The Ancient Maya Site of Lamanai, Belize: A Brief History

One of the few remaining original ancient Maya city names designated by the Maya that still exists today is Lamanai. This site itself is located in northern Belize on the west bank of the New River Lagoon. The ancient name of Lamanai was recorded by the Spanish in the 16th century and brought to light again by historian Grant Jones through his work in the archives in Seville, Spain. The name Lamanai is loosely translated as “Submerged Crocodile”. Knowing these two facts tells us two very important things, one, the ancient Maya were still residing at Lamanai when the Spanish arrived. And two, the site name indicates the importance of the Morelets’ Crocodile whose remains are rarely found in midden deposits indicating they were rarely consumed due to their important status within the community. As one visits this site it becomes apparent that this translation is fitting because there are numerous representations of crocodiles that appear on ceramics, stone, architecture and accompanying stucco facades.

An estimated 30 – 60,000 Maya may have resided at Lamanai during the height of the civilization and the occupational history well exceeds many other Maya cities with 3,000 years of unbroken human history. This history of occupation carries right through to contact period, and it certainly is the case that the Spanish would not have constructed two churches at this Maya site if there were not a population residing at Lamanai to convert. The first Spanish church, Structure N12-13, dates to approximately AD 1570; it was constructed some time after Lamanai became part of the Spanish encomienda system (royal grant to a Spaniard for the right to labor and tribute a native population, who is also responsible for christianizing the natives). This first church was built over an existing Tulum-style Postclassic building that contained painted murals; in this case it appears the Spanish were attempting to convert the Maya to Catholicism by substituting one religious practice for another. Conversion was difficult and the archaeological evidence for this exists in the form of a burned and destroyed first church and the caching of various figurines around and near the churches in traditional Maya fashion. Although a second Spanish church was constructed, Structure N12-11, ultimately the Spanish were never able to establish a strong hold in this area. It was in AD 1638 that there was a widespread revolt by the Maya that ended in the retreat of the Spanish at least for the time being.

The Late Postclassic and historic/colonial periods at Lamanai are certainly fascinating and are what the majority of current research is focusing on. But the fact that Lamanai has one of the tallest securely dated Preclassic structures in the Maya world, Structure N10-43, indicates that it certainly had a strong foundation upon which to build and thrive. This Preclassic stronghold may have been one of the reasons why Lamanai survived what many other major city-states suffered during the 9th century.

It was during the Late Classic period that there was a decline or collapse of the Maya civilization that consisted of a political and/or economic breakdown, a possible drought, and possibly a population increase that severely stressed the food supply. This decline affected numerous Classic period city-states such as Tikal, Copan, Palenque, and Caracol. During this time these city-states were almost completely abandoned and monumental architecture was no longer constructed, production of pottery declined, and carved stone monuments no longer told the stories of the elite ruling class of the Maya. Lamanai survived this decline or collapse and there are several theories why, one already mentioned is the strong Preclassic foundation, and a second being the construction of the city on a large body of fresh water today called the New River Lagoon. During ancient times, as well as modern, this lagoon provided food, a means of transportation, drinking and bathing water, a sacred haven for the revered crocodile, and a suitable setting to carry out sacred rituals.

Due to Lamanai’s close proximity to the New River Lagoon the ancient Maya residing there may have escaped the possible environmental degradation seen elsewhere. It has also been suggested that Lamanai was fairly isolated from other major cities, we know the Maya never had a central, capital city, and that there were constant conflicts during the Classic period. It may have been the case that Lamanai’s somewhat isolated location, to some extent still the case today, again protected it from this decline or collapse.

Ancient and more recent history of Lamanai (see Belize History: The Maya, Spanish, and British Occupation, by L. Howard) mirrors the development of the young nation of Belize with occupation by the Maya, Spanish, and British. The British commercial pursuits during the colonial period at Lamanai included production of 200 acres of sugar cane by the British who constructed a mill whose success was really never seen during the 15 years of operation from 1860 – 1875. The extensive iron works that were once one of the only steam-operated mills in Belize is located in the western portion of the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve.

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