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History Of The Guatemalan Highlands

The volcanic chain that stretches from the Mexican border to Antigua has been inhabited since at least 6500 B.C. The Mayan people who settled here named their homeland Guatemala, which means “land of forests.”

At one point in time, the Quiché were the principal nation in the highland region from Chichicastenango westward to Quetzaltenango. Pollen samples uncovered here lead historians to believe settlers began cultivating agriculture in the Guatemalan highlands as early as 3500 B.C. In addition, the Maya also developed a hieroglyphic writing system and a complex calendar. The nations who lived here had extensive trading networks, but were also always continuously at war. The Quiché, however, fortified their cities by building them in inaccessible locations surrounded by ravines.

When the Spaniards arrived in 1523, the Maya civilization was already fragmented, making them fairly easy to conquer. By 1528 Pedro de Alvarado had established rule over the region. The indigenous people were exploited by the new landowners, and soon fell to the bottom of the social hierarchy.

It was not until 1821 that Guatemala became independent from Spain. Unfortunately, this meant that the Spanish stole huge tracts of land for the cultivation of tobacco and sugar cane, further exploiting the Mayans to work the land.

In response to protests from landless guerillas, a civil war broke out that lasted for 36 years (1960-1996). During this time, the highlands were the site of horrific human rights abuses. Guatemala's indigenous population were targets of extreme persecution, and entire villages were burned or massacred. Approximately 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and 40-50,000 disappeared.

Today, you can still explore ruins from highland Mayan tribes, mostly the ruins of cities set up for ceremonial or defense purposes. The highlands are popular pilgrimage destinations for the indigenous descendants of the Maya, and many indigenous groups still live in small villages here.

30 Jul 2010

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