Upon the arrival of the Spanish colonizer to the Yucatan Peninsula, the conquerors found a Mayan civilization in decline for decades. This is a key factor in understanding the Spanish conquest of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico.

When the Spanish conqueror arrives on the Yucatan peninsula, he finds a living Mayan people and culture, but not the great Mayan civilization: it had been in decline decades ago. Scholars give the end date of the Mayan civilization around the year 1521 AD, and the Spanish begins the conquest in Mayan lands in 1527 AD

This is a key factor to understand the conquest of the Mayan territory in the Yucatan peninsula by the Spanish.

The Spanish conqueror, upon his arrival in 1527, struck and transformed the reality of a culture that was far from living its era of splendor, submitting and drastically changing its realities. The conquest was political and religious, changing the panorama of the native peoples, and transforming the thought religious tourism giving way to the curious syncretism that we live in today.

We are going to recount the episodes in the history of the Mayan civilization and its confrontation and situation the arrival of the spanish colonizer.

In what situation were the Mayans at the arrival of the Spanish colonizer? one
Location of the lands of the Mayan civilization


The Mayan civilization lived its apogee from 200 BC to 900 AD, at the time of the Classic Maya. From 700 AD the so-called Great Mayan Collapse is located, which was about 150 years of prolonged crisis caused by different factors.

A clear indicator of change after 900 AD is that the use of Mayan writing is practically no longer used on monuments, stelae, altars and other media where they wrote.

the arrival of the colonizer

Without a global consensus, the crises are attributed to internal wars among the ruling elites, years of struggles with other city-states, abuses of power over the population, the overexploitation of cultivated land and other natural resources, climatic factors such as droughts. and hurricanes. These seem to be the main causes that caused the collapse of several consecrated cities that succumbed in a domino effect throughout the Mayan territory.

The probable civil uprisings by the population, great famines and diseases that cause migration, with the consequent abandonment of cities and interruption of trade, disconnecting the union and strength between cities and stopping scientific studies and advances.

Expert historians point out that the Mayan civilization lived in a constant wheel of crisis and collapse that transformed, grew and deteriorated its civilization throughout its more than 3000 years of history, from 2000 BC to 1521 AD.

The arrival of the conqueror caused drastic changes in the Mayan people

The first contact of the Spanish with the Peninsula is in 1517 AD, but the conquest of Yucatán did not begin until ten years later, in 1527. The Spanish conquest of the Mexica Tenochtitlan had happened 6 years ago, at the hands of Hernán Cortés.

In what situation were the Mayans at the arrival of the Spanish colonizer? one
Recreation of Palenque in the Classic Maya (200 aC-900 dC)
Frederick Caterwood Art Print Palenque S.XIX Font
Frederick Caterwood Palenque S.XIX Art Print. Source
Palenque archaeological site, Chiapas
Palenque, one of the greatest of the Classic Maya Period, currently


Approximately from 700 AD, the abandonment and transformation of many consecrated cities such as Palenque, Caracol, Yaxchilán, Tikal and countless others seems clear. Famines, diseases and wars accumulated corpses, pockets of disease, polluted waters, destruction, depleted farmlands. All this computation of situations makes it impossible to live in established cities, you have to migrate.

As happens throughout the history of mankind, in times of war and crisis there are great migrations. In this case the Mayans went from south to north, towards the Yucatan Peninsula.

During this 650-year period of progressive decline before the arrival of the Spanish colonizer, despite the upswing and splendor of specific cities such as Chichén Itzá or Uxmal, the Mayan civilization never returned to having the power of yesteryear. The Maya continued to live in cities, building and recovering ancient spaces, practicing their ceremonies, battling with neighbors, living after all, without that splendid structure.

Isolated cities maintained that splendor and stood out in this period, but it was not something globalized. This stage is known as the Postclassic Maya, which we are now going to see to follow the thread of history until the arrival of the Spanish colonizer.

