The first proof of human settlers in Guatemala goes back to 10,000 BC, although there is some evidence that put this date at 18,000 BC, such as obsidian arrow heads found in various parts of the country. There is archaeological proof that early Guatemalan settlers were hunters and gatherers, but pollen samples from Petén and the Pacific coast indicate that maize cultivation was developed by 3500 BC. Archaic sites have been documented in Quiché in the Highlands and Sipacate, Escuintla on the central Pacific coast (6500 BC).

Archeologists divide the pre-Columbian history of Mesoamerica into 3 periods: The Pre-Classic from 2000 BC to 250 AD, the Classic from 250 to 900 AD, and the Post-Classic from 900 to 1500 AD. Until recently, the Pre-Classic was regarded as a formative period, with small villages of farmers who lived in huts, and few permanent buildings, but this notion has been challenged by recent discoveries of monumental architecture from that period, such as an altar in La Blanca, San Marcos, some 3 mt. in diameter from 1000 BC; ceremonial sites at Miraflores and El Naranjo from 800 BC; the earliest monumental masks; and the Mirador Basin cities of Nakbé, Xulnal, Tintal, Wakná and El Mirador.

El Mirador was by far the most populated city in the pre-Columbian America, and contained the largest pyramid in the world, at 2,800,000 cubic meters in volume (some 200,000 more than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt). Mirador was the first politically organized state in America, named the Kan Kingdom in ancient texts. There were 26 cities, all connected by Sacbeob (highways), which were several kilometers long, up to 40 meters wide, and 2 to 4 meters above the ground, paved with stucco, that are clearly distinguishable from the air in the most extensive virgin tropical rain forest in Mesoamerica.

The Classic period of Mesoamerican civilization corresponds to the height of the Maya civilization, and is represented by countless sites throughout Guatemala, although the largest concentration is in Petén. This period is characterized by heavy city-building, the development of independent city-states, and contact with other Mesoamerican cultures.

This lasted until around 900 AD, when, for reasons not completely understood by archaeologists, the Maya went into decline, and abandoned many of the cities of the central lowlands. The Post-Classic period is represented by regional kingdoms such as the Itzá and Ko'woj in the Lakes area in Petén, and the Mam, Ki'ch'es, Kack'chiquel, Tz'utuh'il, Pokom'chí, Kek'chi and Chortí in the Highlands. These cities preserved many aspects of Mayan culture, but would never equal the size or power of the Classic cities.


After discovering the New World, the Spanish mounted several expeditions to Guatemala, beginning in 1518. Before long, Spanish contact resulted in an epidemic that devastated native populations (believed to be smallpox), based on the description in the "Memorial de Sololá". Hernán Cortés, who had led the Spanish conquest of Mexico, granted a permit to Captain Pedro de Alvarado, to conquer this land. Alvarado at first allied himself with the Cakchiquel nation to fight against their traditional rivals the Quiché nation. Alvarado later turned against the Kaqchiquels, and eventually held the entire region under Spanish domination.

During the colonial period, Guatemala was a Captaincy General of Spain, and a part of New Spain (Mexico). It extended from the Soconusco region - now in southern Mexico (states of Chiapas, Tabasco) - to Costa Rica. This region was not as rich in minerals (gold and silver) as Mexico and Peru, and was therefore not considered to be as important. Its main products were sugarcane, kakao, blue dye, red dye from cochineal insects, and precious woods used in artwork for churches and palaces in Spain.

The first Capital was named Tecpan Goatemalan, founded in July 25, 1524 with the name of Villa de Santiado de Goathemala and was located near Iximché, the Kaqchikel's Capital City. It was moved to Ciudad Vieja on November 22, 1527, when the Kaqchikel attacked the city. On September 11, 1541 the city was flooded when the lagoon in the crater of the Agua Volcano (formerly known as Hunapu Volcano) collapsed due to heavy rains and earthquakes, and was moved 5 kilometers to Antigua Guatemala, on the Panchoy Valley, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This City was destroyed by several earthquakes in 1773-1774, and the King of Spain, granted the authorization to move the Captaincy General, to the Ermita Valley, named after a Catholic Church to the Virgen de El Carmen, in its current location, founded in January 2, 1776.



