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Portal to Maya underworld found in Mexico?
Maya may have caused civilization-ending climate change
Mysteries of "Sacrificial" Maya blue pigment solved?
Ancient Maya used "glitter" paint to make temple gleam
Ancient Maya marketplace found
Rare Maya "Death Vase" discovered
Maya rituals caused ancient decline in big game
World's longest underground river discovered in Mexico, divers say
Ancient Maya Royal tomb discovered in Guatemala
Earliest Mayan writing found in pyramid
Oldest Maya mural wows archaeologists
The earliest known Maya stone carving bearing the portrait of a woman
Early Mayan women were a powerful force
Mass graves reveal massacre of Maya royalty
Masks, other finds suggest early Maya flourished
Archaeologists Uncover Maya "Masterpiece" in Guatemala
Ancient Nicaraguan society found
Intense droughts blamed for Mayan collapse
Stone tablet with hieroglyphs
Mayan texts reveal superpower wars
Jade 'mother lode' found in remote Guatemalan region
Openings to the Underworld
Oldest intact Maya mural found in Guatemala
Remains of Mayan ruler discovered in Honduras
Mayan city is older than believed
Inside the city of the black tiger
Mayan mansion
Scientists 'find lost Mayan king'
Lost Mayan palace found in Guatemala
Hurricane work uncovers ancient site
Scientists puzzle over ancient ruins in Miami
Astronomical clues crack Mayan calendar's code

Portal to Maya underworld found in Mexico?

(National Geographic News - August 22, 2008)

Portal to Maya underworldA labyrinth filled with stone temples and pyramids in 14 caves—some underwater—have been uncovered on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, archaeologists announced last week. The discovery has experts wondering whether Maya legend inspired the construction of the underground complex—or vice versa.

According to Maya myth, the souls of the dead had to follow a dog with night vision on a horrific and watery path and endure myriad challenges before they could rest in the afterlife. In one of the recently found caves, researchers discovered a nearly 300-foot (90-meter) concrete road that ends at a column standing in front of a body of water.

"We have this pattern now of finding temples close to the water—or under the water, in this most recent case," said Guillermo de Anda, lead investigator at the research sites. "These were probably made as part of a very elaborate ritual," de Anda said. "Everything is related to death, life, and human sacrifice." Stretching south from southern Mexico, through Guatemala, and into northern Belize, the Maya culture had its heyday from about A.D. 250 to 900, when the civilization mysteriously collapsed.

Myth and Reality

Archaeologists excavating the temples and pyramids in the village of Tahtzibichen, in Mérida, the capital of Yucatán state, said the oldest item they found was a 1,900-year-old vessel. Other uncovered earthenware and sculptures dated to A.D. 750 to 850. "There are stones, huge columns, and sculptures of priests in the caves," said de Anda, whose team has been working on the Yucatán Peninsula for six months. "There are also human remains and ceramics," he said.

Myth and RealityResearchers said the ancient legend—described in part in the sacred book Popul Vuh—tells of a tortuous journey through oozing blood, bats, and spiders, that souls had to make in order to reach Xibalba, the underworld. "Caves are natural portals to other realms, which could have inspired the Mayan myth. They are related to darkness, to fright, and to monsters," de Anda said, adding that this does not contradict the theory that the myth inspired the temples.

William Saturno, a Maya expert at Boston University, believes the maze of temples was built after the story. "I'm sure the myths came first, and the caves reaffirmed the broad time-and-space myths of the Mayans," he said.

Underworld Entrances

Saturno said the discovery of the temples underwater indicates the significant effort the Maya put into creating these portals. In addition to plunging deep into the forest to reach the cave openings, Maya builders would have had to hold their breath and dive underwater to build some of the shrines and pyramids.

Other Maya underworld entrances have been discovered in jungles and aboveground caves in northern Guatemala Belize. "They believed in a reality with many layers," Saturno said of the Maya. "The portal between life and where the dead go was important to them."

Alexis Okeowo

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Maya may have caused civilization-ending climate change

(National Geographic News - February 29, 2008)

Climate changeSelf-induced drought and climate change may have caused the destruction of the Maya civilization, say scientists working with new satellite technology that monitors Central America's environment. Researchers from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, launched the satellite program, known as SERVIR, in early 2005 to help combat wildfires, improve land use, and assist with natural disaster responses.

The researchers occasionally refer to the project as environmental diplomacy. But the program also found traces of the Maya's hidden, possibly disastrous agricultural past—and is now using those lessons to help ensure that today's civilizations fare better in the face of modern-day climate change.

SERVIR stands to warn leaders in Central and South America where climate change might deliver the hardest hits to their ecosystems and biodiversity, say developers Tom Sever and Daniel Irwin. If the governments heed the warnings, the data may truly save lives, the experts add.

Secret Farms

More than a hundred reasons have been proposed for the downfall of the Maya, among them hurricanes, overpopulation, disease, warfare, and peasant revolt. But Sever, NASA's only archaeologist, adds to evidence for another explanation. "Our recent research shows that another factor may have been climate change," he said during a meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science in Boston, Massachusetts, earlier this month.

One conventional theory has it that the Maya relied on slash-and-burn agriculture. But Sever and his colleagues say such methods couldn't have sustained a population that reached 60,000 at its peak. The researchers think the Maya also exploited seasonal wetlands called bajos, which make up more than 40 percent of the Petén landscape that the ancient empire called home.

In most cases, Maya cities encircled the bajos, so archaeologists thought the culture made no use of them. But groundbreaking satellite images show that the bajos harbor ancient drainage canals and long-overgrown fields. That ingenious method of agriculture may have backfired.

The data suggest that the combination of slash-and-burn agriculture and conversion of the wetlands induced local drought and turned up the thermostat. And that could have fueled many of the suspected factors that led to the Maya decline—even seemingly unrelated issues like disease and war.

Proven Success

The SERVIR researchers are now taking their theories to the people, showing tabletop-size satellite images to villagers and national leaders that reveal deforestation in some cases and still-lush landscapes in others. In one instance the Guatemalan congress was inspired to create the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Central America's largest protected area, after viewing satellite imagery and seeing striking differences between their forests and those that had been clear-cut to the north.

SERVIR, which is being supported in part by USAID and the World Bank, has also proved its worth in other ways since the program's headquarters was opened in Panama at the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC). In 2006 Panamanian President Martin Torrijos used the SERVIR office as his command post during widespread flooding—and when SERVIR technology forewarned of landslides, he paid attention.

CATHALAC senior scientist Emil Cherrington has never deleted the text message the government sent out that day—a red alert about the landslides SERVIR said were imminent. Cherrington called the cooperation "inspiring." "It was a pretty neat example of the decision makers acting on information when it was provided," he said. Last year Central American governments also consulted SERVIR for predictions about Hurricanes Dean and Felix and Tropical Storm Noel.

Heavy Burden

Despite these local efforts in environmental stewardship, however, Latin American countries are facing a heavy burden from worldwide climate change. Already, rains don't come as predictably to the Petén region, NASA archaeologist Sever said. Local residents say their chicle trees are yielding fewer harvests, and clouds are forming higher and later in the day, sometimes not sending down rain at all, he pointed out.

Through SERVIR, Sever and his team are monitoring soil and plant responses to the changing conditions. They're also making maps for the ministries of environment and agriculture in several countries. And CATHALAC's Cherrington, who is from Belize, is using the information to predict how climate change will alter his home country into the future.

"Belize is really a country where biodiversity conservation is possible," he said, speaking at the AAAS meeting. Cherrington said precipitation will be disrupted most in the mountains, and temperatures will increase the most on the coasts. SERVIR data is predicting that some bird and mammal species will be lost, but amphibians will be the hardest hit. If satellite precipitation forecasts can be passed to farmers, they'll be able to make decisions about crops based on how much water they'll require, he added.

The SERVIR scientists also hope to expand the space-based technology into other realms. They're looking to develop the kind of air quality index for Central America that is standard on United States weather reports. And industry has already suggested applications that the SERVIR scientists didn't originally have in mind. A Panamanian company seeking to build solar panels asked recently if SERVIR could show them where to find the best sun exposure. "It's kind of astounding," Cherrington said, "how space-based information can lead to making better decisions."

Anne Minard

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Mysteries of "Sacrificial" Maya blue pigment solved?

(National Geographic News - February 26, 2008)

Maya blueAn ancient clay bowl from Mexico is providing new clues to the production and role of a hardy blue pigment widely employed by the ancient Maya. The find also helps explain a mysteriously thick layer of blue silt that archaeologists reported at the bottom of a sacrificial sinkhole where the bowl was recovered more than a century ago. The pigment, known commonly as Maya blue, was used to paint offerings, pottery, murals, and even the bodies of humans before ritual sacrifices.

Scientists have long known the basic chemical components of the pigment, which has a remarkable ability to resist age, acid, weathering, and even modern chemical solvents. "Unlike a lot of natural pigments that may fade, [Maya blue] is very stable," said Gary Feinman, curator of Mesoamerican anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. But the exact recipe, along with the tools the Maya used to create the pigment and the circumstances surrounding its use, were unknown. The new research by Feinman and colleagues, which appears online today in the journal Antiquity, may answer some of these questions.

Sacrificial Sinkhole

Lead study author Dean Arnold of Wheaton College in Illinois first came across the pottery bowl while searching through the Maya collection at the Field Museum. He noticed that the bowl contained a wedge of preserved incense dotted with white flecks and a blue pigment. The bowl had been discovered more than a century ago at the bottom of the Sacred Cenote, a large sacrificial sinkhole at the Maya site of Chichén Itzá, which was associated with the rain god Chaak.

