More than 3,000 years ago, an advanced civilization began to emerge on the Yucatan Peninsula in the area now shared between the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. At the peak of the Maya civilization in the years 300-900 AD, a period known to scholars as the Classic Period, nearly 2 million Maya lived in the territory of the modern day nation of Belize.
The Maya were an incredibly advanced society with highly developed mathematics and an extremely precise calendar calculated by making careful observations of the stars from their many observatories. Without the use of horses or draft animals, the Maya built enormous cities in the middle of the jungle, many of which like Caracol, Lamanai, and Xunantunich still survive.
Archaeologists continue to debate what caused the Maya society to collapse around the year 900 AD, speculating that it might have been due to war, climate change, religious revolutions, natural disasters, or a combination of one or more of these factors.
The first documented European to reach what is now Belize was Christopher Columbus. On his fourth and final journey to the New World in 1502, Columbus and his crew mapped the coastline of Belize and named the large body of water in the south as the Bay of Honduras. Spanish conquistadores arrived soon after but met with stiff resistance from the surviving Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula area, so their presence in Belize was limited to a few areas in the north.
In the 1600s, the first Europeans to settle in Belize were English Puritans. Drawn to the country because of its rich forests of valuable hardwoods like mahogany, the settlers dubbed themselves "Baymen" after the Bay of Honduras. Offshore, the islands that make up the Belize Barrier Reef were used by a motley crew of shipwrecked sailors, pirates, and buccaneers who used the narrow waterways to launch attacks against Spanish galleons sailing back to Europe laden with treasure.
The Spanish and English colonists clashed many times, the situating coming to a head in 1798 off the island of St. George's Caye. After the ragtag band of settlers managed to defeat the Spanish flotilla, English domination of the region was assured. The events of 1798 are now celebrated every year on September 10.
As the population grew, Great Britain formally claimed Belize as its colony, naming it British Honduras after the bay. Throughout the 19th century, many different ethnic groups came to Belize, some escaping civil wars in neighboring country and others as enslaved sugar plantation workers.
By the middle of the 20th century, Belize was a prosperous country with an emerging multi-ethnic democracy. In 1973, the colony's name was officially changed to Belize. And on September 21, 1981, Belize became a fully independent nation.