of wounds inflicted by Maya warriors at Champotón.

  • ca. 1523

    Following the defeat of the Aztecs in central Mexico, Pedro de Alvarado (1485–1541) reaches the Guatemalan highlands. He engages in a long battle to subdue the local populations in the southern Maya area.

  • ca. 1527

    In the north, Francisco de Montejo (1479–1548) undertakes the prolonged Spanish struggle to conquer numerous independent Maya groups.

  • ca. 1530

    Alvarado defeats the K’iche’ and Kaqchikel, who are weakened by disease and bitter rivalries between themselves. Utatlán and Iximché, their capital cities, are ravaged and burned to the ground.

  • ca. 1540

    Almost the entire southern Maya region is under Spanish control. Sporadic rebellions against the Spaniards’ harsh treatment of the natives continue.

  • ca. 1541

    Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, today known as Antigua, is founded in the southern mountains. It will eventually become the most important city in the Americas between Mexico City and Lima, Peru.

  • 1542

    The Spaniards establish a capital in northern Yucatan at Mérida. The town is made a bishopric. Montejo builds his residence on the town square. He is plagued by continued native uprisings.

  • ca. 1545

    Catholic priests, and in particular Franciscan friars, arrive in Yucatan to convert the population to the Catholic faith. They build a network of huge, fortresslike monasteries, often on the sites of former Maya temples.

  • ca. 1550

    Brutalities by the invaders combined with the demands of tribute cause many natives to flee to the unconquered interior of the Yucatan peninsula. They concentrate in the area around Lake Petén Itzá and offer strong resistance.

  • ca. 1560

    The Captaincy-General of Guatemala is created incorporating the lands from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec south to the swampy lowlands of southern Panama. It is under the authority of the viceroy of New Spain.

  • ca. 1561

    The cathedral of Mérida is built on top of the ruins of a Maya shrine.

  • ca. 1562

    In the auto-da-fé in the town of Maní in northern Yucatan, the Franciscan friar Diego de Landa (1524–1579) burns all Maya hieroglyphic books. The Council of the Indies in Spain condemns his actions, forcing him to return to Spain.

  • ca. 1566

    In Spain, Diego de Landa writes an extensive account of the Yucatecan Maya, now called Relación de las cosas de Yucatán.

  • ca. 1570

    Highland Maya authors, after learning the Roman alphabet, write in their own language the Popol Vuh, or “council book.” The three-part book relates the story of the creation of the earth and its first inhabitants; the story of the Hero Twins and their forebears; and the legendary history of the founding of the K’iche’ dynasties.

  • ca. 1580

    The native populations of the entire Maya area are decimated by warfare, epidemic disease, and the consequences of slavery, forced labor, and abuse suffered at the hands of the invaders.

  • ca. 1590

    In several towns on the Yucatan peninsula, a number of texts are written in the Maya Yucatec language, using European script and paper. The books are known as Chilam Balam and relate the history, religion, ritual, literature, astronomy, and medicine of local peoples.

  • ca. 1600

    English-speaking populations—the descendants of African slaves, logwood cutters, and pirates—settle along the coast of present-day Belize. Through intermarriage they create a new variant of Maya culture.


“Maya Area, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)