Symbolic ValueMore than a hundred humans were sacrificed to the deity at this site. Analyses revealed the incense was made of a copal, a tree sap whose smoke the Maya believed nourished the gods. The pigment was the famed Maya blue, and the flecks were bits of a white clay mineral called palygorskite.According to previous studies, Maya blue is made by fusing palygorskite with pigments from the leaves of the indigo plant. But the two ingredients do not readily combine, and it was unknown how the Maya fused them.

Archaeologists had suspected that copal was important to the production of Maya blue, and the new findings seem to confirm that theory. "Our study suggests that heat and copal incense likely were key elements used to fuse the two components together," Feinman said.

Symbolic Value

Taken together, the bowl's history and its contents support the idea that Maya blue had great symbolic significance, study leader Arnold said. Indigo, palygorskite, and copal—all associated with healing—were used individually as medicines by the ancient Maya. "The offering of three healing elements thus fed Chaak and symbolically brought him into the ritual in the form a bright blue color that hopefully would bring rainfall and allow the corn to grow again," Arnold said.

The pigment's importance to the Maya is perhaps best illustrated by a 14-foot (4-meter) layer of blue silt that was discovered at the bottom of the Sacred Cenote when it was first excavated in 1904, the researchers say. At the time archaeologists did not know what the blue material was, but the new findings strongly suggest it was Maya blue precipitate that had washed off of pottery and human bodies cast into the sinkhole. Mary Miller, an art historian at Yale University in Connecticut who was not involved in the study, called the new findings "an exciting addition to the corpus of what is known about this stunning and tenacious pigment."

Ker Than

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Ancient Maya used "glitter" paint to make temple gleam

(National Geographic News - February 7, 2008)

Cut-away view of The Rosalila TempleThe ancient Maya painted some of their ornate temples with mica to make them sparkle in the sun, a new study suggests. Scientists discovered traces of the shiny mineral while analyzing flakes of paint taken from the Rosalila temple in Copán, Honduras.

The temple, built in the sixth century A.D., today sits "entombed" in a giant pyramid built around it. The covering of sparkling paint likely gave the sacred site a dazzling appearance, said the study's lead author, Rosemary Goodall, a doctoral student in physical sciences at Australia's Queensland University of Technology.

"The mica pigment would have had a lustrous effect," Goodall said. "Mica is used today in paints for that very purpose—to create a shimmering finish to the paint." The gleaming paint also appears to have been applied periodically, perhaps in honor of important anniversaries or ceremonial events, she added.

Shining Masks

Goodall's team used a new infrared analysis technique to study red, green, and gray paint applied to stucco masks that appear on the exterior of the well-preserved temple. The technique reads the chemical "signature" of each particle it samples, she explained.

"We've been unable to differentiate the different particles that have made up the paint," she said, "but by using this technique, I'm able to get an image of the surface of the material and spatially separate the different particles in that paint. "It gives you a lot more information much more rapidly." The mica used in the paint likely came from beyond the Maya realm, Goodall said. "It appears that mica was available in what is now Guatemala. [The Maya] would have had to trade for something like that."

Analysis of such materials used by the Maya offers "an insight into their technology and knowledge exchange and trade networks," she said. "It gives us an insight into how people in the southern periphery [of the Maya realm] interacted with people in the more northern regions." The team's findings are published in the Journal of Raman Spectroscopy.

For Special Occasions?

The Rosalila TempleMica has only been found on the Rosalila temple so far, she said. "The building was in use for one hundred years—we know that because [the Maya] dated the opening ceremony of the building, and they dated the closing ceremony. "It was repainted somewhere between 15 and 20 times, but mica was only used, I estimate, in every fourth or fifth repainting. It's not on every layer." "More than likely there was something very significant about when they used it, if it was only used infrequently," Goodall said.

"The Maya had very regular calendar periods, so the next step is to look at the core [of the paint layers] and see if we can find out the frequency of [mica's] use, which may give us an indication of whether or not it was applied to celebrate one of these period endings, or to mark some significant date."

Cynthia Robin is an anthropologist and Maya expert at Northwestern University in Illinois. "I think that's a very interesting idea," Robin said of Goodall's theory, "because the Maya numerical system is a base-20 system, so their calendar is based on a 20-year period called a katun. "We know from hieroglyphs that these katun endings, or these 20-year periods, were important times of ceremony in the life of the king. "Obviously Rosalila would have been a very important place for Copán's royalty."

Dave Hansford

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Ancient Maya marketplace found

(National Geographic News - December 4, 2007)

Ancient Maya MarketplaceAn ancient marketplace once stood in Chunchucmil, a pre-Columbian Maya city that was located in the Yucatán Peninsula, a new study says. The research sheds light on the ancient Maya economy and challenges prevailing theories that food was taxed and dispersed by Maya rulers during the culture's Classic era, which lasted from about A.D. 300 to 900, rather than traded in markets, experts said.

Food and other organic matter degrade quickly in such wet climates. So scientists studying how the ancient Maya traded, bought, and sold food have had to work with little archeological evidence, pointed out research team member Richard Terry, an environmental scientist from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Food and organic matter do leave behind a chemical footprint, though—faint traces of phosphorus that cling tightly to soil particles even in heavy rains.

Chris Jensen, then a graduate student at Brigham Young University, collects soil samples at Chunchucmil, an ancient Maya city. An analysis of phosphorus in the soil shows that the site once supported a bustling food market, poking holes in prevailing theories that the Maya elite controlled and distributed food supplies.

By comparing phosphorus levels in Chunchucmil soil to dirt from a modern market in Antigua, Guatemala, Terry and colleagues concluded that the Maya city likely contained a vibrant market. "Soil chemical analysis provides additional lines of evidence that have changed how we think of the ancient Maya's trade patterns," said Terry in a telephone interview.

"Traditionally we've thought the tax-tribute system was responsible for distributing goods. But this shows that the Maya not only had a marketplace and a market economy but an important middle class of merchants as well."

Market Research

To perform their analysis, the researchers extracted phosphorus from 0.07-ounce (2-gram) soil samples with acid, mixed the solution with other chemicals, and measured the resulting blue glow. The technique revealed a streak containing low levels of phosphorus, with concentrations 40 times higher on either side. A similar pattern was detected in Antigua's modern market—at the time the only market in the area that had not been paved over—the study says. This indicates a footpath passed through Chunchucmil's marketplace and that food was sold or traded around it, the authors say.

"Just who traded in the [Chunchucmil] marketplace is not known," the study concludes. It "does seem clear, though, that the surrounding region and beyond provided critical commodities to sustain Chunchucmil's permanent residents and visiting merchants of whatever kinds and their retinues," it says.

Food for Thought

The research may also help solve "the vexing question of how large ancient Maya urban populations were sustained," the authors write. "Conventional wisdom has it that market systems were not important, despite the fact that urban populations often exceeded local carrying capacity using traditional farming methods," said study leader Bruce H. Dahlin. Maya marketplaces have been tentatively identified in a number of large and important sites, added Dahlin, an archaeologist at the Center for Environmental Studies at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

However, "until the emergence of geochemical prospecting techniques, there was no means of verifying them nor if staple foods were exchanged there," he said. The work provides an important launching point for further studies of markets' roles during the Classic Period, he said.

Written evidence also bolsters the case, pointed out Terry of Brigham Young University. "[Hernán] Cortés writes about the marketplace, but archaeologists haven't had direct evidence of pre-Columbian Maya marketplaces," he said. "This study is one of the first to show evidence of markets dating that far back. It is also the first to use soil chemistry to establish lines of evidence."

Dahlin, Terry, and their colleagues report their findings in the current issue of Latin American Antiquity. (Dahlin, along with team member Timothy Beach of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., are both former recipients of research grants from the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)

"Important" Work

Other scientists praised the technique and its findings. "This is an interesting, methodical advance in the detection of markets, which have been source of great controversy in Maya archaeology," said Stephen D. Houston, an anthropologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. "This helps to reorient and focus views of ancient Maya economy, suggesting the possibility that the Maya had markets similar to Aztec markets seen many years later."

Houston added that the researchers had "properly couched their study as a hypothesis" and that other scientists in the last few years have found probable markets in Mexico and Guatemala. "I suspect this discovery will lead people to pay more and more attention to possible sites," he said. Robert Sharer, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, called the study "important."

Sharer said he and other archaeologists have maintained that the Maya had centralized markets. He speculates that the population pull of markets could have made them a focal point for the governing elite. "By attracting large numbers of people together on a regular basis, markets may have provided opportunities for social interaction and the exchange of ideas. And they may even imply a measure of centralized control over the economy by Maya rulers."

Kelly Hearn

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Rare Maya "Death Vase" discovered

(National Geographic News - December 4, 2007)

Unearthing of vaseAn extremely rare and intricately carved "death vase" has been discovered in the 1,400-year-old grave of an elite figure from the Maya world, scientists say. The vase is the first of its kind to be found in modern times, and its contents are opening a window onto ancient rituals of ancestor worship that included food offerings, chocolate enemas, and hallucinations induced by vomiting, experts say.

