Latinamerica Collection
History of Guatemala

Pre-Columbian Period

Most historical studies by Archaeologists break the pre-Columbian period into three significant divisions: the Pre-Classic from 2,000BCE to 250CE, the Classic from 250CE to 900CE, and the Post-Classic from 900CE to 1500CE.


i. Pre-Classic Period
Because of the ever changing technology used to attain archaeological information, there are still many uncertainties regarding history dating back this far. For example, it has commonly been said that during this period settlements were only regarded as temporary, made up of small huts in small villages. However, recently this notion has been challenged due to the discovery of alters and ceremonial structures dating back to as early as 1,000BCE. Additionally, this previous notion has also been challenged by the discovery of numerous Pre-Classic cities, including, but not limited to Nakbé, Tintal, Wakná, and El Mirador. Containing an immense pyramid and various highway networks, El Mirador was one of the largest cities of the period and is said to have experienced a period of abandonment before its reoccupation during the Classic Period. Because of the important structural discoveries of this period, many believe that these large cities, such as El Mirador, rivaled in power, size, and culture with the significant kingdoms in Egypt and China.


ii. Classic Period
Represented by countless discoveries of structures and artifacts, this period marks the height of the Mayan civilizations of the region. Although there are many sites spread around modern day Guatemala, the most significant is said to be Petén. Archaeologists characterize this period as a time of immense city building including causeways between independent bodies allowing contact with other cultures. Additionally, the cities of this period experienced significant class differentiation as well as scripture, mathematics, writing, and extensive city planning.


iii. Post-Classic Period
Archaeologists have discovered that for unknown reasons, around the year 900AD, the Mayan civilization went into strong decline. Although various kingdoms still existed, such as those in Itzá and Petén, their size and power would never again compare to those of the Classic Mayan cities.


Colonial Period
First arriving to the region in 1518, the Spanish, lead by Pedro de Alvarado, began expeditions into the region. Immediately, disease brought by the foreigners began wiping out the native populations. Alvarado's first move was to ally himself with the Cakchiquel to neutralize their now common rival, the Quiché nation. After the fall of the Quiché, Alvarado turned on his newfound allies, the Cakchiquel, and in 1523-24 gained control of the entire region under Spanish rule in the year.


During this period, Guatemala became a Captaincy General of Spain, and a part of New Spain, or Mexico. Because of the regions lack of minerals and precious metals, it was seen as much less important than Mexico and Peru. Its most significant products and exports to Spain at the time were sugarcane, cocoa, a number of different dyes, and precious woods later used in buildings and palaces in Spain.


The first colonial capital of Guatemala, Ciudad Vieja, founded in 1527, was moved four miles away after an earthquake and heavy rains destroyed the city in 1542. The capital's successor city, Antigua Guatemala, was founded soon after and was destroyed by two earthquakes in 1773. The city's remnants are now preserved and protected as a national monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The third and currently existing capital was founded in 1776 and was named Guatemala City.


Independence and 19th Century
In the year 1821, Guatemala declared itself independent from Spain and became a part of the Mexican Empire. Though the Mexican Empire was technically a part of New Spain, it was administered separately. Not long after the Central American provinces disbanded from Mexico and became known as the United Provinces of Central America. Not many years later in 1838, civil war broke out and led to the fall of the federation. Among those vital to the federal government's demise was Rafael Carrera, who retained much political power in the country until 1865. The Liberal Revolution of Guatemala, led by Justo Rufino Barrios, began in 1871 with Barrios' passion to modernize the country. He focused on introducing new industry, such as crops, manufacturing, and improved trade. This movement led to the country's fame as an important coffee producer, still an important characteristic of Guatemala today. However, when Barrios acted on his enthusiasm to reunite the Central American region, war broke out and led to the loss of his life in battle in 1885.


1944 to Present
In the year, 1944, Guatemala's dictator, Jorge Ubico was overthrown by a militant group known as the October Revolutionaries. At this time a civilian president, Juan Jose Arevalo, was elected and remained in office until 1951 when the next free elections took place. In 1954, the freely elected president was overthrown by the United States CIA and placed Carlos Castillo Armas in office. Three years later Armas was assassinated by a member of his personal guard and free elections led to the placement of Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes. This man authorized the training of some 5,000 anti-Castro Cubans and with military aid and training from the United States staged the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961. Soon after, a coup, led by Ydígoras' Defense Minister, resulted in the later election of Julio César Méndez Montenegro in 1966.


The following period of roughly ten to fifteen years saw the rise of many guerilla organizations and military led governments still involving a great deal of training from the United States government. Starting in the 1970s, these guerilla organizations sprouted up all over the country and eventually formed a single organization in 1982, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan's including the eventual genocidal destruction of many thousands of unarmed Mayans.


In 1986, President Cerezo's civilian government was elected with the goal of bringing peace and stability to the region. After ten years of violence in an attempt to stabilize the country, an agreement was formed in 1996 between the government and the guerillas to bring peace to the nation.


With only scattered occurrences of representative rule, Guatemala experienced a number of dictatorships, insurgencies, coups, and periods of military rule during the mid-nineteenth century and up to the mid 1980s. Beginning in 1986, the government slowly began a series of changes that would lead to the present Guatemalan government.


Today, Guatemala is a constitutional democratic republic holding free elections. The government is comprised of three branches, the executive branch, the judicial branch, and legislative branch. Officials are elected to a certain number of terms consisting of a certain number of years.