Were the rulers of the great ancient Mesoamerican civilizations related?
Of these, Teotihuacan, the 2,000-year-old, metropolis that was the first great city of the Western Hemisphere, has long been a mystery. Located 25 miles northeast of the current Mexico City, this ancient civilization left behind the ruins of a master-planned city grid with immense pyramids covering eight square miles and having a unique culture. But even the Aztecs, who gave the city its present name, did not know who built it. They called the monumental ruins "the City of the Gods."
Though Teotihuacan at its height was roughly contemporary with the early stages of the Mayan cities located far to the south in the jungles of southern Mexico and Guatemala, archaeologists have long noted pronounced differences between the cultures and only minor evidence of interaction. Now, startling new evidence from an excavation still in process at Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Moon is revealing a Mayan link with the great city's aristocracy - and may soon be sending reverberations through foundations of Mesoamerican archaeology.
The excavation, directed by Saburo Sugiyama, professor of archaeology at Aichi Prefectural University in Japan and research professor at Arizona State University, and Ruben Cabrera of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, has found a distinctive burial in the pyramid, one of Teotihuacan's oldest and largest structures, containing three ceremonially positioned bodies, other ceremonial items, and jade artifacts that appear to be of Mayan origin.
"The jade objects are especially interesting," said Sugiyama, a leading authority on Teotihuacan, who has been excavating sites in various parts of the city for decades. "We believe that some of them came from Guatemala.
"Some jade objects were carved in Maya style and we know that they were often used as symbol of rulers or royal family members in Maya societies. We have to study the objects and bones further, but the offerings strongly suggest a direct relation between the Teotihuacan ruling group and the Maya royal families."
Among the items is a spectacular jade statuette of a person with relatively realistic features and big eyes. Jade is a rare and precious material in Central America. The nearest and most likely source of the stone is located in the Motagua Valley in Guatemala, which seems to further confirm the objects' Mayan origins.
The burial site is located at the top of the fifth of the pyramid's seven layered stages, and appears to have been created as an offering during the construction of the sixth stage, which is dated circa 350 A.D., near the time of Teotihacan's greatest power and prosperity.
According to Sugiyama, the bodies found in this tomb offer further evidence that the burial is a unique and important find. Since 1998, Sugiyama and his team have excavated several other human burials in the Pyramid of the Moon containing symbolically important animals (such as pumas, coyotes, eagles and serpents), large shells, weapon points and artwork, but the human remains in the earlier discoveries all appeared to be bound captives - offerings dedicating stages of the pyramid. The current discovery is somewhat similar in its ceremonial and symbolic objects, but differs significantly in the positioning of the human remains.
"Unlike the earlier burials we've discovered in the Pyramid of the Moon, these three bodies didn't have their hands tied," Sugiyama noted. "In addition, they were found in a cross-legged seated position, which is very rarely, if ever, found in burials here.
"The position, however, can be seen in images in murals, sculpture or figurines as priests, gods, or warriors in Teotihuacan and other related sites."
Similar body positioning has also been found in burials at Kaminaljuyu, a Mayan site in the Guatemalan highlands. Archaeologists have, in fact, found indications of noble Teotihuacan visitors and of their possible influence on government in the art and records of a number of Mayan cities, including Tikal and Copan. Some evidence has also been found for the presence of Mayan visitors in the common residential and commercial districts of Teotihuacan.
"The archaeological evidence appears to point towards Teotihuacanos intervening in Mayan politics, " said ASU archaeologist George Cowgill, an authority on Teotihuacan. "But many people still dispute that there was really any significant influence because they were two distinctly different cultures. "Dr. Sugiyama's discovery makes it all more complicated by adding some big new pieces to the puzzle. It certainly makes it harder to see the Mayans as not much influenced by Teotihuacan."
"I think this is significant because for the first time we have data indicating a Mayan ruling class connection at Teotihuacan, from the heart of one of the city's major monuments," said Sugiyama. "More importantly, these new data tell us about the government Teotihuacan itself, which is one of the biggest questions," he said. "These three people were evidently from the highest socio-political status group."