Archaeologists discovered the vase along with parts of a human skeleton while excavating a small "palace" in northwestern Honduras in 2005. (The dig was funded by the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.) Soil samples taken from in and around the vessel were found to contain pollen from corn, cacao, and false ipecac, a plant that causes severe nausea when eaten. These traces suggest the vase may have been used in ancient rites the Maya practiced to produce trancelike states through intense physical purging, said Christian Wells, an anthropologist at the University of South Florida who lead the excavation.

"The way to have contact, to communicate, with ancestors is to have visions," Wells said of the Maya rituals. "And you have a vision either by cutting yourself and bloodletting—which there's really no evidence for in this case—or by having some very powerful chocolate enema, or by drinking your brains out and throwing up. "We think this beverage [in the vase] may have contained ipecac, which would have made the person who's drinking it throw up—a lot. Then, by throwing up a lot, they could've had visions that would have allowed them to talk with the ancestors."

Mysterious "Palace"

Wells' team believes that the white marble vase contained a corn-based gruel laced with the stomach-churning herb. Cacao, from which chocolate is made, may have been added for flavor. The new findings could help solve the long-standing mystery of what purpose the ornamental vessels, called Ulúa-style vases, served. Most of the vases known to scientists were either looted from graves or were unearthed long before modern archaeological methods were available, Wells said.

"It's really the first one that has ever been excavated [scientifically]," Wells said. "Until this case, we hadn't really had any idea about how these items were used." Although the archaeologists may have uncovered the vase's purpose, they are still perplexed by where they found it—beneath a pyramid-like palace they discovered in a small, remote settlement in Honduras' Palmarejo Valley. "It's a terraced building, and it had a single room on top—a long, narrow, rectangular room," Wells said of the newfound structure. "It was like a house, but a very nice one."

Both the palace and the vase suggest a level of prestige that seems out of keeping with what was otherwise an unremarkable farming village, he said. It's not clear whether its inhabitants were ethnic Maya or members of another group influenced by Maya culture, he added. "Compared to other sites in the region, this one's pretty small, pretty unimpressive. So why is this very super high-status product in this burial in this residential building?"

Death vaseThe team suspects that the person buried beneath the palace was of historic importance to local residents, likely an ancestor figure whose death marked the end of an era. "An ancestor is an important person who could've been a founder of the community or a founder of the lineage of the ruling family," he said. The palace was built over the grave very soon after the burial took place, around A.D. 650, Wells said. The vase was added to the grave about a hundred years after the burial, he added, likely to commemorate the ancestor's death.

"You typically see people digging up original ancestor figures and taking a relic bone or adding things to the [grave] and honoring them many years after they've died," Wells explained. The nausea-inducing gruel that the vase likely held may have been drunk by a worshipper at such a ceremony, Wells said, or it may have been left as an offering to the dead. But the most valuable gift may have been the vase itself.

A little larger than a coffee mug, the vessel is inscribed with sculpted scrolls and overlapping tiles resembling serpent scales, and each of its two handles is carved to resemble the head of a leaf-nose bat. "These things were super labor-intensive to produce, and they had imagery that was very cosmically significant," Wells said. The ornate vase may have found its way to the remote community through an ancient kind of social networking—in this case, by a valuable link to craftspeople who made these vessels in the Ulúa Valley, about a two-day walk away, Wells said.

"It could be that these kinds of marble vases ended up all over the place, and we just don't know because we haven't excavated them. But I suspect that there's something else going on here," he said. "There's some special relationship that somebody had in this community with the producers of these vases over in the Ulúa Valley. "This is something you would find in a Maya king's tomb," he added. "This is not something you would find in a very rural, backwater community."

Wells' colleagues Karla Davis-Salazar and Jose Moreno-Cortes presented the team's findings last month at the Southeast Conference on Mesoamerican Archaeology and Ethnohistory in Columbia, South Carolina.

Maize Beer

Christina Luke is an archaeologist at Boston University and an expert in Ulúa-style vases. She said the discovery made by Wells' team is "very significant." "Their vase is the best we have for really, really good context, excavated by professional archaeologists," she said. Unlike vases unearthed a century ago, often by mining and railroad workers, "with this one, we know the exact context and where it was found," Luke said. The pollen found with the vase seems consistent with ceremonial drinks used in ancient Mesoamerica, she added.

"It makes sense to me that the vase would have been used for some sort of consumption of a fermented frothy drink," she said. "I'd say either a maize beer or a chocolate drink or some combination of the two. To suggest that the vase was used in a purging ritual, however, "is stretching things a bit," she said.

While ancient Maya are known to have practiced ceremonial enemas and vomiting rites, there's little evidence that they were performed in the region where the vase was found, she said. "I don't know the data that you would draw on to say that there were definitely purging rituals [in that community]," Luke said. "The ipecac may suggest that, but I'd be uncomfortable saying, Yes, it's 100 percent what's going on."

Wells agreed that it's not certain that the newfound cup held a vomit-inducing beverage based solely on the few grains of ipecac pollen found in it. But he said his theory is consistent with rituals conducted in the region, as depicted on painted vessels found from the period. "We can only entertain the possibility and seek further evidence to evaluate the idea," he said.

His team plans to return to the Palmarejo Valley next summer to learn more about the site's role in the Maya world and to determine whether more vases or palaces might yet be discovered. "My sense is that this vase is very unique to this special burial, this special building," he said. "But I'm wondering now what would we find in these other buildings."

Blake de Pastino

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Maya rituals caused ancient decline in big game

(National Geographic News - November 15, 2007)

Ancient ritualMaya rulers' growing demand for animals of symbolic value may have caused a decline in big game, like jaguars, in ancient Latin America, a new study suggests. Faced with environmental problems and doubts about their ability to provide for their followers, the Maya elite may have ordered more hunting of large mammals whose meat, skins, and teeth provided proof of power and status, the study says.

Kitty Emery, an archaeologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History, has studied 80,000 animal bones found in 25 Maya trash mounds to map the effects of ancient hunting on animal populations over 4,000 years. The research, which experts said could be the most exhaustive of its kind, tracked the proportions of bones found from large, status-marking animals like jaguars and white-tailed deer to those of small game like armadillos, rodents, and rabbits. The results showed that large-animal remains were most plentiful from around A.D. 600 to 900, when the Maya population was at its largest and the proportion of elites was its highest.

However, in the later years of the Maya empire, from about A.D. 900 to 1500, evidence of big game dwindles, and bones of smaller animals become more frequent, particularly at the largest and most politically active Maya sites. This suggests "a depression in large-game availability caused by the demands of too many people and too many elites," Emery writes in the new study. The change in hunting habits was likely prompted by deforestation and a drier climate, which shook faith in Maya rulers' ability to provide "agricultural abundance," Emery continues.

In response to this uncertainty, rulers ordered that more large animals be killed for food, as religious offerings, and as evidence of their power and status. "I hypothesize that as the Maya elite class grew in number, and as they became more politically active, they began for the first time to demand more animals than were available," Emery said in an email.

The Maya and Conservation

Notably, the changes in hunting practices ran counter to the largely sustainable Maya conservation practices throughout their long history, Emery said. "Even as the ancient Maya lived in large cities over thousands of years, they never exploited game animals to extinction or even local decimation," she said.

"The large elite class probably did not act conservatively by recognizing the need to reduce demand for large game," she added. "Instead they demanded more and more in an attempt to prove their status regardless of the worsening conditions. But this scenario is speculative." Emery's study appeared recently in the Journal for Nature Conservation.

Lessons for Modern Conservation

Daniela Triadan, a Maya archaeologist at the University of Arizona, said the study "is an important contribution to the discussion about the so-called Maya collapse. "The findings show that human-environment interactions are very complex and that simplistic overexploitation models do not provide the answers for the [Maya's later] abandonment of the southern lowlands [of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala]," Triadan said. She said the study is also useful for modern conservation movements.

Triadan cited alarming rates of species disappearance in Guatemala's southern Petén region, a problem she said has worsened since a civil war in the country ended in 1996. "Population in the area today is not nearly the same as it was during the Late Classic [period, A.D. 600-900]," she said. "Thus studying how the ancient Maya more or less kept the ecological balance, despite massive deforestation and alterations of the landscape, may provide vital clues into how to manage these fragile environments today."

Others agreed Emery's study is important for understanding ancient Maya practices. "It is landmark in that it demonstrates that animal bone remains, which many Maya archaeological projects continue to ignore, can provide very critical insight into the nature of ancient Maya environmental adaptation," said Lori E. Wright, a specialist in Maya bioarchaeology at Texas A&M University.

Anabal Ford, an archaeologist from the University of California and director of the MesoAmerican Research Center, praised the study. "I think that this is a magnificent piece that combines original data with the analyses of existing data, some collected many decades ago," she said. "The strength of the study is in both the breadth of sites and the time periods covered."

Kelly Hearn

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World's longest underground river discovered in Mexico, divers say

(National Geographic News - March 5, 2007)

Underground RiverDivers exploring a maze of underwater caves on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula have identified what may be the longest underground river in the world. The waterway twists and turns for 95 miles (153 kilometers) through the region's limestone caverns, said British diver Stephen Bogaerts, who made the discovery with German colleague Robbie Schmittner. In a straight line, the system would span about six miles (ten kilometers) of land. (Related: "Huge Underground 'Ocean' Found Beneath Asia" [February 27, 2007].)

Bogaerts and Schmittner spent four years exploring using underwater scooters and specially rigged gas cylinders to find a connection between the Yucatán region's second and third longest cave systems, known respectively as Sac Actun and Nohoch Nah Chich (Mexico map). "We expected to have done it by December 2004," Bogaerts said. "But, unfortunately, we were unable to make the connection in the area we were looking in, so we had to look somewhere else."

