The Spanish conquistadors found a number of small polities in northern Yucatán, but, on their march into Central America, encountered few inhabitants. The introduction of new diseases by the Spanish contributed to the decimation of Maya populations, leaving the region still more sparsely settled.
For the remaining groups, the Spanish conquest led to the imposition of Catholicism and the establishment of various European forms of political organization. Although this imposition was not completely effective, Spaniards either eliminated or incorporated the indigenous elite into the new colonial system, leaving the Maya-speaking population a relatively undifferentiated mass of rural peasants. Administrative centers, inhabited largely by Spaniards, were established in the 16th cent. at Mérida in Yucatán, San Cristobal in Chiapas, and Antigua Guatemala in Guatemala. The latter was destroyed in a series of earthquakes in the 18th cent., prompting Spaniards to move the administrative center to Guatemala City.
For the most part, the Maya region was peripheral to the Spanish American colonies because the lack of mineral wealth, the relatively sparse population, and the lack of land suitable for the cultivation of export crops. Taxes were collected through church tithes and through the encomienda system. Only in a few coastal regions of Guatemala and Chiapas were plantations established for the cultivation of coffee and sugar. But even these were difficult to maintain, owing to the prevalence of malaria and other tropical diseases in lowland areas and the difficulties involved in extracting labor from adjacent highland areas, where slowly increasing numbers of Maya led relatively autonomous lives.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.