The origin of the name Belize is unclear, but one idea is that the name is from the Maya word belix, meaning "muddy water", applied to the Belize River. The history of Belize dates back thousands of years. The Maya civilization spread into the area of Belize between 1500 BC and AD 300 and flourished until about AD 1200. Several major archeological sites—notably Caracol, Lamanai, Lubaantun, Altun Ha, and Xunantunich— reflect the advanced civilization and much denser population of that period. European contact began in 1502 when Christopher Columbus sailed along the coast. The first recorded European settlement was established by shipwrecked English seamen in 1638. Over the next 150 years, more English settlements were established. This period also was marked by piracy, indiscriminate logging, and sporadic attacks by Indians and neighboring Spanish settlements.
Belize boasts important sites of the earliest Mayan settlements, majestic ruins of the classic period, and examples of late postclassic ceremonial construction. About five kilometers west of Orange Walk, is Cuello, a site from perhaps as early as 2,500 B.C. Jars, bowls, and other dishes found there are among the oldest pottery unearthed in present-day Mexico and Central America. Cerros, a site on Chetumal Bay, was a flourishing trade and ceremonial center between about 300 B.C. and A.D. 100. One of the finest carved jade objects of Mayan civilization, the head of what is usually taken to be the sun god Kinich Ahau, was found in a tomb at the classic period site of Altún Ha, thirty kilometers northwest of present-day Belize City. Other Mayan centers located in Belize include Xunantunich and Baking Pot in Cayo District, Lubaantún and Nimli Punit in Toledo District, and Lamanai on Hill Bank Lagoon in Orange Walk District.
In the late classic period, probably at least 400,000 people inhabited the Belize area. People settled almost every part of the country worth cultivating, as well as the cay and coastal swamp regions. But in the tenth century, Mayan society suffered a severe breakdown. Construction of public buildings ceased, the administrative centers lost power, and the population declined as social and economic systems lost their coherence. Some people continued to occupy, or perhaps reoccupied, sites such as Altún Ha, Xunantunich, and Lamanai. Still, these sites ceased being splendid ceremonial and civic centers. The decline of Mayan civilization is still not fully explained. Rather than identifying the collapse as the result of a single factor, many archaeologists now believe that the decline of the Maya was a result of many complex factors and that the decline occurred at different times in different regions.
English is the primary language of public education, with Spanish taught in primary and secondary school as well. Bilingualism is highly encouraged, and therefore, very common.
Christopher Columbus traveled to the Gulf of Honduras during his fourth voyage in 1502. At the turn of the 16th century, Christopher Columbus, Martín Pinzón and Juan De Solís explored the coastal waters of Belize. Spain soon sent expeditions to Guatemala and Honduras, and the conquest of Yucatán began in 1527. Though the Maya offered stiff resistance to Spanish "pacification", diseases contracted from the Spanish devastated the indigenous population and weakened its ability to resist conquest. In the seventeenth century, Spanish missionaries established churches in Mayan settlements with the intention of converting and controlling these people.