Classic Maya period
Nearly all the carved stelae in Belize and the Maya area date to the Classic period. These monuments predominantly contain historical data. They record the birth, marriage, accession, death and exploits of deified rulers. Following their death, these rulers were generally laid to rest in large corbelled vaulted tombs that were constructed within the most important shrines or temples of the city centers. Along with the elite remains were placed much of their earthly treasures and at times their attendants were sacrificed to accompany them into the afterworld.
Studies of ancient settlement patterns demonstrate that the populations of Classic period centers were far greater than previously thought. Belize alone contains more prehistoric mounds than modern houses and conservative estimates suggest that the country probably supported close to a million inhabitants by A.D. 600. This information has subsequently led to the negation of an earlier hypothesis which argued that the ancient Maya were predominantly milpa farmers. The milpa system, also known as swidden or slash and burn agriculture, is an extensive system of land use that requires land that has been farmed to remain fallow for several years after it has been used and thus cannot, on its own, support large or dense populations. New research, however, has actually recorded evidence of a variety of intensive agricultural systems that were utilized by the Maya during the Classic period. In the Vaca Plateau, for example, archaeologists have mapped thousands of stone-walled terraces (some more than 6 feet high and 100 yards long) around every major site (like Caracol) in the region. In the Belize Valley, near Duck Run, other archaeologists have noted that the Maya excavated a series of ditches to control water levels during the rainy season. Further to the north, particularly near Pulltrouser Swamp, San Antonio, and along the New River and Rio Hondo, ancient Maya inhabitants created an expansive system of raised fields. The latter type of agriculture is a very intensive system capable of producing far more food than either milpa or terrace agriculture.
Further increases in population during the Classic period led to greater competition for limited resources. This in turn may have strained relations between centers and resulted with widespread conflict and warfare. Evidence for the latter was recorded on mural scenes painted on the walls of palaces at sites such as Bonampak and on many of the carved monuments that were erected at other site centers. Many stelae and lintels in the Maya lowlands, for instance, portray scenes of warfare and the capture of prisoners. Captive warriors were forced to work as slaves for the construction of buildings and other public works, and often were sacrificed in rituals to the gods or those commemorating important religious events. Excellent evidence for increasing conflicts and competition are provided by the inscriptions found on monuments at Caracol, Tikal and Naranjo. Altar 21 (the ballcourt marker) at Caracol records the defeat and death of Tikal's Double Bird by Caracol's Lord Water on May 1, 562 A.D. At Tikal this event coincides with the defacement of several stelae and monuments (i.e. Stela 31 was wrenched from it original location and dumped in the plaza). Thereafter no monuments were commemorated at Tikal for nearly 150 years. Lord Kan II who later succeeded Lord Water as ruler of Caracol continued the earlier aggression against other Peten sites. Several years after the fall of Tikal, Naranjo was subjugated in A.D. 626-642. Shortly thereafter Naranjo was probably forced to dedicate a hieroglypic stairway to Caracol. Like at Tikal, no new monuments were inscribed at Naranjo for 40 years following their defeat.
Most sites found in the Maya area contain evidence for Classic period occupation and activity. Sites in Belize with substantial information for developments at this time include Altun Ha, Caracol, La Milpa, Lubaantun, Nimli Punit, Pacbitun and Buena Vista. Coeval sites in Guatemala and Mexico include Kaminaljuyu, Tikal, Yaxha, Uaxactun, Calakmul, Kohunlich, Becan, Palenque, Bonampak, Yaxchilan, Piedras Negras, and Dzibanche.