The first evidence of human settlers in Guatemala dates back to 12,000 BC. Some evidence suggests human presence as early as 18,000 BC, such as obsidian arrow heads found in various parts of the country. There is archaeological proof that early Guatemalan settlers were hunters and gatherers, but pollen samples from Petén and the Pacific coast indicate that maize cultivation was developed by 3500 BC. Sites dating back to 6500 BC have been found in Quiché in the Highlands and Sipacate, Escuintla on the central Pacific coast.
Archaeologists divided the pre-Columbian history of Mesoamerica into the Preclassic period (2999 BC to 250 BC), the Classic period (250 to 900 AD), and the Postclassic from 900 to 1500 AD. Until recently the Pre-Classic was regarded as a formative period, with small villages of farmers who lived in huts, and few permanent buildings. However, this notion has been challenged by recent discoveries of monumental architecture from that period, such as an altar in La Blanca, San Marcos, from 1000 BC; ceremonial sites at Miraflores and El Naranjo from 801 BC; the earliest monumental masks; and the Mirador Basin cities of Nakbé, Xulnal, El Tintal, Wakná and El Mirador.
Both the El Tigre and Monos pyramids encompass a volume greater than 250,000 cubic meters, and the city lay at the center of a populous and well-integrated region.
The Classic period of Mesoamerican civilization corresponds to the height of the Maya civilization, and is represented by countless sites throughout Guatemala, although the largest concentration is in Petén. This period is characterized by heavy city-building, the development of independent city-states, and contact with other Mesoamerican cultures.
This lasted until around 900 AD, when the Classic Maya civilization collapsed. The Maya abandoned many of the cities of the central lowlands or were killed off by a drought-induced famine. Scientists debate the cause of the Classic Maya Collapse, but gaining currency is the Drought Theory discovered by physical scientists studying lakebeds, ancient pollen, and other tangible evidence. A series of prolonged droughts, among other reasons (such as overpopulation), in what is otherwise a seasonal desert is thought to have decimated the Maya, who were primarily reliant upon regular rainfall.
The Post-Classic period is represented by regional kingdoms, such as the Itza, Ko'woj, Yalain and Kejache in Petén, and the Mam, Ki'che', Kackchiquel, Chajoma, Tz'utujil, Poqomchi', Q'eqchi' and Ch'orti' in the Highlands. Their cities preserved many aspects of Mayan culture, but would never equal the size or power of the Classic cities.
The Maya civilization shares many features with other Mesoamerican civilizations due to the high degree of interaction and cultural diffusion that characterized the region. Advances such as writing, epigraphy, and the calendar did not originate with the Maya; however, their civilization fully developed them. Maya influence can be detected from Honduras, Guatemala, Northern El Salvador and to as far as central Mexico, more than 1,000 km (620 mi) from the Maya area. Many outside influences are found in Maya art and architecture, which are thought to result from trade and cultural exchange rather than direct external conquest.
After arriving in what was named the New World, the Spanish started several expeditions to Guatemala, beginning in 1519. Before long, Spanish contact resulted in an epidemic that devastated native populations. Hernán Cortés, who had led the Spanish conquest of Mexico, granted a permit to Captains Gonzalo de Alvarado and his brother, Pedro de Alvarado, to conquer this land. Alvarado at first allied himself with the Kaqchikel nation to fight against their traditional rivals the K'iche' (Quiché) nation. Alvarado later turned against the Kaqchikel, and eventually held the entire region under Spanish domination. Several families of Spanish descent subsequently rose to prominence in colonial Guatemala, including the surnames de Arrivillaga, Arroyave, Alvarez de las Asturias, González de Batres, Coronado, Gálvez Corral, Mencos, Delgado de Nájera, de la Tovilla, and Varón de Berrieza.
During the colonial period, Guatemala was an Audiencia and a Captaincy General (Capitanía General de Guatemala) of Spain, and a part of New Spain (Mexico). The first capital was named Tecpan Guatemala, founded on July 25, 1524 with the name of Villa de Santiago de Guatemala and was located near Iximché, the Kaqchikel capital city. It was moved to Ciudad Vieja on November 22, 1527, when the Kaqchikel attacked the city. On September 11, 1541 the city was flooded when the lagoon in the crater of the Agua Volcano collapsed due to heavy rains and earthquakes, and was moved 4 miles (6 km) to Antigua Guatemala, on the Panchoy Valley, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This city was destroyed by several earthquakes in 1773–1774, and the King of Spain granted the authorization to move the capital to the Ermita Valley, named after a Catholic church to the Virgen de El Carmen, in its current location, founded on January 2, 1776.
