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Lamanai, Belize - Preclassic (circa 2000 BC to AD 250)


This time period is divided into three periods: Early (2000 to 1000 BC), Middle (1000 to 400 BC), and Late (400 BC to AD 250). It was during the Middle Preclassic that the great civilization often referred to as the 'mother culture' of the Maya, the Olmec, emerged in the swampy Mexican Gulf Coast region. Olmec concepts and ideas spread to a wide array of locations in Mesoamerica but most notably to the Maya region. 


The first major cities of the Maya, as early as 500 BC, were establishing themselves in the lowland forests. It was during this time they began to ornately decorate structures with beautiful stucco masks and red paint. One of the first of these Preclassic cities was Nakbe, which was superceded by the massive site of El Mirador. For reasons not yet understood this culture failed and there was a shift to the Southern Area, which included the cities Kaminaljuyu and El Baul. It was in this area that, for the first time, the Maya began to develop features we refer to as Classic traits; the use of the Long Count calendar, hieroglyphic inscriptions and historical portraits that all reflected a rise in new political ideology. It was during this same time around 100 BC that the Classic period dynasty of Tikal was establishing itself. Again, for reasons not yet known cities in the Southern Area declined and there was yet another shift this time back into the lowlands.

Lamanai during this time is beginning to flourish itself and this is evident in the architecture and accomplishments detailed below.  It is thought that one of the theories regarding why Lamanai survived the Classic period collapse was due to its ability to create a stable foundation from the beginning, both economically and politically, upon which to build its city.

Preclassic Phase, Structure N10-43 – Lag, High Temple

Illustration by L. Belanger ( - Recently recovered masks during the Tourism Development Project (TDP) flank the east and west side of the central tripartite stair, lower masks were uncovered by D. Pendergast

Structure N10-43 - Preclassic rounded lower

Terraces, Lamanai Belize

West side, tripartite lower stair, and intricate Maya architectural detail of inset panels, image captured during the Tourism Development Project (TDP) at Lamanai that ran from 2000 - 2003

Maya Preclassic Chocolate Pots

Recovered by D. Pendergast, the ancient Maya developed the original chocolate drink, and from residue analysis we now know it was often served in spouted vessels like the ones seen here, for more information see the article that features Terry Powis an archaeologist who studies Preclassic ceramic from Lamanai

A Portion of Lamanai's Preclassic Sector (Quads N8 & 9 and P8 & 9) 

Even further north mapped structures outnumber those located in the central precinct of Lamanai

Lamanai Preclassic Vessels 

Preclassic material has predominately been recovered thus far from the northern sections of the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve, as is the case with the vessels pictured here, of particular importance is the vessel on the far left (front), it is the earliest vessel found thus far and dates to 500 BC, also significant is the crocodilian headdress on the upper portion, thus far the earliest representation of this revered species at Lamanai

Structure N9-56 – Preclassic Phase, Mask Temple

Illustration by L. Belanger ( - Very little of this phase is visible today - see the location of this structure in the map above - the detailed stucco façade that ornamentally decorates this early structure resembles masks located at the ancient Maya site of Cerros – this site is located approximately 90 river miles north of Lamanai




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