The Maya area is south of the Mexican area. Although close to one another and with much in common, the Mexican and Maya peoples were distinct cultures. Maya territory encompassed the Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco, those on the Yucatan Peninsula, the adjacent country of Guatemala, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras. This encompassed three geographic and cultural Mayan zones: highlands on the Pacific side; lowlands to the north, on the Caribbean side; and southern lowlands in the middle.
When Mayan culture began to coalesce, it had a substantial heritage to build upon. Innovations took place first at important centers such as Kaminaljuyu. Later, the mighty city Tikal rose to power. Then, developments shifted to the southern lowlands. Although it was the largest city, Tikal was one of many in the rainforest lowlands that would gain importance as the centuries progressed. Stylistic uniformity in these early centuries is thought to reflect greater political unity than in later times.
The most famous Mayan art comes dates to 7th and 8th centuries in the southern Maya lowlands, especially Guatemala’s Peten district. This renown is due in some measure to the relative availability of objects and to the durability of structures. The imposing ruins of the period, which have withstood centuries of torrential rains and rampant jungle growth, mark sites that were once the homes of ambitious kings, powerful priests, and great artists. Dynasties of rulers are now being identified – aristocratic families that lived, quarreled, intermarried, built instruments to themselves and to their gods, and took their riches to the grave. Ceramic vessels and figures, jade ornaments, and objects of bone, flint, shell, and pearl all come from Maya tombs.
By the 9th century, the flamboyant Maya world had begun to disintegrate. One by one the dynastic city-states in the south were abandoned. Only those in the north continued to thrive. Mexican presence was increasingly felt, and in the late 10th century, the Toltecs of central Mexico arrived on the Yucatan Pensinsula. Although the city of Chichen Itza took on much of its existing character during Toltec times, it is a character that was imposed on an already flourishing Maya city.