The three bodies are all male, and are estimated to be approximately 50 years of age at burial. Sugiyama also notes that the bodies were lavishly adorned. "They have the richest ornaments ever found in a burial at Teotihuacan after more than a century of research," Sugiyama said.
"The quality of the offerings is just exceptional. If we had found only one of these bodies, we would suspect that he had been a ruler or at least a royal family member, but we discovered three. This leaves us with critical questions of identification that still need to be resolved," he said. "And there is still a possibility that we may find another grave below the current burial complex and/or at other places inside the Moon Pyramid."
The excavation of the Pyramid of the Moon ended in mid-October because of Sugiyama's teaching commitments in Japan. Sugiyama plans to continue with the digging next August.
Sugiyama and Cabrera's research is sponsored by the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, Arizona State University, and Mexico's
Translation of recently unearthed hieroglyphic stairs on an ancient Maya pyramid in Guatemala provides dramatic evidence that two great Maya city-states and their allies were locked in a brutal superpower struggle that may have set the stage for the later collapse of the classic Maya civilization.
The newly translated stone hieroglyphs - complete with references to piles of skulls and flowing blood - were partially exposed last summer during a hurricane at the site known as Dos Pilas, deep in the Guatemalan rain forest. "The hundreds of new glyphs fill in a vital 60-year gap of unknown Maya history and clarify many of the political and military relationships of this critical period," says Federico Fahsen, a noted Maya epigrapher and adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University.
Fahsen directed the team that uncovered, catalogued and deciphered the inscriptions, an effort supported by the National Geographic Society, Vanderbilt University, the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies and Guatemala's Ministry of Culture.
The 18-step hieroglyphic staircase, of which only eight steps were previously known, supports the theory that the Maya world in the seventh century was divided into two superpower blocs — one under the control of the city-state Tikal and the other dominated by Calakmul. Tikal, then known as Mutul, was located in what is, today, northern Guatemala, and Calakmul was about 60 miles further north, in Mexico.
The discovery of the glyphs is reported in the October 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine. The glyphs, —among the largest texts ever discovered— detail how Calakmul, known as the "snake kingdom," was involved in the wars that occurred in this part of the ancient Maya world. Previously, scholars working in the region viewed the conflict between Dos Pilas and Tikal as primarily a dynastic quarrel between two brothers. This theory was in accordance with the more traditional interpretation of the Maya states in this region as independent regional powers. The glyphs, however, reveal a very different story.
Written on the staircase is the actual history of Dos Pilas. It begins on the central section of the pyramid's stairway with the birth of a king, Balaj Chan K'awiil, on Oct. 15, 625, and the establishment of Dos Pilas as a military outpost by the great city of Tikal, about 70 miles to the northeast, in 629. Dos Pilas was important to Tikal for its proximity to the middle stretch of the Pasión River, the superhighway of the Maya world. A stronghold in Dos Pilas allowed Tikal to exert control over this major trade route between the highlands and lowlands for coveted items such as jade, obsidian, quetzal feathers, and shells from the Caribbean.
As told by the glyphs, Balaj Chan K'awiil was installed as ruler of Dos Pilas by Tikal at the age of four. "Balaj Chan K'awiil became a very big warrior," says Fahsen. "He almost never stopped fighting and for many years was loyal to Tikal." According to the translations, the central section of the steps also tells the ceremonies that the young man went through, always as a friend of his brother, the ruler of Tikal, not
as an enemy as previously believed.
Then, when the king was in his early 20s, Calakmul attacked and defeated Dos Pilas. After capturing Balaj Chan K'awiil, Calakmul put him back on the Dos Pilas throne as a "puppet king" who was allowed to keep his land in exchange for allegiance.
The degree of involvement of Calakmul came as a surprise to Fahsen. "When I read those glyphs, I had to blink to make sure I was reading it correctly," he says. "I had never heard of Calakmul actually invading and defeating the king of Dos Pilas. We thought that, at most, they may have had a weak alliance of some type."
