The Maya – accomplished astronomers and mathematicians, and architects of some of the grandest monuments ever known – created their first settlements in what is now Guatemala as early as 2400 BC. Over the centuries, the expansion of Maya civilization moved steadily northward, and by AD 550 great Maya city-states were established in southern Yucatán. In the 10th century, with the invasion of the bellicose Toltecs from Central Mexico, the great cities of southern Yucatán slowly dissolved, as attention shifted northward to new power centers like Chichén Itzá.
The last of the great Maya capitals, Mayapán, started to collapse around 1440, when the Xiú Maya and the Cocom Maya began a violent and protracted struggle for power. In 1540, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo the Younger (son of legendary conquistador Francisco de Montejo the Elder) utilized the tensions between the still-feuding Maya sects to conquer the area. The Spaniards allied themselves with the Xiú against the Cocom, finally defeating the Cocom and gaining the Xiú as reluctant converts to Christianity.
Francisco de Montejo the Younger, along with his father, Francisco de Montejo the Elder, and cousin (named…you guessed it, Francisco de Montejo) founded Mérida in 1542 and within four years brought most of the Yucatán Peninsula under Spanish rule. The Spaniards divided up the Maya lands into large estates where the natives were put to work as indentured servants.
When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the new Mexican government used the Yucatecan territory to create huge plantations for the cultivation of tobacco, sugarcane and henequén (agave rope fiber). The Maya, though legally free, were enslaved in debt peonage to the rich landowners.
In 1847, after being oppressed for nearly 300 years by the Spanish and their descendants, the Maya rose up in a massive revolt. This was the beginning of the War of the Castes. Finally, in 1901, after more than 50 years of sporadic, but often intense, violence, a tentative peace was reached; however, it would be another 30 years before the territory of Quintana Roo came under official government control. To this day some Maya do not recognize that sovereignty.
The commercial success of Cancún in the early 1970s led to hundreds of kilometers of public beach along the Caribbean coast being sold off to commercial developers, displacing many small fishing communities. While many indigenous people still eke out a living by subsistence agriculture or fishing, large numbers now work in the construction and service industries. Some individuals and communities, often with outside encouragement, are having a go at ecotourism, opening their lands to tourists and/or serving as guides.