The team scoured the passages, marking each new twist and turn with carefully labeled rope. On January 23 the pair headed toward the final connection from opposite sides and used an unopened bottle of champagne to make the final tie-off between the two systems. "It's a little bit like planting a flag on the moon or the top of [Mt.] Everest," Bogaerts said. The pair celebrated with a second bottle of champagne on the surface.

Explorer's Paradise

Explorer's ParadiseGene Melton is chair of the Lake City, Florida-based National Speleological Society's Cave Diving Section. He said the connection caps 20 years of exploration and mapping in the Yucatán's underground labyrinth. "[Bogaerts and Schmittner] saw the trending of certain passages going together, and they started making a major effort to explore it," he said.

Long a popular retreat for beachgoers, the Yucatán Peninsula has become a favorite destination for cave divers, Melton added. "Just about any time you go you can nearly always go find a new place to explore," Melton said. He likens the region to "a huge limestone sponge."

That's because the peninsula is largely made of limestone, a soft and porous rock that is easily eroded by slightly acidic rainwater, which carves out underground passages as it courses toward the Caribbean Sea. The pathways range from jumbo-jet-size rooms with long stalagmites and stalactites to narrow slits that divers must blindly squeeze through. The passages are completely flooded with water that stays a constant 76 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) year-round.

The water itself is layered: A lens of freshwater rests on top of salt water. When fresh rainwater percolates down, the liquid flows out horizontally and is discharged into the ocean. Divers access the caves through sinkholes called cenotes, which lay scattered throughout the peninsula under the rain forest canopy. "But the water isn't just flowing through these underground rivers ... 98 percent of the water is actually trapped in the rock," Bogaerts, the diver, said.

Conservation Call

The Yucatán's natural hydraulic system sustained the Maya for centuries and today is the main freshwater source for the region's booming tourism trade. But the cave diving community is concerned that the rapid pace of development could stress the supply. "These cave systems are so extensive and so interconnected that if there is a point of pollution in one area then it can quickly get distributed to a very, very wide area," Bogaerts said.

The explorers hope their discoveries will help bring attention to the caves, which suffer the "out of sight, out of mind" problem. "We still have a great deal more to do," Bogaerts said. "There are other cave systems nearby that we are currently trying to connect into this system, and one of the goals of that is to show everybody how interconnected this [underground river system] is."

John Roach

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Ancient Maya Royal Tomb Discovered in Guatemala

(National Geographic News - March 4, 2006)

Maya Royal TombA newly uncovered Maya tomb might be the resting place of the first ruler of Waka', an ancient city on what was a major trade route. The tomb, uncovered deep in the jungles of Guatemala (see map), contains a single skeleton lying on a stone bench, jade jewels, and the remains of a jaguar pelt, according to news reports. The structure was discovered on April 29 by archaeologist Hector Escobedo of the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala and graduate student Juan Carlos Melendez. It lies at the base of the site's largest pyramid, which is about 60 feet (18 meters) tall.

Escobedo is co-director of the Waka' Archaeological Project with David Freidel, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. "We are trying to identify the remains, which appear to be in good condition despite the collapse of the tomb's roof," Freidel wrote on his Web site. "This may be the resting place of either the dynasty founder, a man we do not have a history for, or K'inich B'alam the First, the Maya king who allied with Siyaj Ka'k', conqueror of Tikal [a major Maya city] in AD 378."

"Sounds Exciting"

Archaeologists believe the site of Waka'—located in Laguna del Tigre National Park and also known as El Peru—controlled trade along the San Pedro Matir River. At the city's height, tens of thousands of people may have lived there. Over the course of 700 years, 22 kings ruled. Oil prospectors discovered Waka' in the 1960s. It contains 672 structures and several smaller houses. Harvard University archaeologist Ian Graham mapped the site in the 1970s, and Freidel and Escobedo are the first to excavate there. Although he is not directly familiar with the discovery, he said it "sounds exciting."

Sounds Exciting"Any time you find something that early, you may well be finding something that sheds light on the early days or founding of the dynasty," he said. Further excavations and research at the tomb, he adds, may reveal exactly who is inside. Norman Hammond heads the archaeology department at Boston University in Massachusetts. He says that if this is indeed the tomb of the founder of Waka', it pushes back evidence for royal burials of dynasty founders to the Maya Preclassic period, which scholars date at between 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250.

"It fits in well with the rapidly increasing evidence for a high level of economic, social, and political complexity in Preclassic Maya society," he said, "something which not too many years ago was thought to be nearly at the level of peasant villages or small towns."

The royal tomb is the second found at the site. In the spring of 2004 Freidel and his colleagues discovered a queen's tomb more than 1,200 years old and dated to the Late Classic period of Maya civilization. On Tuesday a different team of archaeologists discovered another royal grave in a pyramid up the hill from the tomb discovered last week. The pyramid was likely built some 400 years later than the newly opened tomb.

The latest tomb has yet to be opened, but elaborate offerings of figurines of ballplayers, elegant women, dwarfs, and seated lords hint at the supposed occupant's royal status, according to Reuters.

John Roach

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Earliest Mayan writing found in pyramid

(Live Science - January 5, 2006)

Newly discovered hieroglyphs show that the Maya were writing at a complex level 150 years earlier than previously thought. The glyphs, which date to about 250 B.C., were found on preserved painted walls and plaster fragments in the pyramidal structure known as Las Pinturas, in San Bartolo, Guatemala. Las Pinturas also yielded the previously oldest samples of Mayan writing, dating back to 100 B.C.

Writing emerged in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India as far back as 3,000 B.C. Yet the first full-blown text - a series of signs that are clearly telling a story- does not show up in the New World until about 400 to 300 B.C. They were left by the Zapotecs in the Oaxaca Valley south of central Mexico. Most of the early Maya writing comes from between A.D. 150 and 250.

This vertical column of ancient Mayan glyphs was painted on stone found in a Guatemalan pyramid complex dating back to between 200 B.C. and 300 B.C.

Because Zapotec writing emerged so much earlier, researchers have long believed that the Maya were influenced by it. The earliest single Mayan glyph - which could have stood for a person's name or might have been a sign on a calendar - dates to about 600 B.C. But it isn't considered writing. These new glyphs are much more complex, project leader William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire said.

"This is a full-blown and fully developed script," Saturno told LiveScience. "Which is not to say that the Maya invented writing and not the Zapotec, but it does lead us to question the origins and the complexities of these origins." One thing seems certain: The Mayan style was not influenced by the Zapotecs.

"It's not similar at all to Zapotec," Saturno said. "You have these roughly contemporary examples that are completely different, which implies a more complex history than simple derivation."

Say what?

Despite being clearly developed written text, the newfound work cannot yet be read by scientists.

"Between 200 and 300 A.D. is when we become literate in Maya writing," Saturno said. "It's definitely writing, though, no question about that. Some of these signs are consistent with Maya writing for the next 1,000 years."

For example, glyph 7 is an early version of "AJAW," a symbol ubiquitously used with kings' names that means "lord, noble or ruler." Glyph 2 has vague pictorial qualities and may suggest a hand holding a brush or a sharp knifelike object. A common problem with dating Mayan writing is that it is often on stone, which scientists can't accurately date using radiocarbon dating. Instead, they must use stylistic changes to date materials.

However, Saturno and his team found these writings in a pyramid made in part with wood, which is carbon-based and can be dated with radiocarbon techniques.

"The way the Maya built pyramids is by building one layer on top of another," Saturno said. "We have [the building where the writing was found] sandwiched between two other buildings. We can get a date from the building itself, but also a range from the other two."

Taken together, these samples imply that the text was painted between 300 and 200 B.C. But it's likely that Mayan writing goes back a lot further, Saturno said.

"Given the grace, form, and consistent line-width of these symbols, it's not likely someone just picked up a brush and said 'I'm going to invent writing today,'" Saturno said. "This complexity shows it had been around for a while."

Bjorn Carey

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Oldest Maya mural wows archaeologists

(December 15, 2005)

Room attached to pyramid contains colorful art; royal burial site found

WASHINGTON - Archaeologist William Saturno said Tuesday he was awe-struck when he uncovered a Maya mural not seen for nearly two millennia. Discovered at the San Bartolo site in Guatemala, the mural covers the west wall of a room attached to a pyramid, Saturno said at a briefing.

In brilliant color, the mural tells the Maya story of creation, he said. It was painted around the year 100 B.C., but later covered when the room was filled in.

Mural 1
A detail from a sacred Maya mural at San Bartolo - the earliest known Maya painting, depicting the birth of the cosmos and the divine right of a king - shows the son of the corn god, patron of kings, floating with a pair of birds tied to his woven hunting basket, letting blood and offering a sacrificed turkey before one of five cosmic trees.

It could have been painted yesterday," Saturno said in a briefing organized by the National Geographic Society, which supported his work and will detail the finding in the January issue of its magazine. National Geographic called it the oldest preserved Maya mural.

"Before the excavation of the vividly painted mural, there was scant evidence of the existence of early Maya kings or of their use of elaborate art and writing to establish their right to rule," National Geographic said.

Saturno, of the University of New Hampshire, first reported discovery of the site in 2002 when he stopped to rest in the jungle, taking shelter in an old trench that turned out to be part of the ancient room.

