People and Places
The Birth of Maya Culture
Archaeological sites of the Southern Coast lack the monumental stone pyramids and palaces of El Petén and Mexico. Nonetheless, the Coast along with the Highlands of Guatemala (i.e. Kaminaljuyú) was the birthplace of the Maya culture. Indeed, trade with Central Mexico provided the impetus for the growth of the Maya civilization. Thus, in the era of cacao, a powerful Maya city and ceremonial center emerged near El Asintal, Retalhuleu. Today we call this city Takalik Abaj, or Standing Stone.
Whether the Maya there spoke k’iche’, mam, or a common ancestor of both, is uncertain. We know, however, that Takalik Abaj represents a mix of cultures. From its earliest stages, 1,000-800 B.C. stone monuments of Olmec origin appear. Archaeologists recently excavated an Olmec ball-court at Takalik Abaj. The four cardinal points were important to both the Olmec and the Maya. However, the Olmec oriented their world south to north. Thus the Olmec built their ball-courts with this orientation in mind. The Maya orientation, however, was east to west. Therefore, their ball-courts faced east to west..
The earliest representation of the Maya corn god is from Takalik Abaj. Like the later image of the central Mexican earth mother Coatlicue, the corn god wears a skirt of serpents, thus representing fertility. Likewise, the oldest extant Maya calendar date appears on a stone monument at Takalik Abaj. There are also monuments of a style called Monte Alto at Takalik Abaj.
Monte Alto is an estate near la Democracia, Escuintla. However, its monuments are not Olmec as previously believed. They are instead pre-classic Maya from around 200 B.C.-100 A.D, and contain Mexican influence. The Cotzumalguapa culture of Escuintla likewise bears the influence of Mexican immigrants. Therefore, among its monuments are representations of Tlaloc (god of rain) and Xochipilli (god of laughter, the arts, drama, and dance), both gods of Central Mexico.
Traditionally, the Maya of the Southern Pacific Coast were k’iche’ speakers. However, tzutujiles from Santiago Atitlàn and San Pedro la Laguna settled in and around Chicacao. San Miguel Panan was also once a tzutujil town. However, near the end of the 18th century, k”iche` speakers from Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán burned Panan. Thereafter, k’iche’ predominated in Panan.
The Coast is the center of sugar, rubber, and sesame production. Coffee, mangoes, pineapples, and cacao are likewise major crops in the region. Therefore, the Southern Coast has a degree of economic prosperity. However, most of the land and wealth remain in the hands of a few powerful families. The very richest still control family properties undisturbed since the Spanish Colony. In small communities, however, most people remain desperately poor.