The Mayan pre-classic period stretches from 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250, from the primitive huts of hunter-gatherers to organized agriculture and large cities. It covers the beginning of what we consider civilization to a complex, well-functioning, socially stratified society.
Scholars date the early pre-classic era from 2000 to 1000 B.C. Gradually, the shift from hunter-gatherer to subsistence agriculture took place as the Maya learned to domesticate plants and a few animals. Skeleton analysis from early Maya graves revealed that maize had already become a significant portion of the diet, about 30 percent. However, the Maya continued to hunt, fish and gather wild foods. During this time, the Maya settled into small agricultural or maritime villages. They began to make pottery. Their tools include wooden implements, grinding stones and stone hoes. The earliest Mayan villages appear in Belize around 1200 B.C. at Colha, Corozal and Cuello. Besides their simple thatched huts, these Maya also constructed shrines in their villages.
The middle pre-classic era ran from 1000 B.C. to 400 B.C. During this time, the Maya expanded in territory and population. Their society gained complexity both socially and politically. Trade increased with the Olmec, who influenced early Maya culture. The earliest political unit was a chiefdom. Early Mayan chiefs based their power on kinship, social status and control of the economy. Chiefs claimed descent from the gods.
Trade among the Maya centers and the Olmec included luxury goods such as jade items and obsidian mirrors. Agriculture advanced with irrigation and canals. Villages began to include public works such as earth mounds and central plazas. Stone stelae appeared, with images of rulers carved on them, although no writing yet.
Santa Rita, Cola, Cahal Pech, Lamanai and Cuello were important middle pre-classic sites in Belize. In the Peten region of Guatemala, Uaxactum, Tikal and Nakbe were developing centers of Maya civilization. Later sites around 900 B.C. include La Blanca and Chalchuapa. An important site was Kaminaljuyu, located where Guatemala City is today on Lake Miraflores. Kaminaljuyu dominated the trade in obsidian, a sharp volcanic rock that edged the tools and weapons of the Maya.
The late pre-classic stretched from 400 B.C. to A.D. 250. The important sites from this time period include Kaminaljuyu, El Mirador and San Bartolo. While previously scholars assumed that Maya civilization didn't manifest until the Classic period, now they know that all of the achievements of the Maya formed in the late pre-classic. The Maya were practicing writing, mathematics and calendrics. Maya art of the era include stone carvings and painted murals as well as fine ceramics and jewelry. Trade, agriculture, population and territories all expanded. At times chiefdoms warred with chiefdoms. Monumental public works in the major late pre-classic cities included pyramids, ball courts and stone causeways or roads. Kaminaljuyu and El Mirador were both cities with large populations. While smaller, San Bartolo contains painted murals that greatly expanded our knowledge of the Maya.