The oldest human settlements in Guatemala records back to the Paleo-Indian era and were made up of hunters and gatherers. Sites recording back to 6500 BCE have been discovered in Quiché in the Sipacate and Highlands, Escuintla on the Pacific coast (central).
Although it is not clear when these tribes of hunters and gatherers turned to cultivation, pollen specimens from the Pacific coast and Petén show maize cultivation as early as 3500 BCE. By 2500 BCE, small villages were growing in Guatemala’s Pacific lowlands in Tilapa, Ocós, La Blanca, Ujuxte, El Mesak, where the earliest pieces of ceramic pottery from Guatemala have been discovered. Mysterious excavations in the Rucal and Antigua Guatemala Urías have produced stratified materials from the Early and Middle Preclassic periods (2000 BCE to 400 BCE). Paste analyses of these early pottery pieces in the Antigua Valley show they were composed of clays from various environmental zones, implying people from the Pacific coast extended into the Antigua Valley.
Guatemala’s Pre-Columbian era can be split into the Preclassic era (from 2000 BCE to 250 CE), the Classic period (250 CE to 900 CE), and the Postclassic period (900 CE to 1500 CE). Until lately, the Preclassic was regarded as a formative era, comprising small villages of farmers who lived in few permanent buildings and huts, but this idea has been questioned by new discoveries of early monumental architecture from that era, such as an altar inSan Marcos, La Blanca, from 1000 BCE; ceremonial sites at El Naranjo and Miraflores from 801 BCE; the oldest monumental masks; and the Mirador Basin cities of Xulnal, Nakbé, Wakná, El Tintal, and El Mirador.
In Monte Alto near Escuintla, large stone heads and potbellies have been discovered, recording back to around 1800 BCE. The stone heads have been extensively ascribed to the Pre-Olmec Monte Alto Culture, and some researchers suggest the Olmec Culture began in the Monte Alto area. It has also been debated the only connection between the later Olmec heads and the statues is their size. The Monte Alto Culture may have been the first mixed culture of Mesoamerica and its predecessor. Some places have distinct Olmec styles in Guatemala, such as La Corona in Peten, Chocolá in Suchitepéquez, and Tak’alik A’baj, in Retalhuleu, the last of which is the only old city in the Americas with Mayan and Olmec features.
El Mirador was, as per recent discoveries, the most populated city in pre-Columbian America. Both the Monos and El Tigre pyramids contain a volume greater than 200,000 cubic meters. The Maya at Mirador Basin reportedly developed the first politically coordinated state in America around 1500 BCE, named the Kan Kingdom in ancient texts. There were 26 cities, all connected by highways (sacbeob), which were many kilometers long, up to 30 meters wide, and two to six meters above the ground, paved with stucco. These are distinct from the air in the vastest virgin tropical Mesoamerica rain forest.
Northern Guatemala has exceptionally high densities of Pre-classic sites, including Xulnal, Naachtun, Porvenir, El Mirador, Pacaya, La Muralla, Pacaya, Nakbé, Wakná (formerly Güiro), El Tintal, Tikal, and Uaxactún. Of these, Nakbé, El Mirador, Tikal, Tintal, Wakná, and Xulnal are the largest in the Maya world. Such size was manifested in the site’s size and in the monumentality or volume, particularly in the construction of incredibly large platforms to support prominent temples.
The Classic era of Mesoamerican civilization corresponds to the Maya civilization’s pinnacle and is described by countless Guatemala sites. The most extensive collection is located in Petén.
This vividly lasted until around 900 CE, when the Classic Maya civilization collapsed. The Maya died in a drought-induced famine and left many of the towns of the central lowlands.