Chichen Itza History

Unraveling Chichén history has proved to be a difficult task despite the fact that many excavations have been carried out. One reason for this is that fewer stelae and other glyph inscribed monuments were built here as in the Classic Mayan cities of the south.

In the most widely accepted view, Chichen Itza emerged as an important city around 700 AD as a result of the unification of several different groups in the Yucatan, driven there by a series of crises in other parts of Mesoamerica. Around 650 AD the huge capital of Teotihuacan in central Mexico collapsed and it is likely that some inhabitants migrated towards the Yucatan. Around the same time refugees from Tikal and its allies who had lost the war against Calakmul might also have arrived in the region. Although the true origins of the founders remain uncertain, in chronicles written after the Spanish Conquest the founders of Chichen Itza were always identified as a group of ‘foreigners’. However, the founders also included people who were clearly situated within more traditional Yucatan Mayan culture.

Chichen Itza therefore, was always a hybrid community influenced by a mix of people from different parts of Mesoamerica. This in contract with its great rival, Cobá, who had a purely Mayan background. Over time, Chichen Itza moved even further away from Classic Mayan culture leaving behind earlier traditions. Between 800 and 950, Chichen was a major power in the region, and after a decisive victory over Coba, few rivals remained.

El Castillo as photographed by Teobert Maler in 1892.

El Castillo as photographed by Teobert Maler in 1892.

When and how Chichen declined remains uncertain. According to Maya chronicles its neighbor Mayapan conquered Chichen Itza in the 13th century but archaeological data indicates that Chichen Itza already fell by around 1000 AD. One theory claims that the Toltecs conquered Chichen Itza around this time as some of Chichen’s most spectacular buildings have a style that is unquestionably related to those of central America. However, recent research has show that many of these buildings were already built in the 9th century while Mayan carvings have been found on Toltec buildings. The true direction of the Maya-Toltec connection therefore remains a source of debate. Whatever caused its collapse, the structures of Chichén Itzá were eventually overgrown with jungle and slowly decayed until major archaeological excavations started in the 1920s.