Since then the west and north walls have been uncovered. The room's other walls had been demolished and used for fill, he said. The west wall was the centerpiece of the room, Saturno said. The mural includes four deities, which are variations of the same figure, the son of the corn god.

Mural 2
Guatemalan archaeologist Mónica Pellecer Alecio takes a green stone figurine from the oldest-known Maya royal tomb, dating from about 150 B.C., found at San Bartolo, an ancient Maya ceremonial site in Guatemala. Assisting her is San Bartolo project director William Saturno.

As Saturno explained it: The first deity stands in the water and offers a fish, establishing the watery underworld. The second stands on the ground and sacrifices a deer, establishing the land. The third floats in the air, offering a turkey, establishing the sky. The fourth stands in a field of flowers, the food of gods, establishing paradise.

Another section shows the corn god crowning himself king upon a wooden scaffold, and the final section shows a historic coronation of a Maya king. Some of the writing can be understood, Saturno said, but much of it is so old it is hard to decipher.

Nearby, archaeologists led by Guatemalan Monica Pellecer Alecio found the oldest-known Maya royal burial, from around 150 B.C. Excavating beneath a small pyramid, that team found a burial complex that included ceramic vessels and the bones of a man, with a jade plaque - the symbol of Maya royalty - on his chest.

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The earliest known Maya stone carving bearing the portrait of a woman

(National Geographic News - December 8, 2005)

The discovery was made earlier this year in the jungles of northern Guatemala at a site called Naachtun, some 55 miles (90 kilometers) north of the Maya city of Tikal.

The portrait, which is carved into a stone monument known as a stela, shows a woman's face with her hands upheld. It dates back to the fourth century A.D., suggesting that women held powerful positions early in Maya society either as queens or as deities.

"The individual depicted must have been exceptionally important to the people of Naachtun," said Kathryn Reese-Taylor, director of the University of Calgary team that made the discovery.

Who Was She?

Naachtun was founded between B.C. 50 and A.D. 150, but its period of greatest growth appears to have been between A.D. 150 and A.D. 400, the initial stages of what archaeologists call the Classic Maya period.

Martin Rangel, a member of the research team, discovered the stela protruding from a looter's trench in 2004, but the archaeologists decided to rebury it and properly excavate it this year.

Other images of queens have been found on stelae dating back to the early sixth century A.D. But this monument represents the earliest such monument.

The hieroglyph engraved over her head reads Ix Tzutz Nik, or "Lady Completion Flower," a name that shows up in several other artifacts from this period

"[It] is a wonderful and intriguing discovery," said David Freidel, a Maya expert at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

The main figure is a disembodied head with two hands on each side holding the symbols known as "7 Black K'an" and "9 Ajaw," denoting supernatural locations. The head is in profile and looks to the viewer's left.

The woman wears an elaborate headdress with a reptilian creature as its main element and waterfowl coming off the top. It also features feathers and a sacrificial dish.

"I think this is a reference to a historical queen of Tikal and princess of Rio Azul, both very important kingdoms in the Early Classic period of the Maya lowlands," Freidel said.

But the woman pictured could have been a mythical figure, some archaeologists say. "Gods also wore their names in their headdresses in Maya art," Calgary's Reese-Taylor said. "It is equally plausible that this monument names not a historical figure but rather a female deity."

Or Ix Tzutz Nik could have been both a historical figure and a deity. The lines between the human and the divine were blurred in ancient Maya culture. Many monuments depict historical rulers as gods.

Reverent Reburial

The stela measures two meters (about six feet) high and one meter (about three feet) wide. Its inscriptions have been seriously damaged, likely as a result of an attack against the city. Sometime between A.D. 550 and 650, however, the Maya reclaimed the monument and reburied it with great ceremony near the city's temples.

Researchers believe the burial was meant to honor the individual whose image was carved on the monument. Reburials are usually reserved for monuments that depict founders or important kings. An infant's bones were also found at the site.

"We always knew that royal women were important in Classic Maya society, but in Early Classic times they seemed to be more in the background," said Peter Mathews of La Trobe University in Australia, a member of the research team.

"Assuming our interpretation is correct, Lady Tzutz Nik must have been quite formidable," he said.

The Maya: Multimedia Specialists

The carving's focus on the head and the headdress alone is unusual, the archaeologists say. Most stelae images focus on entire human figures. The carving is also done in a unique form that borrows from many independent art styles.

"It really comes across as a sort of hybrid form that invokes a wide array of imagery," said Julia Guernsey, a professor of pre-Columbian art history at the University of Texas at Austin who studied the portrait.

Guernsey believes the stela could have formed a stylistic "bridge" between different types of monuments.

"This stylistic fluidity raises fascinating questions about the range of inspiration that artists of this period drew upon, the possibility that artists truly were multimedia specialists who applied their talents to many different types of monuments," she said.

Stefan Lovgren

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Early Mayan women were a powerful force

(Reuters - December 6, 2005)

Women may have played a more important part in Mayan culture and much earlier than archaeologists once thought, a new find suggests.

Researchers working in Guatemala have unearthed a monument with the earliest-known depiction of a woman of authority in ancient Mayan culture, says the Canadian leader of the international research team.

The 2 metre high limestone monument, called a stela, has a portrait of a female who could be either a ruler or a mythical goddess, says Associate Professor Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a University of Calgary archaeologist.

Women power
This 2 metre high limestone monument or stela depicts a powerful woman in Mayan society, perhaps an early politician or civic leader (Image: University of Calgary)

The stela may date from the late 4th century AD, making it as much as 200 years older than previously discovered monuments depicting powerful Mayan women, says Reese-Taylor, whose team includes Professor Peter Mathews, from La Trobe University in Australia.

"We have images of queens, who ruled singly and with their husbands and sons, depicted on stelae later in Maya history beginning in the early 6th century AD. But this stela is completely unique in style and likely dates to the 4th century AD," Reese-Taylor says.

"It's unique in that it shows a woman in a really early period in Maya history, a period when the city states were being founded and dynasties were being instituted."

Close to Tikal

Archaeologists found the stela, which normally describe events in the lives of kings, at the site of Naachtun, a city 90 kilometres north of the more famous Mayan city of Tikal. It was buried inside an ancient building, and some of the inscriptions had been hacked off, suggesting it had been a casualty in an invasion of the city, possibly by forces from Tikal at the end of the 5th century, she says.

"This was not unusual ... that they hack off or break stela. But one thing that was left on this stela was the name of the individual, and that is the name of a woman," Reese-Taylor says.

The name translates into Lady Partition Lord, she says. An infant was buried with the stela, the researchers say. Researchers do not suspect Mayan culture was matriarchal, but the newly unearthed stela shows that women played important roles in establishing the society, she says.

Next, the team will return to the site to make moulds of the monument and begin studying the imagery that accompanies the portrait, which includes a bird deity with serpentine wings.

"There's a lot of rich iconography that we need to interpret and that will give us clues of the position that she held, probably the political position of a founder of a dynasty. That would be my best guess right now," Reese-Taylor says.

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Mass graves reveal massacre of Maya royalty

(National Geographic News - November 17, 2005)

Archaeologists have discovered what they believe was the gruesome scene of a royal massacre in the ancient city of Cancuén, once one of the richest cities in the Maya empire.

The bones of 31 executed and dismembered Maya nobles were found in a sacred reservoir at the entrance to the royal palace in Cancuén in the Petén rain forest of Guatemala.

Researchers also found a shallow grave nearby containing the skeletons of two people they believe were the king and queen. The bones of more than a dozen executed upper-class Maya were found at a third burial site north of the royal palace.

The apparent executions-along with the discovery of unfinished defensive walls and houses-suggest that the city was wiped out by an invading force around A.D. 800, a critical moment at the beginning of the mysterious collapse of the great Maya empire.

The remains of the last Cancuén king, known as Kan Maax, were discovered near a major massacre site in the ruins of the ancient Maya city in Guatemala.

Arthur Demarest, who led the research team that made the discovery, has studied the collapse of the Maya civilization for 20 years. He says the massacre site is "by far the most important thing" he has ever found.

"It's like a photograph of a single, very critical moment in time," Demarest, an anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, said by phone from Guatemala.

The Cancuén excavation was partly funded by the National Geographic Society. The discovery is the subject of Explorer: Last Days of the Maya, which airs on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, November 27 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

Ancient CSI

The wealthy Cancuén kingdom was strategically located at the start of the Pasión River, the greatest trade route of the ancient Maya world. Its royal palace covered an area equal to more than five football fields.

Demarest began exploring the site in 1996 and has been excavating there since 1999. In May this year the researchers were studying the area's water system when they made their gruesome discovery: a 90-square-yard (75-square-meter) reservoir near the entrance to the royal palace filled with thousands of human bones and precious artifacts. Because of the scale of the discovery, the archaeology team enlisted the help of the Forensic Anthropological Foundation of Guatemala.

The scientists found bones of 31 bodies in the grave. Forensic analysis determined that victims had been killed with spears and axes. Many of the bodies had been dismembered. The bones were dated to A.D. 800.

"The deposit was sealed in wet mud, and the preservation is extraordinary," Demarest said. "These are the best-looking bones I have ever seen. We could tell that these were not war wounds but that the people had been executed."

Precious jewelry found in the grave-including jades, jaguar fang necklaces, and coast shells-indicates that the victims were nobles, possibly from the royal palace. In a shallow grave 80 yards (73 meters) away, the researchers made another spectacular discovery: two people who appear to be the king and queen of Cancuén buried in full regalia.

