It is not known exactly when the first dwellers of the Copan Valley settled in the region. Below the great Acropolis archaeologists have found evidence of dwellings suggesting occupation started as early as the Late Preclassic period around 100- 400 BC. However, evidences of previous settlements have been found by archaeologists... It is possible that the first people who lived in the Copan valley arrived here during the early Pre- Classic period, between 2000 and 1000 BC. The city we know today as Copan started thriving as a large ceremonial center around 300 AD, the founder of the Copan dynasty, Yax Kuk' Mo', rose to power in 426 AD. Several references are found in monuments in Copan with a date around 160 AD, and some experts believe this may be the date of the founding of the city itself.

However, we must make several considerations. On Altar I there is an earlier reference to an event happening in 350 BC, which suggests the date is historical in nature; but whether it is truly a historical event or a mythical or legendary occurrence remains to be determined, so this may not be conclusive in terms of Copan's occupation. Archaeological records show habitational complexes with burials underneath the buildings' floors, a common practice all over the Copan Valley in later times. In an altar sculpted on 776 AD, Altar Q, we have a clear and complete chronology of the dynastic sequence started by Yax K'uk' Mo', up until the demise of the dynasty 16 kings later. Other texts suggest that even before Yax K'uk' Mo' there was already some form of institutionalized government. There are references made to a couple rulers prior to Yax K'uk' Mo's' reign, but they are incomplete and they aren't really understood very well yet. So, we can say that it wasn't until Yax K'uk Mo' came into power that Copan rose as a political unit.

Copan's sphere of influence radiated many miles away, mostly due to its dominant position over the main site of the Motagua Valley, Quirigua. For the longest time it was Copan who dominated the trade route, dealing with obsidian and jade. Its influence reached as far north as Lamanai in Belize, but it was its situation of power over the trade route that seems to be the key. Copan were the overlords of Quirigua in Guatemala for the longest time. At both Copan and Quirigua there is evidence showing the degree of influence that Copan exerted over Quirigua. By the Late Classic Period something changed, and although at Quirigua there is a text naming Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil of Copan as a patron to K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yoaat, the ruler of Quirigua, at Copan there are four known references concerning the death of Waxaklajuun Ubaah' K'awiil at the hands of K'ak' Tiliw Chaan Yoat of Quirigua.

There is one difficulty in determining when the ancient Maya of Copan first settled the Copan valley, and it has to do with a strange phenomenon that is seen at ceremonial centers among the ancient Mayan cities, where new rulers tend to “erase” the presence of older rulers by defacing, destroying, relocating, reusing or even burying monuments that held references to their predecessors. This is known as the iconoclastic phenomenon and it can be seen in some of the monuments at Copan, where some of the sculpted characters have broken noses.

At Copan, being at the periphery of the Maya World, there are traits which may point at the presence of other groups either living in the city or participating in its political scene, in contrast with other Late Classic Maya ceremonial centers. A good example may prove this is Structure 22A, also know as the Popol Nah or Mat House, where evidence suggests that nobles from around the Copan Valley gathered together, either as advisors or co rulers with the king, to discuss and take action on the affairs of State. (Popol Nah also means House of the Council, they also existed in other Maya sites).

To learn more about the ancient Maya's art and religion, as well as their agricultural techniques and their commercial routes, their mathematics and hieroglyphic writing please click on the following links:

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