The earliest evidence of human settlement in Guatemala dates back to at least 12,000 BC. Sites dating back to 6500 BC have been discovered at Quiché in the central highlands and at Sipacate, Escuintla, on the central Pacific coast. Archaeologists divide Mesoamerica’s pre-Columbian history into a pre-Classical period (2000 BC to 250 AD). El Mirador was by far the most populous city in pre-Columbian America. The pyramids of El Tigre and Monos both comprise a volume of over 250,000 cubic metres. Mirador was the first politically organised state in the Americas.
The Classic period of Mesoamerican civilisation corresponds to the height of Maya civilisation and is represented by countless sites throughout Guatemala, with the greatest concentration in Petén in the northern lowlands. This period is characterised by the construction of numerous cities, the development of independent city states and contact with other Mesoamerican cultures. It lasted until about 900 AD, when the Classic Maya civilisation collapsed. The Maya abandoned many cities in the central lowlands or fell victim to famine caused by drought. The Postclassic period is represented by regional kingdoms such as the Itza’ and Ko’woj in the lake region of Petén and the Mam, K’iche’, Kaqchikel, Tz’utujil, Poqomchi’, Q’eqchi’ and Ch’orti’ in the highlands. These cities have preserved many aspects of Maya culture, but have never reached the size or power of the classical cities.
The colonial period
After their arrival in the so-called New World, the Spaniards undertook several expeditions to Guatemala from 1519 onwards. Soon, contact with the Spaniards caused an epidemic that devastated the indigenous population. During the colonial period, Guatemala was an Audiencia and a Capitanate General of Spain and belonged to New Spain (Mexico). It stretched from what are now the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas to Costa Rica. This region was not as rich in minerals (gold and silver) as Mexico and Peru and was therefore not considered as important. Its main products were sugar cane, cocoa, blue añil dye, red dye from cochineal insects and the precious woods used for the artwork of churches and palaces in Spain.
On 15 September 1821, the General Capitanate of Guatemala (formed by Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Honduras) officially proclaimed its independence from Spain and incorporation into the Mexican Empire, which was dissolved two years later. The Guatemalan provinces form the United Provinces of Central America. Guatemala’s “liberal revolution” took place in 1871 under the leadership of Justo Rufino Barrios, who worked to modernise the country, improve trade and introduce new crops and industries. During this time, coffee became an important crop for Guatemala. Barrios had ambitions to reunite Central America and led the country into war in an unsuccessful attempt. In 1885, he lost his life on the battlefield against the forces of El Salvador. From 1898 to 1920, Guatemala was ruled by dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera, whose access to the presidency was facilitated by the United Fruit Company.
On 4 July 1944, dictator Jorge Ubico Castañeda was forced to resign in response to a wave of protests and a general strike. From then until the end of a deadly civil war in 1996, Guatemala experienced a series of coups accompanied by massive civil rights violations. The state-sponsored murders of students, human rights activists and ethnic Mayans earned Guatemala a bad reputation worldwide. In 1999, US President Bill Clinton said that it was wrong for the United States to support Guatemalan forces involved in the brutal killings of civilians.
Since the 1996 peace agreement, Guatemala has had several democratic elections. The last one took place in 2007, when the National Unity of Hope and its candidate Álvaro Colom won the presidency and the majority of seats in Congress.