The earliest record known of the Maya in Belize dates back to 2500 B.C. when they inhabited the area now known as Cuello in northern Belize. Today, we have only a few Maya who are direct descendants of those ancient people.
The peak of Maya civilization – the Classic Period – when at least 400,000 Maya inhabited Belize, extended from about A.D. 250 to A.D. 1000. Shortly after this, the Maya societies declined due either to soil exhaustion, disease, or the peasants revolting and massacring the priests.
Many Maya were living in Belize when the Spanish and the British came in the 16th and 17th centuries. Defeated by the British in 1867 and 1872, they later became integrated into the Belizean society as dispossessed and dependent people.
There are presently three groups of Maya living in various areas of Belize. The Yucatec Maya, who migrated from the south of Mexico, live in the northern districts of Corozal and Orange Walk and have merged with the Mestizo population. The Mopan Maya came from San Luis in the Peten region of Guatemala, and settled in San Antonio, Toledo District. The Mopan Maya of the western area of Belize are a mixed Peten and Yucatecan stock, mostly occupying the village of San Jose Succotz in the Cayo District. Immigrating from San Pedro Corcha in Guatemala, the Kekchi Maya inhabit about eight villages in the Toledo District.
Although the Maya language group includes twenty diverse, but related, dialects, the Maya in the north speak Yucateco, those in the Toledo District speak Mopanero and Kekchi. Many Maya speak English along with their mother tongue, and mainly through long contact with the Spanish culture of Mexico and Guatemala speak Spanish also.
The whole life of the Maya centers around agriculture, and their most common food is corn, although beans, pork and fish are also eaten. Comprising about eleven percent of Belize’s population, the Maya live in spaciously laid-out villages, some near to the ceremonial sites of the earliest Maya settlements. Names like Altun Ha, Xunantunich, Cuello, Lubaantun, Caracol and Lamanai are some of the sites still maintained as tourist attractions, and as reminders of the magnificent past of the Maya.
Corn is the staple dish of the Kekchi Maya, which is served in a variety of ways. From corn they make masa, which first has to be cooked with white lime. Once soft, it is allowed to cool and then washed in a special calabash with holes, drained and transferred to a corn mill or a traditional grinding stone where it is ground and converted to masa.
Masa is used to make tortillas, tamales, pouchu and korech. Most often tortilla is served with a dish of hot caldo (soup). This soup usually contains chicken, fish or game meat with added ingredients such as peppers, annatto, cilantro, culantro, salt, cooking fat and water.
The Kekchi Mayan women wear embroidered clothing which they weave themselves. They decorate their blouses and skirts with colorful embroidery in geometric designs.
In some communities there is some belief in magic and sorcerers, but many healers have become herbalists. Sorcerers are called pulia and the duties they perform include dedication of new houses, lending prayer for divine help, curing illness, and black magic. Sorcerers do not normally perform unless they are under the influence of alcohol, which is accepted as ceremonial drinking.