On September 15, 1821, Guatemala declared itself independent from Spain. The new Guatemalan Republic included the Soconusco region, Belize, and what are now the countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Its 1.5 million inhabitants were concentrated in urban centers.

On October 3, 1821, the Captaincy-General of Guatemala, officially proclaimed its independence from Spain and its incorporation into the Mexican Empire. This region had been formally subject to New Spain throughout the colonial period, but as a practical matter was administered separately. All but Chiapas soon separated from Mexico after Agustín I from Mexico was forced to abdicate.
The Guatemalan provinces formed the United Provinces of Central America, also called the Central American Federation. The capital city remained Guatemala City, which is still today the most populous city in Central America.

A politically unstable period followed, aggravated by the collapse of the world market for indigo, the country's main export to Europe, due to the invention of synthetic dyes. This prompted each province to leave the Federation, from 1838 to 1840, beginning with Costa Rica, and Guatemala became an independent nation.

Guatemala has long claimed all the territory of neighboring Belize, formerly part of the Spanish colony, and later illegally occupied by the United Kingdom. Guatemala recognized Belize's independence in 1991, but their territorial dispute is not resolved. Negotiations are currently underway under the auspices of the Organization of American States to conclude it.



Dictator Jorge Ubico Castañeda was forced to resign his office on July 4, 1944 in response to a wave of protests and a general strike. His replacement, General Juan Federico Ponce Vaides, was later forced out of office by a coup d'état led by Major Francisco Javier Arana and Captain Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán on October 20, 1944. About 100 people were killed in the coup. The country was led by a military junta made up of Arana, Arbenz, and Jorge Toriello Garrido. The Junta called Guatemala's first free election, which was won with a majority of 85 per cent by the prominent writer and teacher Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, who had lived in exile in Argentina for 14 years. Arévalo was the first democratically-elected president of Guatemala to fully complete the term for which he was elected. His "Christian Socialist" policies, inspired by the U.S. New Deal, were criticized by landowners and the upper class as communist. This period was also the beginning of the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR, which was to have a considerable influence on Guatemalan history. From the 1950s through the 1990s, the US government directly supported Guatemala's army with training, weapons, and money.

In 1954, Arévalo's freely-elected Guatemalan successor Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and a rag-taggle group of mercenaries and Guatemalans (landowners, the old military cast and the Catholic Church, after the government instituted decree No. 900 that expropriated unused land owned including large tracts owned by the United Fruit Company, a U.S.-based banana merchant, now days known as Chiquita Banana). The CIA codename for the coup was Operation SUCCESS, its second successful overthrow of a foreign government after the 1953 coup in Iran. Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was installed as president in 1954 and ruled until he was assassinated by a member of his personal guard in 1957.

In the election that followed, General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes assumed power. He is most celebrated for challenging the Mexican president to a gentleman’s duel on the bridge on the south border to end a feud on the subject of illegal fishing by Mexican boats on Guatemala's pacific coast, two of which were sunk by the Guatemalan Air Force. Ydigoras authorized the CIA training of 5,000 Cubans in Guatemala's territory and who were opposed to Fidel Castro he also provided airstrips in the region of Petén for what later became the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Ydigoras government was ousted in 1963 when the Air Force attacked several Military bases. The coup was led by his Defense Minister Colonel Enrique Peralta Azurdia.

The same year, a group of disaffected young Army officers initiated a guerrilla insurgency movement, known as the November 13 Revolutionary Movement (MR-13). A splinter of this group became the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FAR, that was supported by the clandestine Communist party, PGT (Guatemalan Workers Party). In 1966 Julio César Méndez Montenegro was elected president of Guatemala under the banner of a "Democratic Opening". Mendez Montenegro was the candidate of the Revolutionary Party, a center-left party which had its origins in the post-Ubico era. It was during this time that rightist paramilitary organizations, such as the "White Hand", (Mano Blanca), and the Anticommunist Secret Army, (Ejército Secreto Anticomunista), were formed. Those organizations were the forerunners of the infamous "Death Squads." Military advisors of The United States Army Special Forces (Green Berets) were sent to Guatemala to train troops and help transform its army into a modern counter-insurgency force, which eventually made it the most sophisticated in Central America. The guerrilla movement had it's operation's area in the northeastern mountains of Zacapa and Izabal, as well as the valley of the Motagua River. During the 1966-1970 period, the Guatemalan army took the offensive in the military operations which led to the near disintegration of the FAR. The remnants retreated to the northern department of Peten or integrated the urban commandos of the guerrilla based in Guatemala City.