Demarest says a necklace found on the king has an inscription that says in part, "Kan Maax. Holy Lord of Cancuén."

Failed Defense

In the years preceding the massacre, warfare had spread across the western region of the ancient Maya world. The unrest seems to have reached Cancuén in A.D. 800. Unfinished construction around the city, including a system of hastily built stone and wooden palisade walls, suggests that the residents may have known that they were going to come under attack.

"The defense obviously failed," Demarest said. While commoners may have run away or been taken captive, nobles-men, women, and children-were lined up and executed. The bodies were then deposited with some ceremony in the sacred cistern at the palace entrance, the researchers speculate. There is no evidence that the city was conquered. Instead the assailants seem to have abandoned it after their attack.

"The massacre is an exceptionally dramatic example of the violence marking the end of royal court life and divine kingship in classic Maya civilzation," said David Freidel, a Maya expert at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

At least one Maya expert declined to comment on the discovery, citing that the findings had not yet been published in an academic journal and had not been peer reviewed. Experts have fiercely debated the cause of the quick demise of Maya society, which once ranged from Mexico's Yucatán peninsula to Honduras. Some of the theories about the collapse include such factors as overpopulation, drought, political conflict, and loss of the royal court.

While the massacre discovery seems to suggest that warfare played an important role, Demarest believes there is no one "silver bullet" to explain the decline of the Maya culture.

"What we are seeing [with massacres like these] is the beginning of the end," he said. "That doesn't mean they caused the collapse. We're moving away from this idea that it had to be this one dramatic reason for the collapse."

Stefan Lovgren

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Masks, other finds suggest early Maya flourished

(National Geographic - May 5, 2004)

At the Mayan city of Cival, Guatemalan archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli was walking in a tunnel left by looters when, by sheer chance, he made a major discovery: a massive face mask of a sun god carved on the wall of the main temple pyramid.

The mask, 5 meters (16.5 feet) wide and 3 meters (10 feet) tall-was stunning. But what made it truly remarkable was its age, dating back to around 200 to 150 B.C., a millennium before what is considered the height of Maya civilization. The early years of Maya civilization, the so-called pre-classic period-from 2,000 B.C. to A.D. 250-has often been dismissed as primitive, an era lost in myth before the Maya's true rise to greatness.

Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli is dwarfed by the enormous stucco face of a Maya deity, found at the Preclassic Maya site of Cival in Guatemala. Estrada-Belli and his team uncovered the second half of the mask in April 2004. His work is supported by National Geographic.

But new discoveries, like the mask Estrada-Belli found, reveal a society that flourished in the deep jungles of Guatemala long before the time of Jesus Christ. Its features-kings, complex iconography, elaborate palaces, and rituals-may have been just as dazzling as those of the classic Maya.

"We're pushing the beginning of Maya civilization far back into the pre-classic period," said Estrada-Belli, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, whose work is funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. "Everything is looking much more ancient," he said.

The new discoveries are described in a National Geographic TV special, Dawn of the Maya, which airs Wednesday, May 12, at 8 p.m. ET on PBS. Spanning more than two millennia, the world of the Maya evokes images of ancient pyramids soaring over the jungle, giant carved stones covered with hieroglyphics, and a sudden mysterious demise.

With awe-inspiring cities like Tikal and Chichén Itzá, the Classic Maya period, from A.D. 250 to 900, rivaled Egypt and Rome in its splendor and intellectual achievement. Until now, scant attention had been focused on the pre-classic period. However, the new research suggests this is when the elaborate Mayan rituals and ceremonial temples arose, and when their calendar, writing, and kingship emerged.

Telling Time

The sculpture found by Estrada-Belli in Cival has a complex iconography. It has an anthropomorphic face. Its nose and forehead are human, but two pinnacles on top of its eyebrow identifies the deity as a sun god.

"It's almost as if someone made this yesterday," Estrada-Belli says in the film. "It's incredible to imagine that we're touching this and we're looking at this just as people did over 2,000 years ago."

Only a week ago, Estrada-Belli found a second mask. He believes two pairs of the masks once flanked the stairway of the temple, which rises 33 meters (108 feet) above a central plaza. It may have provided the backdrop for elaborate rituals in which the king impersonated the gods of creation.

The pre-classic complex is like a sundial. "It had an important astronomical function," Estrada-Belli said. "It's no coincidence that the central axis of the main building and the plaza is oriented to sunrise at the equinox."

In June 2002 his team found an inscribed stone slab, known as a stela, dating to 300 B.C., inside the complex. It may be the earliest such carving ever found in the Maya lowlands.

In the plaza, the team also found a cross-shaped depression containing five smashed jars, an offering for water. Under the center jar were 120 pieces of jade, most of them polished. There were also five jade axes with their blades pointing upward, most likely part of a ritual associated with the Maya agricultural cycle and the maize god.

"We believe these offerings reflect the beginning of formal dynasties and the beginning of Maya state society, much earlier than anyone previously thought," Estrada-Belli said.

Using satellite technology, he has determined that Cival was twice as big as initially believed, and may have housed at least 10,000 people. It had an institution of kingship, and may have been the capital of a pre-classic kingdom or state.

"The size of Cival shows that the pre-classic period was an era of fully developed civilization, and it was not dominated by a single, major city, but rather a network of cities," Estrada-Belli said. "This changes our idea of the pre-classic period."

Myth of Creation

At the ancient city of San Bartolo, another team of archaeologists has found a mural over 2,000 years old that depicts in great detail the Maya myth of creation.

"In terms of pre-classic Maya, this is basically a Sistine Chapel," said Karl Taube, a Maya iconography expert at the University of California at Riverside.

The Maya version of creation centers around the maize god, who descended to the underworld where the lords of death killed him. Years later, his sons defeated the lords of death and resurrected the maize god. His return to the surface of the Earth marks the first day of the Maya world.

The early mural, depicting a version of these events, suggests that the Maya myth of creation originated in the pre-classic era. Meanwhile, Richard Hansen, another National Geographic Society grantee and archaeologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, is excavating the sprawling, pre-classic city of El Mirador, which contains the massive pyramid of Danta and is estimated to have housed approximately 100,000 people.

Hansen aims to find the kings from the dawn of Maya time. He is focusing on a small pyramid at El Mirador, which bears a magnificent engraving of a large jaguar paw. Hansen thinks it could be the burial place of the so-called "Jaguar King," one of 19 early Maya kings previously unknown to archaeologists.

"The person who constructed this building was not a simple chief living in a grass hut," Hansen said. "This was a king on the order of Ramses and Cheops."

By A.D. 250, the Maya pre-classic era came to an end. Hansen suspects that in constructing their great buildings, the early Maya exhausted the environment on which their farming depended, contributing to their downfall.

Estrada-Belli has found remnants of a defensive wall around Cival, indicating that the city had been under threat. He believes that the pre-classic cities belonged to strategic geopolitical alliances vying for power, just like the classic Maya cities of Tikal and Calakmul did centuries later.

Estrada-Belli said: "Cival was probably abandoned after a violent attack, probably by a larger power such as Tikal."

Stefan Lovgren

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Archaeologists Uncover Maya "Masterpiece" in Guatemala

(National Geographic - April 2004)

Archaeologists working deep in Guatemala's rain forest under the protection of armed guards say they have unearthed one of the greatest Maya art masterpieces ever found. The artifact - a 100-pound (45-kilogram) stone panel carved with images and hieroglyphics - depicts Taj Chan Ahk, the mighty 8th-century king of the ancient Maya city-state of Cancuén - excavation of royal mayan palace.

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Ancient Nicaraguan society found

(BBC - May 2003)

Archaeologists discover a previously unknown ancient Pre-Mayan civilisation in Central America that developed around 2,700 years ago and lasted for a thousand years.

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Intense droughts blamed for Mayan collapse

(New Scientist - 19:00 March 13, 2003)

The Mayan civilisation of Central America collapsed following a series of intense droughts, suggests the most detailed climatic study to date.

The sophisticated society of the Maya centred on large cities on the Yucatán peninsula, now part of Mexico. Their population peaked at 15 million in the 8th century, but the civilisation largely collapsed during the 9th century for reasons that have remained unclear to this day.

Now, researchers studying sediment cores drilled from the Cariaco Basin, off northern Venezuela, have identified three periods of intense drought that occurred at 810, 860 and 910AD. These dates correspond to the three phases of Mayan collapse, the scientists say.

Furthermore, the entire 9th century suffered below average rainfall, "so it was a dry period with three intense droughts", says Gerald Haug, from ETH in Zurich, Switzerland, who led the research. "The climate change must have been what pushed the Mayan society over the edge."

Experts on the Maya have greeted the new data cautiously. "Any explanation for decline is a complex one: over-population, environmental problems and economic factors all made them vulnerable," says Jeremy Sabloff, director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. "But there is growing evidence that climate played a role. Perhaps it was the straw that broke the camel's back."

Wet and dry

Haug and his colleagues identified the bands in the sediment cores that correspond to the annual wet and dry seasons. They then analysed the concentration of titanium in the sediment in great detail, taking measurements at intervals of 50 micrometres.

Titanium is an indicator of rainfall, explains Haug, because higher precipitation washes more of the metal from the land into the ocean floor sediments. The difference in concentration between the wet and dry season each year is as much as 30 per cent.

"We looked in detail at the period corresponding to 9thand 10thcenturies - taking 6000 measurements per 30 centimetres of sediment - and found three extreme minima, as well as a low background level of that lasted about 100 years," Haug told New Scientist.

