People and Places


The Birth of Maya Culture

Archaeological sites of Guatemala´s Southern Coast lack the monumental stone pyramids and palaces of El Petén, Belize, and Mexico. However, the Coast along with the Highlands of Guatemala (i.e. Kaminaljuyú) was the birthplace of Maya culture. Indeed, trade with Central Mexico provided the impetus for the growth of 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.

Takalik Abaj

No one knows whether the Maya there spoke k’iche’, mam, or a common ancestor of both. We know, however, that Takalik Abaj represents a mix of cultures. From its earliest stages, 1,000-800 B.C., there are stone monuments and a ball-court of Olmec origin. The four cardinal points were important to both the Olmec and Maya. However, the Olmec oriented their world from south to north. The Olmec ball-court at Takalik Abaj is thusly orientated. Takalik Abaj´s Maya ball-court sits east to west, a reflection of the Maya world view.

The Maya corn god first makes his appearance at Takalik Abaj. Like the later image of the central Mexican earth mother Coatlicue, he wears a skirt of serpents, which represents fertility. Likewise, a stelae at Takalik Abaj contains the oldest known Maya calendar date. At Takalik Abaj, also, are monuments of a style called Monte Alto.


Monte Alto is an estate near la Democracia, Escuintla. However, its monuments are not Olmec as previously believed. Instead, they are pre-classic Maya from around 200 B.C.-100 A.D, influenced heavily from Central Mexico. Mexican traders likewise influenced the Cotzumalguapa culture of Escuintla. Therefore, among Cotzamalguapa monuments are representations of the Central Mexican gods Tlaloc (god of rain) and Xochipilli (god of laughter, the arts, drama, and dance).

Present-Day Coast

Traditionally, the Maya of the Southern Pacific Coast were k’iche’ speakers. Later tzutujiles from Santiago Atitlàn and San Pedro la Laguna settled in and around Chicacao and San Miguel Panan. However, near the end of the 18th century, k”iche` speakers from Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán burned Panan. Hence k’iche’ again predominates there.

Guatemala´s Pacific Coast is a center of sugar, rubber, and sesame production. Coffee, mangoes, pineapples, and cacao are likewise major crops in the region. Therefore, the Southern Coast has some degree of prosperity. However, most of the coastal land and wealth remain in the hands of a few powerful families. The very richest of these still control properties little disturbed since the Colony. In many small communities, however, desperate poverty persists.

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