In 1970 Colonel Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio was elected president. A new guerrilla movement entered the country from Mexico, into the Western Highlands in 1972. In the disputed election of 1974, General Kjell Lauguerud García defeated General Efraín Ríos Montt, a candidate of the Christian Democratic Party, who claimed that he had been cheated out of a victory through fraud. On February 4, 1976, a major earthquake destroyed several cities and caused more than 25,000 deaths. In 1978 in a fraudulent election, General Romeo Lucas García assumed power. The 1970s' saw the birth of two new guerrilla organizations, The Poor Guerrilla Army (EGP) and the Organization of the Peoples in Arms (ORPA), who began and intensified by the end of the seventies, guerrilla attacks that included urban and rural guerrilla warfare, mainly against the military and some of the civilian supporters of the army. In 1979 the United States President, Jimmy Carter, order a ban on all military aid to the Guatemalan Army for blatant abuses to Human Rights. Almost immediately, the Israeli Government took on the job to supply the Guatemalan Army with advisers, weapons and other military supplies.

In 1980 a group of Quiché Indians who belonged to the guerrilla URNG, were invited by communist Spanish ambassador Maximo Cajal to take over the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City and take hostage diplomatic personnel. Their intent was to create a diplomatic incident and thus "officialize" his support to the terrorist activities of the guerrilla. The Guatemalan government launched an assault that killed almost everyone inside as a result of a fire that consumed the building. The Guatemalan government claimed that the activists set the fire and immolated themselves. However, the Spanish ambassador, who survived the fire, disputed this claim, noting that the Guatemalan police intentionally killed almost everyone inside and set the fire to erase traces of their acts. As a result of this incident, the government of Spain broke diplomatic relations with Guatemala (the only time that such act has taken place between Spain and one of its former colonies in modern times). This government was overthrown in 1982. General Efraín Ríos Montt was named President of the military junta, continuing the bloody campaign of torture, disappearances, and "scorched earth" warfare. The country became a pariah state internationally. Ríos-Montt was overthrown by General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, who called for an election of an national constitutional assembly to write a new constitution, leading to a free election in 1986, which was won by Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, the candidate for the Christian Democracy Party.

In 1982 the four Guerrilla groups, EGP, ORPA, FAR and PGT, merged and formed the URNG, influenced by the Salvadoran guerrilla FMLN, the Nicaraguan FSLN and Cuba's Government, in order to become stronger. The terrorist activities of the guerrilla, plus the Army's alleged human rights violations during the "scorched earth" era more than 45,000 Guatemalans left the country going to Mexico, where they were gathered in Communities by the Mexican Government in Chiapas and Tabasco.

In 1992, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous ex-terrorist (URNG) and presently a human rights activist, for her efforts to bring international attention to the government-sponsored genocide against the indigenous population.

The bloody 36-year war old repression ended in 1996 with a peace accord between the guerrillas and the government of President Álvaro Arzú, negotiated by the United Nations through intense brokerage by pro-guerrilla nations like Norway and Spain . Both sides made major concessions. The guerrilla fighters disarmed and received land to work. According to the U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission, government forces and paramilitaries were responsible for over 93% of the human rights violations during the war. During the first 10 years, the victims of the state-sponsored terror were primarily students, workers, professionals, and opposition figures of communist tendencies, but in the last years, they were thousands of mostly rural Mayan farmers and non-combatants, mostly associated (by choice or force) to the terrorists (URNG). More than 450 Mayan villages were destroyed and over 250,000 people became refugees. In certain areas, such as Baja Verapaz, the Truth Commission considered that the Guatemalan state engaged in an intentional policy of genocide against particular ethnic groups Civil War. In 1999, then US president Bill Clinton stated that the United States was wrong to have provided support to Guatemalan military forces that took part in the brutal civilian killings.

Since the peace accord, Guatemala has enjoyed successive democratic elections, most recently in 2003. The current government has successfully signed free trade agreements with the United States and the rest of Central America through CAFTA, and other agreements with Mexico, and Panama.