Latest and greatest

But archaeologist Norman Hammond, at Boston University, is unconvinced that drought caused the downfall of the Maya. Referring to the northern Yucatán city of Chichén Itzá, he asks: "Why did the latest and greatest florescence of the Mayan series occur in the area that we know to be the driest?"

The Maya certainly had hydraulic expertise, Jeremy Sabloff points out, building canals, viaducts and reservoirs. Moreover, they had experienced and survived droughts before.

"The Maya thrived for 1500 years before these droughts, so it's clearly not climate alone that brought down the southern cities of the Yucatán peninsula," he says.

Journal reference: Science (vol 299, p 1731)
Gaia Vince

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Stone tablet with hieroglyphs

(October 10, 2002 - Palenque)

Palenque site director Juan Antonio Ferrer announced a new discovery from just south of the Cross Group. A stone tablet with an elaborate scene and numerous hieroglyphs carved in relief was found on the side of a low platform in Temple XXI. It now joins the canon of historically vital and stunningly beautiful monuments from this Classic Maya site in Chiapas, Mexico. K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nahb' III himself is the left-side figure in the sculptured relief. A caption for the central figure, seated on a jaguar-skin covered throne, states that he is impersonating a deity (or deified ancestor) whose name ends in U "K'ix" Chan. This name appears in Palenque's royal genealogy with a supposed time of rulership dating to the Olmec era (he is said to have been born in 993 BC).

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Mayan texts reveal superpower wars

(New Scientist - 14:42 September 19, 2002)

Translations of hieroglyphs on the staircase of a pyramid in Guatemala reveal details of a superpower struggle between two city-states at the peak of the Mayan civilisation.

The 1300-year old hieroglyphs support theories that the Mayan world was riven by battles between two major powers, rather than smaller-scale clashes between multiple rival dynasties.

"It's rare that you find a new monument and it fills in such a large blank spot about the history of a region," says Arthur Demarest, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, who has led research at Dos Pilas in northern Guatemala, where the staircase was found.

"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," he told the magazine of the National Geographic Society, which part-funded the new research.

The staircase was revealed in October 2001, when Hurricane Iris uprooted a tree at the base of temple ruins at Dos Pilas. Demarest's colleague Federico Fahsen has just completed translations of the text.

Pools of blood

The staircase describes 60 eventful years in the life of Balaj Chan K'awiil, who in 635AD became ruler of Dos Pilas, aged four. At that time, the text recounts, K'awiil's older brother was one of two powerful kings at war with one another.

His brother, the king of Tikal in northern Guatemala, was battling the ruler of Calakmul, 97 kilometres further north in what is now Mexico. Dos Pilas is 113 kilometres northeast of Tikal.

While K'awiil was in his twenties, Calakmul forces invaded and conquered Dos Pilas. K'awiil switched his allegiance to Calakmul and waged war against his brother for a decade, until Tikal was sacked. His brother and other members of the nobility were taken to Dos Pilas to be executed.

The west section of the steps describes the killings, says Fahsen: "It says: 'Blood was pooled and the skulls of the people of the central place of Tikal were piled up.' The final glyphs describe the king of Dos Pilas 'doing a victory dance'."

Demarest thinks the Mayan civilisation was probably on the verge of forming a single empire about the time of the battles described on the staircase. But instead, the war between the two powers continued. "And then the Maya world broke up into regional powers, setting the stage for a period of intensive, petty warfare that finally led to the collapse of the Maya," he says.

However, the causes of the collapse of the civilisation by 900AD remain the subject of hot debate. David Stuart of Harvard University thinks it is still possible that a cataclysmic environmental event triggered its final demise.

Emma Young

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Jade 'mother lode' found in remote Guatemalan region

(May 2002 - San Francisco Gate)

For half a century, scholars have searched in vain for the source of the jade that the early civilizations of the Americas prized above all else and fashioned into precious objects of worship, trade and adornment. The searchers found some clues to the source of jadeite, as the precious rock is known, for the Olmecs and Mayas. But no lost mines came to light. Now, scientists exploring the wilds of Guatemala say they have found the mother lode -- a mountainous region roughly the size of Rhode Island strewn with huge jade boulders, other rocky treasures and signs of ancient mining. It was discovered after a hurricane tore through the landscape and exposed the veins of jade, some of which turned up in stores, arousing the curiosity of scientists.

The find includes large outcroppings of blue jade, the gemstone of the Olmecs, the mysterious people who created the first complex culture in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the region that encompasses much of Mexico and Central America. It also includes an ancient mile-high road of stone that runs for miles through the densely forested region. The deposits rival the world's leading source of mined jade today, in Burma, the experts say. The implications for history, archaeology and anthropology are just starting to emerge. For one thing, the scientists say, the find suggests that the Olmecs, who flourished on the southern Gulf Coast of Mexico, exerted wide influence in the Guatemalan highlands as well. All told, they add, the Guatemalan lode was worked for millenniums, compared with centuries for the Burmese one. In part, the discovery is a result of the devastating storm that hit Central America in 1998, killing thousands of people and touching off floods and landslides that exposed old veins and washed jade into river beds. Local prospectors picked up the precious scraps, which found their way into Guatemalan jewelry shops and, eventually, the hands of astonished scientists.

Led by Seitz and local jade hunters, a team of scientists from the American Museum of Natural History, Rice University and UC Riverside scoured the forested ravines of the Guatemalan highlands for more than two years. In the end the scientists made a series of discoveries culminating in bus-size boulders of Olmec blue jade. The exact locations of the outcroppings are not being given, to protect them. Leading archaeologists in Guatemala, though not directly involved, are applauding the finds. Hector Escobedo of the Universidad del Valle called the jade discovery "one of the most significant" in decades of probing the Mayan past and said the new deposits probably accounted for "all of the sources for Mesoamerican jades."

He added that given Guatemala's lack of financial resources, "it is crucial to organize a cooperative effort with international scholars and institutions in order to protect and study the new jewel of our cultural heritage."

Early peoples of the Americas considered jade more valuable than gold and silver. The Olmecs, the great sculptors of the pre-Columbian era, carved jades into delicate human forms and scary masks. Maya kings and other royalty often went to their graves with jade suits, rings and necklaces. The living had their teeth inlaid with the colored gems.

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Openings to the Underworld

(May 2002)

The ancient Maya may have dug caves with spiritual abandon. For more than 100 years, archaeologists have hacked through jungles in Mexico and Central America in a quest to uncover pyramids, temples, and other majestic ruins of Maya civilization. James E. Brady of California State University, Los Angeles appreciates the backbreaking work that goes into finding such monumental structures, but he has his sights set lower. As he's probed the ancient Maya's sacred landscape, he's come to realize that this group's belief system invested immense supernatural power in caves and the mountains that surround them.

Brady heads up a growing band of researchers who are piecing together this subterranean, spiritual perspective. In their view, a supernatural terrain permeated pre-Columbian religious life from central Mexico through much of Central America and still inspires faith in many native groups.

Caves occupy the focal point of this archaeological project. In initial research, Brady discovered that some of the largest Maya outposts of the Classic period, which lasted from A.D. 200 to A.D. 900, were strategically oriented on and around natural and humanmade caves. As entryways through sacred, living earth into an underworld of gods, mythical creatures, and ancestors, caves served as spiritual landmarks. In these dim chambers, rulers conducted ceremonies vital to maintaining their power.

New discoveries from before and during the Classic period indicate that caves had considerable spiritual standing in rural as well as urban areas and among common folk as well as rulers. In some locales, caves also show signs of having been visited regularly by religious pilgrims. For example, clues point to cave visits by Maya scribes, the artisans who recorded the royals' exploits. Cave supply responded to the intense spiritual demands, Brady says. Rather than rely on a limited supply of natural caves, the Maya created new caves in huge numbers. "Artificial caves were constructed according to fairly regular plans and should be considered a formal architectural type of the ancient Maya, just like their ball courts and pyramids," Brady contends. "I suspect there are thousands of these artificial caves that have yet to be discovered."

Artificial caves assume particular prominence in the researchers' latest fieldwork, which Brady and others described this March in Denver at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. Maya farmers living far from the madding crowds of major cities excavated their own caves out of dirt or rock apparently to serve as the religious heart of their communities. In some areas, pits that represented caves were dug in houses for family-based rituals, according to Brady. Moreover, from about 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1400, rural Maya buried their dead in specially designated rock shelters and caves, often dug out of hills or mountains by the sweat of many brows. Among the Classic Maya and their non-Maya contemporaries in central Mexico, a tradition of cave burials may have prompted the construction of pyramids, as symbols of sacred mountains, encasing deceased royalty in cavelike tombs.

Around 1,000 years ago in central Mexico, the Chichimec people founded a town known as Acatzingo Viejo. In the center of the site, settlers excavated seven small caves out of a steep limestone slope. This cave array represented Chicomoztoc, seven mythical caverns from which Chichimec ancestors were believed to have first emerged, says Manuel Aguilar of Cal State, Los Angeles. The group of caves also put a spiritual stamp of approval on Acatzingo Viejo and affirmed the legitimacy of its new rulers, Aguilar proposes. He and his coworkers found stone altars, ceramic incense burners, and other evidence of past ritual activity in the six surviving caves at the Mexican site. Local residents told the researchers that the seventh cave had recently been destroyed to make room for a new road. The caves lie just below the remains of a ceremonial plaza that includes a small pyramid. Other central-Mexican sites pair artificial caves with pyramids, Aguilar notes. For example, there's an artificial cave beneath the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, where a separate civilization thrived at around the time of the Maya's Classic period. This pyramid contains stone drains that may have channeled rainwater into the chamber to intensify its connection to the spiritual underworld. Some archaeologists suspect that the drains simply collected water for a well. However, their impractical positioning directly under a pyramid betrays their spiritual significance, Aguilar argues.