On September 15, 1821, the Captaincy-general of Guatemala (formed by Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras) officially proclaimed its independence from Spain which was dissolved two years later. This region had been formally subject to New Spain throughout the colonial period, but as a practical matter was administered separately. It was not until 1825 that Guatemala created its own flag.
The Guatemalan provinces formed the United Provinces of Central America, also called the Central American Federation (Federacion de Estados Centroamericanos), which dissolved in civil war from 1838 to 1840. Guatemala's Rafael Carrera was instrumental in leading the revolt against the federal government and breaking apart the Union. During this period a region of the Highlands, Los Altos, declared independence from Guatemala, but was annexed by Carrera, who dominated Guatemalan politics until 1865, backed by conservatives, large land owners and the church.
Guatemala's "Liberal Revolution" came in 1871 under the leadership of Justo Rufino Barrios, who worked to modernize the country, improve trade, and introduce new crops and manufacturing. During this era coffee became an important crop for Guatemala. Barrios had ambitions of reuniting Central America and took the country to war in an unsuccessful attempt to attain it, losing his life on the battlefield in 1885 against forces in El Salvador.
From 1898 to 1920, Guatemala was ruled by the dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera, whose access to the presidency was helped by the United Fruit Company. It was during his long presidency that the United Fruit Company became a major force in Guatemala.
On July 4, 1944, dictator Jorge Ubico Castañeda was forced to resign his office in response to a wave of protests and a general strike. His replacement, General Juan Federico Ponce Vaides, was later also forced out of office on October 20, 1944 by a coup d'état led by Major Francisco Javier Arana and Captain Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. About 100 people were killed in the coup. The country was led by a military junta made up of Arana, Árbenz, and Jorge Toriello Garrido.
The Junta called Guatemala's first free election, which was won with a majority of 86% by the prominent writer and teacher Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, who had lived in exile in Argentina for 14 years. Arévalo was the first democratically elected president of Guatemala to fully complete the term for which he was elected. His "Christian Socialist" policies, inspired by the U.S. New Deal, were criticized by landowners and the upper class as "communist."
Arévalo was succeeded by Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, who was elected in 1951. Árbenz adopted a major land reform policy called Decree 900, which ordered redistribution of uncultivated lands—thereby increasing production of crops and providing many peasants with income. His popular program of land reform, credit, and literacy began to diminish the extreme inequality in Guatemala, although the process of redistributing land created some conflicts.
Árbenz was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). After his land reform, the CIA intervened because it feared that a socialist government would become a Soviet beachhead in the Western Hemisphere. It has also been alleged that intervened to protect the property of the United Fruit Company (later Chiquita Brands International Inc.) that was under threat from the land reform. Carlos Castillo Armas, a former military officer who led the CIA-backed invasion from Honduras, was installed as president in 1954. Castillo reversed Decree 900 and ruled until he was assassinated by a member of his personal guard in 1957. The Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR continued to exert influence on Guatemalan history—including direct effects such as support of Guatemala's army into the 1990s.
In the election that followed, General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes assumed power. He is most celebrated for challenging the Mexican president to a gentleman's duel on the bridge on the south border to end a feud on the subject of illegal fishing by Mexican boats on Guatemala's Pacific coast, two of which were sunk by the Guatemalan Air Force. Ydigoras authorized the training of 5,000 anti-Castro Cubans in Guatemala. He also provided airstrips in the region of Petén for what later became the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Ydigoras' government was ousted in 1963 when the Guatemalan Air Force attacked several military bases. The coup was led by his Defense Minister, Colonel Enrique Peralta Azurdia.
In 1966, Julio César Méndez Montenegro was elected president of Guatemala under the banner "Democratic Opening". Mendez Montenegro was the candidate of the Revolutionary Party, a center-left party which had its origins in the post-Ubico era. It was during this time that rightist paramilitary organizations, such as the "White Hand" (Mano Blanca), and the Anticommunist Secret Army, (Ejército Secreto Anticomunista), were formed. Those organizations were the forerunners of the infamous "Death Squads". Military advisers from the United States Army Special Forces (Green Berets) were sent to Guatemala to train troops and help transform its army into a modern counter-insurgency force, which eventually made it the most sophisticated in Central America.
In 1970, Colonel Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio was elected president. A new guerrilla movement entered the country from Mexico, into the Western Highlands in 1972. In the disputed election of 1974, General Kjell Laugerud García defeated General Efraín Ríos Montt, a candidate of the Christian Democratic Party, who claimed that he had been cheated out of a victory through fraud. On February 4, 1976, a major earthquake destroyed several cities and caused more than 25,000 deaths. In 1978, in a fraudulent election, General Romeo Lucas García assumed power.