Sites of the Late Classic Period 450 - 650 dC Source FAMSI
Some sites of the Late Classic Period that collapse 450 - 650 dC Source FAMSI


In the Yucatan Peninsula, important settlements grew in the last years of the Mayan civilization, in the Postclassic Maya, from 900 AD to 1521 AD There were large cities such as Chichén Itzá, Mayapán or Dzibanché that emerged in the Postclassic Maya, but the great civilization never resurfaced previous. There were no longer great lineages and powers competing in territory and splendor, in wisdom, in science and astronomy. The great base of civilization was shaken, the Mayan people were more vulnerable than ever.

Decades before the arrival of the conqueror the last great alliance between Mayan cities of the Peninsula ended up dismembering, what became known as the Liga de Mayapán. This caused new migrations, this time to the south, leaving a more uninhabited Yucatan Peninsula upon the arrival of the conqueror.

The Mayans who emigrated to the south found it easier to fight the Spanish by taking refuge in the mountains and the high jungle of the Petén.

the arrival of the colonizer to Mayan lands
Photo taken from the book «Introduction to Maya architecture» by Gaspar Muñoz Cosme.


Upon the arrival of the Spanish colonizer, the Mayan people were divided into families with illustrious surnames of what were once great lineages. There were the powerful Cocomes, the Tutul Xiúes faced with these, the Cheles in trade restrictions with the Cocomes, the Canules, allies of the Comomes, the Cupules, those with the greatest number upon the arrival of the Spanish conqueror, but not the most warriors.

In this difficult land, most of the neighbors and families were fighting with the one next door, and containing rage against the families they dominated. Some Mayan families like the Tutul Xiúes made pacts with the Spanish to the detriment of the neighbor. In many wars, the foreigner looks for internal fights to take advantage of.

Mayan chiefdoms
Mayan lineages in the XVI century according to Ralph Roys. Source

The Mayans, upon the arrival of the conqueror, remembered the great cities of their grandparents, which they barely inhabited. They continued to perform ceremonies in the ruins of their ancient cities and cenotes, but there was no elite living there that ruled the people in a structured way. The dispersion and the decline had been tangent for years.

The Mayan civilization, without a foreign rival to end it forcefully, was condemned to decline by its own chain of events. Surely, as a consequence of the doubts raised by weighing various theories as causes of the Mayan collapse, the bizarre speculations of extraterrestrials that made the Mayans disappear appear.

The case of the Mayans is curious, but not so much. Let's drop the extraterrestrial nonsense and other nonsense that have confused so many people about history. The Mayan civilization collapsed and was consumed in its own crisis, but the Mayan, depleted in population and resources, continued to occupy the territory.

The Mayans continue to exist in much of the territory they occupied, with a culture deeply rooted in their initial beliefs, despite the influences and subjugations to which they have been exposed since the arrival of the colonizer.



In the Yucatan Peninsula there was no great city or king to defeat, it did not happen like the conquest of Hernán Cortés in the north of Mexico, where a great Moctezuma reigned. Here in the south it was a different conquest, in a territory where they could advance relatively easily, with Mayans who lived in groups and who fiercely tried to avoid the incursions of the Spanish, but ended up being defeated.

In these times the Mayans were not led by great powers that would have been stronger and more resistant to attack. The Spanish were few in number in the conquest of Yucatán, but they were far more advanced than the Maya in warfare techniques and instruments.

«Exploitation of the indigenous by the Spanish conquistadors» Diego Rivera. Source

Despite facing a people in low hours, the conqueror did not have it easy with the Maya. They spent 170 years fighting in Mayan territory, with the last town to fall Tayasal, in the Guatemalan Petén. The conquest of Yucatán was from 1527 to 1546, 19 years of different incursions until the absolute dominion.

These historical facts for years, even today, are being sold as a discovery. This is how distorted History is narrated and transmitted: this was not a discovery. To this day, the wounds of the arrival of the colonizer are embedded in Mexican society and its diversity. but this chapter is another topic.

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Sandra Salvadó Training photographer, traveler by vocation and certified tourism guide by the Government of Mexico. We promote natural wonders and contemporary Mayan culture. Great fan of pre-Hispanic history. Author of the blog and co-founder of The Shortest Path Travel, agency that guides you through alternative paths in Mayan lands. Social and sustainable tourism in the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas.
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