You should divide Mayan history into 3 periods; the ancient Classic Period, the ancient Post-Classic period and the Post-Columbian period.
Ancient Mayan history is a mysterious maze of ideas, beliefs, fantasy, facts and guesswork. If you read 3 different authors on the ancient Maya, you will probably come to the conclusion that they all disagree with each other.
The only authentic information that we have from this ancient culture are a bunch of stones, temples, pyramids and glyphs. But, we can also witness the descendents of this culture two thousand years later or read the impressions of the first European conquerors that came in contact with the Maya.
Ancient Mayan history dates back over 2,000 years ago, however new discoveries reveal even more ancient constructions. The oldest Mayan construction found to date was discovered recently in San Bartolo, Guatemala. It seems to date back to the year 300 BC, but there are still many temples, stellae and tombs hidden under the thick jungles of Mesoamerica.
The ancient Classic Period is dated from 250 to 900 AD. Anything before that is called pre-classic and anything afterwards is post-classic. In the Pre-Classic Period Mayan settlements were formed and the first limestone temple constructions were built. The Classic Period saw the peak of architecture, constructions and inscriptions all throughout the Mayan world.
To summarize classic Mayan history is as good as impossible. As mentioned before; if science is really honest, it has to admit that it has no clue. You can, however, divide Mayan archaeology into two streams: Traditional, mainstream archaeology and something you might want to call a more recent, spiritual archaeology.
Whereas mainstream Mayan archaeology started back in the late 1800’s, when the first Western archaeologists (like Maudsley, Mahler, and Thompson) started studying the ancient culture, a more recent idea on Mayan archaeology started to grow about 40 years ago.
Mainstream archaeology believes that the Maya had a highly developed but brutal civilization, in which wars were fought over power and territory in a system of casts, where slaves were forced to build temples for their priests and kings and an elite ruled over the poor with a polytheist religion.
The more recent stream of Mayan archaeology thinks of the ancient Maya as a more peaceful people that were in close contact with nature and the universe. In this philosophy, the temples were built not for god worshipping or elite housing, but for observation of the universe and alignment with universal cycles.
Both streams agree on the fact that around 900 AD there came an abrupt end to the Mayan Classic period. Some think it was war or the lack of a powerful figure that ended this advanced civilization, others say the Maya had to destroy their environment to keep up with a growing number of citizens and constructions, where still others claim the Mayans understood that their cycle had come to an end and abandoned their cities without leaving a trace of their continuation.
The end of their civilization did not mean a complete disappearance of the Mayan people and their culture. While the classic period meant a peak in the Mayan civilization all over the Mundo Maya, post-classic architecture is only found in its northern region, Yucatán.
Part of the Itzá Maya people (originating from the central part of the Mundo Maya, the Petén) seem to have migrated to Yucatán. Around the year 990 AD Toltec influences were introduced and a new post classic architecture rose into huge pyramid constructions like the temple of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza.
In the south and central parts of the Mundo Maya, the Mayans seemed to forget the knowledge reached in earlier years. They continued to live in small settlements or nomad tribes in the jungles and mountains of the Mundo Maya, where they often practiced shifting cultivation or hunted or collected in the forest.
The first Spanish to arrive to the Mundo Maya came from Cuba to Yucatán in 1511 and were mainly in search of gold. The official conquest was started in Yucatán from central Mexico 16 years later.
The Maya suffered under foreign epidemic diseases brought by the Spaniards who also murdered many Maya, or enslaved and married them. Nonetheless Mayan opposition was strong and the Spanish conquest of the Mayan World did not finish until 1697 when the last place was conquered: Tayasal in the heart of the Petén.
The first Europeans arriving to what they called the “New World” were interested in gold, land and other riches from the area. Behind the conquerors soon followed the Catholic priests who forced the Mayan population to accept Christianity, which the Maya mixed with their own beliefs and traditions.
You can say that by now all Mayan traditions and beliefs are tainted by western influences. Apart from Christian religion, western influences are now being forced upon the Mayan communities in form of television, western development and help, western products and so on.
Nevertheless, small family communities of Lacandon Maya were able to avoid western contact due to their remote position. Hidden deep inside the thick rainforest of the Petén, they continued to live a traditional, secluded life until the 1940’s, when the first missionaries arrived to the area.
Most Lacandon Maya managed to continue living in their traditional ways until the 1970s when the Mexican government opened the Zona Lancandona for the construction of farms. Many Lacandon families were forced to move into one of the three main Lacandon communities. However, some inhabitants of the Petén claim there are still Mayans hiding inside the vast jungle of the Mayan world.