The 1970s saw the birth of two new guerrilla organizations, The Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) and the Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA), who began and intensified by the end of the seventies, guerrilla attacks that included urban and rural guerrilla warfare, mainly against the military and some of the civilian supporters of the army. In 1979, the U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, ordered a ban on all military aid to the Guatemalan Army because of the widespread and systematic abuse of human rights.
In 1980, a group of indigenous K'iche' took over the Spanish Embassy to protest army massacres in the countryside. The Guatemalan government launched an assault that killed almost everyone inside as a result of a fire that consumed the building. The Guatemalan government claimed that the activists set the fire and immolated themselves. However, the Spanish ambassador, who survived the fire, disputed this claim, claiming that the Guatemalan police intentionally killed almost everyone inside and set the fire to erase traces of their acts. As a result of this incident, the government of Spain broke diplomatic relations with Guatemala.
This government was overthrown in 1982. General Ríos Montt was named President of the military junta, continuing the bloody campaign of torture, forced disappearances, and "scorched earth" warfare. The country became a pariah state internationally. Ríos Montt was overthrown by General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, who called for an election of a national constitutional assembly to write a new constitution, leading to a free election in 1986, which was won by Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, the candidate of the Christian Democracy Party.
In 1982, the four guerrilla groups, EGP, ORPA, FAR and PGT, merged and formed the URNG, influenced by the Salvadoran guerrilla FMLN, the Nicaraguan FSLN and Cuba's government, in order to become stronger. As a result of the Army's "scorched earth" tactics in the countryside, more than 45,000 Guatemalans fled across the border to Mexico. The Mexican government placed the refugees in camps in Chiapas and Tabasco.
The Guatemalan Civil War ended in 1996 with a peace accord between the guerrillas and the government, negotiated by the United Nations through intense brokerage by nations such as Norway and Spain. Both sides made major concessions. The guerrilla fighters disarmed and received land to work. According to the U.N.-sponsored truth commission the ("Commission for Historical Clarification"), government forces and state-sponsored paramilitaries were responsible for over 93 percent of the human rights violations during the war.
Over the last few years, millions of documents related to crimes committed during the civil war were found abandoned by the former Guatemalan police. Among millions of documents found, there was evidence that the former police chief of Guatemala, Hector Bol de la Cruz had been involved in the kidnapping and murder of 27-year-old student Fernando Garcia in 1984. The evidence was used to prosecute the former police chief. The families of over 45,000 Guatemalan activists are now reviewing the documents (which have been digitized) and this could lead to further legal actions. Paradoxically, the current democratically elected president, Otto Pérez Molina, could be a barrier to further legal action as he, a retired general, was the head of intelligence in Guatemala during the civil war.
During the first ten years, the victims of the state-sponsored terror were primarily students, workers, professionals, and opposition figures, but in the last years they were thousands of mostly rural Mayan farmers and non-combatants. More than 450 Mayan villages were destroyed and over 1 million people became displaced within Guatemala or refugees. Over 200,000 people, mostly Mayan, lost their lives during the civil war.
In certain areas, such as Baja Verapaz, the Truth Commission considered that the Guatemalan state engaged in an intentional policy of genocide against particular ethnic groups in the Civil War. In 1999, U.S. president Bill Clinton stated that the United States was wrong to have provided support to Guatemalan military forces that took part in the brutal civilian killings.
Since the peace accords, Guatemala has witnessed both economic growth and successive democratic elections, most recently in 2011. In the 2011 elections, Otto Pérez Molina of the Patriotic Party, won the presidency. He assumed office on January 14, 2012. He named Roxana Baldetti as his vice president.
On January 12, 2012, Efrain Rios Montt, former President of Guatemala during the military dictatorship, appeared in a Guatemalan court on genocide charges. During the hearing, the government presented evidence of over 100 incidents involving at least 1,771 deaths, 1,445 rapes, and the displacement of nearly 30,000 Guatemalans during his 17-month rule from 1982-1983, according to the Washington Post, BBC, Siglo XXI (in Spanish), and the LA Times. The prosecution wanted him incarcerated because of his potential for flight but the judge ruled that he can remain out on bail. He has now been placed under house arrest and will be watched by the Guatemalan National Civil Police (PNC). On May 10, 2013, Rios Montt was found guilty and sentenced to 80 years in prison. It marks the first time, a former head of state was found guilty for genocide by national court. 
The estimated median age in Guatemala is 20 years old, 19.4 for males and 20.7 years for females. This is the lowest median age of any country in the Western Hemisphere and comparable to most of central Africa and Iraq.