The record continues to describe how Balaj Chan K'awiil, now loyal to Calakmul, launched a decadelong war against Tikal that ended in his victory. His forces sacked Tikal and brought its ruler — his own brother — and other Tikal nobles to Dos Pilas to be sacrificed. "This west section of the steps was very graphic," says Fahsen. "It says, 'blood was pooled and the skulls of the thirteen peoples of the Tikal place were piled up.' The final glyphs describe the king of Dos Pilas 'doing a victory dance,'" he adds. Following the victory over Tikal, Dos Pilas embarked on a campaign of conquest with Calakmul's backing and became a major regional power.
"Rather than being an independent actor as previously thought, it now appears that Dos Pilas was a pawn in a much bigger battle," says Arthur Demarest, Ingram Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University, which helped sponsor the effort at Dos Pilas. "In today's terms, Dos Pilas was the Somalia or Vietnam of the Maya world, used in a war that was actually between two superpowers."
Fahsen and Demarest contend that the newly translated account supports the theory advanced by two Maya scholars — Simon Martin of University College, London, and Nikolai Grube of the University of Bonn — that this period in Maya history was a 'long world war' between the Tikal and Calakmul superpowers. Although Maya scholars had earlier characterized the recorded conflicts between different Maya city-states as regional and unrelated, the new evidence from Dos Pilas "supports the more extreme versions of Martin and Grube's vision," says Demarest, who previously viewed their theory skeptically.
After evaluating the new material, Demarest now conceives of this period as a time when the Maya civilization was on the verge of moving to a higher level of organization and consolidating into a single empire. "However, this didn't happen. Instead, the giant war went back and forth. After Tikal was sacked, it eventually roared back and crushed Calakmul. And then the Maya world just broke up into regional powers, setting the stage for a period of intensive, petty warfare that finally led to the collapse of the Maya," says Demarest. By 760, Dos Pilas was abandoned.
The Pyramids of Zuleta are one of the hidden treasures of the Andes. Built around 1,000 years ago, by the native Caranqui people, these earthen mounds and platform pyramids dominate the landscape near Hacienda Zuleta in the mountains of northern Ecuador and 110 kilometres north of Quito.
Unlike much of our planet, high resolution aerial imagery and digital elevation models are unavailable for this part of the world. This is due to the fog that often blankets the area and the agrarian nature of the region. As a part of a team of archaeologists who visited the site in August 2013, we aimed to change that.
A challenging task
Using a small, hand-launched, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV aka drone) equipped with a downward facing camera and a sophisticated autopilot system, we documented the site as it has never been seen—from extremely low altitude and at high resolution. This was a challenging task as most of the pyramids are located in the bottom of a steep constricted canyon inhabited by Andean Condors. To make things more challenging there were high winds, clouds, and quirks of the micro-climates within the canyon to contend with. In spite of that, we were able to fly nine missions and collect hundreds of photographs in just a couple of days.
The UAV flies in a defined pattern and collects photographs. The onboard autopilot insures that each image has 60% or more overlap with adjacent images. These overlapping images allow for the data to be processed into 3D and digital terrain models (DTMs) using photogrammetric and cutting edge Structure from Motion technologies. All of the data are GIS ready. While basic processing allowed us to see the mapped data in the field, it was necessary to further develop it using a high-end processing farm in Maryland, once we were back in the United States.
This approach has already led to the discovery of many more mounds that are not obvious to the naked eye but stand out in the data. Furthermore, it is the first time the detailed spatial relationship between each of the earthen structures can be explored with precision. This data will be used to track the condition of the mounds over time and has created a digital snapshot of their current state for future generations to ponder. This was accomplished with only a few days of fieldwork and under harsh conditions. To create a map of similar accuracy using traditional survey approaches would have taken weeks and lacked the aerial imagery this approach provides.
Our team has conducted similar mapping missions in Australia, Belize, Belgium, Fiji, France, Germany, The Republic of Kiribati, Peru, and South Africa. We look forward to continuing these sorts of projects elsewhere and helping to preserve and understand our past.
The archaeological mapping and processing team included Chet Walker and Mark Willis. The rest of the archaeological team was made up of Steve Athens and David O. Brown. Athens and Brown are experts on the archaeology of the Andes and have worked for decades in the region. We would like to thank Fernando Polanco Plaza, the general manager of Hacienda Zuelta, for his hospitality and dedication to preserving the rich heritage of Ecuador.