Spanish documents from the 16th century and scientists' interviews of the area's current inhabitants reveal a longstanding regional belief that water originates in mountains and issues out of caves. Native groups in Mexico and Central America have long regarded caves with water sources as symbols of "the generative womb of the Earth" that gave birth to humanity, Aguilar says. An intricate replication of a water-bearing cave has been discovered at Muklebal Tzul, a 1,100-year-old Maya site in a mountainous region of southern Belize. In 1999, a team led by Keith M. Prufer of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale noticed a spot next to the settlement's ceremonial center where large amounts of earth had been cleared to create a flat expanse. On closer inspection, they uncovered what they regard as an artificial cave that descends beneath that area. The structure consists of a narrow, 50-foot-long diagonal tunnel leading down to an open area with a 7-gallon, plaster-lined basin for collecting water. An underground spring supplied water that fell into the basin from a small opening in the tunnel's side, creating an artificial waterfall. The small quantity of water yielded by such a major construction project argues against its use as a well, Prufer says.

"[This project] was intended to reproduce a water-bearing cave on a miniature scale, allowing the residents of the site to center their community over a feature with mythic and sacred qualities," Prufer holds.

Artificial caves had a domestic side as well, according to Brady. In the southern lowlands of Guatemala and Honduras, where natural caves are scarce, ancient Maya houses frequently contain large earthen pits known as chultuns. Separate chambers built into the sides of chultuns were big enough for a person to crawl into, and many include wall niches in which pottery and other items were placed. Although chultuns have attracted relatively little systematic research, the ancient Maya probably regarded them as household caves in which to conduct rituals, Brady asserts. Hundreds of such chultuns dot the residential landscape of major Classic-era sites such as Tikal in Guatemala.

Nearer to the gods

Contrary to traditional theories, complex Maya beliefs may have inspired poor folk in the hinterlands as much as they did the governing elite in Classic-era centers. Crucial evidence for this possibility comes from discoveries of rural Maya burials in rock shelters. These structures consist of stone walls erected around depressions in hills or mountains. In poor communities, rock shelters were used to bury the dead at the gate of mythical "creation caves," says David M. Glassman of Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. In contrast, ancient Maya royalty were buried in tombs that symbolized caves and in some cases even contain artificial stalactites, Glassman asserts. Upon dying, Maya bigwigs thus gained direct access to the supernatural underworld that had issued their founding ancestors.

"All settlements, large and small, shared the religious ideology of the Maya elite, yet expressed and celebrated it in different ways and with different resources," Glassman contends.

In the Maya Mountains of southern Belize, he and his colleagues have excavated a rock shelter located just below the entrance to a natural cave. The shelter contains skeletal remains of more than 150 people, all lying in a flexed position facing the cave's entrance. Items placed in the graves include pottery, obsidian blades, and various types of rock. In the past few years, other researchers have found other rock-shelter cemeteries in the same region of Belize. Prufer's group discovered human skeletons in three natural rock shelters high in the Maya Mountains, not far from the ruins of Muklebal Tzul. Skeletal remnants of 13 individuals have been tallied so far. Pottery styles and radiocarbon dates indicate that these rock shelters were used as cemeteries as early as 300 B.C., several centuries before intensive settlement of the area.

Mayan pottery

Soil in each of the burial sites contains dense concentrations of shells from a freshwater snail eaten by the ancient Maya. Large numbers of these shells have also turned up at the entrances to 16 Maya caves that were used for ritual activities. Prufer says that the shells were associated with sacred concepts of water, fertility, birth, and death. Modern Maya groups continue to revere these snails. Several anthropologists have discovered offerings of snail shells recently left in niches at cave openings.

In 2001, Brady and his coworkers uncovered human graves in four of seven caves in a small, isolated, Guatemalan hill called Balam Na. The badly looted caves also yielded pottery and beads that date to times before the Classic period. When the researchers found the caves, pieces of crude stone walls lay at the entrances, indicating that these sacred sites had once been closed off. The topmost cave appears to have entombed high-ranking individuals. That arrangement reflects an attempt to protect their graves from pillaging by invading groups, says Cal State's Sergio Garza. The vulnerability of cave burials to theft may have encouraged the Classic-period tradition of placing royals in pyramid-covered tombs that symbolized caves within hills, Garza proposes.

Pilgrims' progress

Ancient-Maya cave activities may have taken other intriguing turns. For instance, caves on Cozumel, an island off the coast of southeast Mexico, exhibit signs of having regularly been visited by religious pilgrims, says Cal State's Shankari Petel. The focus of worship on the island was Ix Chel, the Maya goddess of the moon, childbirth, fertility, and medicine.

Accounts of 16th-century Spanish explorers described Cozumel as a destination for Maya pilgrims. However, archaeologists have shown little interest in probing for evidence of pilgrimages on the island, Petel says. They have portrayed Cozumel's caves variously as pottery dumps, rock quarries, burial sites, and places where people hid during times of social conflict. Remains of ritual activity, including incense burners, conch shells, and pottery, have been recovered in caves at two Classic-era settlements on Cozumel, according to Petel. Scattered masonry blocks in the caves were probably used to build walls near their entrances. Some of the caves contain cenotes, or openings to underground water sources, that the ancient Maya associated with Ix Chel.

Maya scribes, the artists who used a complex writing system to record the activities of the royalty, conducted their own pilgrimages to certain caves, proposes Andrea Stone, an art historian at the University of Wisconsin­Milwaukee. Cave paintings at Naj Tunich, a Classic-era city in Guatemala, contain numerous images of scribes, in what appear to be self-portraits. Accompanying text includes the scribes' names. Other pieces of Maya art, such as an elaborate painted vase found at Naj Tunich more than 20 years ago, contain scenes that scholars now say situate scribes among cave symbols.

Scribes portrayed themselves in distinctive costumes, Stone says. They wear cloth head wraps into which paintbrushes are tucked and quill pens are tied with knotted cords. Many scribes sport spiky hairdos that poke through their headgear. In the portraits, scribes often appear in or near open skeletal jaws, which symbolized caves. Pictorial symbols of stone, water, and death usually surround the scribes. On cave walls at Naj Tunich, scribes documented their own ritual pilgrimages to invigorate their ties to underworld gods and initiate novice practitioners, Stone theorizes. "The self-references scribes made in cave paintings are part of a record of their returning to the divine source of their craft, affirming their legitimacy, and supporting their social positions," she says.

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Oldest Intact Maya Mural Found in Guatemala

(March 22, 2002)

Archaeologist William Saturno travelled to northeastern Guatemala last year to explore Maya ruins and search for ancient carved monuments. In part to escape the broiling tropical sun, he slipped into a tunnel that had been dug by looters.

The tunnel led to a small building buried beneath a Maya pyramid. When Saturno beamed a flashlight at an interior wall, he was stunned at the sight before him: an ancient Maya mural in remarkably pristine condition.

Scholars say the mural, which dates from A.D. 100, is one of the most important finds in Maya archaeology in recent decades both for its artistic merit and because of the insight it will provide into the Preclassic period of the Maya.

Mayan mural

Rare Work of Art

This detail from an ancient Maya mural found in northeastern Guatemala, dating from about A.D. 100, suggests a highly skillful artistic rendering that scholars say is surprisingly sophisticated for the Preclassic period of Maya civilization.(top)

A mural reconstruction rendering of exposed panel (as seen above) of the oldest known intact Maya mural, discovered by William Saturno. (bottom)

Photograph by William A. Saturno (top)
Drawing by Heather Hurst (bottom)

The mural adds a significant piece of evidence to a growing body of archaeological discoveries that is forcing archaeologists and art historians to change their earlier views of Preclassic Maya culture [see related sidebar].

The mural was found at a Maya ceremonial site called San Bartolo, in Guatemala's Petén lowlands. Petén was heavily occupied by Maya in the Preclassic period, which scholars date from about 2000 B.C. to A.D 250.

"This is an extraordinary find," said Stephen Houston, a professor at Brigham Young University who is an expert on Maya archaeology and writing. "The parts of the mural that are visible show a complex iconography and rich palette that we barely suspected for that period."

Hidden Treasure

Only a six-foot-wide (1.8-meter) section of the mural is exposed on one wall of the room. But a team of experts who visited the site last June believe the painting extends around the entire room. The mural is unusually well preserved because it was covered with mud and then the room was sealed, said Saturno, a research associate at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire. Although the Maya are known for their highly decorative ceramics and architecture, few Maya murals have been discovered. For one thing, the moist tropical climate works against the preservation of such delicate artwork.

Archaeologists have found traces of other early Maya wall paintings notably at Tikal and Uaxactûn, both also in Guatemala. The San Bartolo mural, however, is far better preserved and more finely executed than those examples, according to Maya experts.

"We're not yet certain this mural is the absolute oldest, but it's certainly the oldest in this condition. For this early time period, there's really nothing comparable," said Saturno. David Freidel, a professor of archaeology at Southern Methodist University and an expert in Preclassic Maya culture, called the San Bartolo mural "a remarkably important discovery. This is a really beautiful work," he said. "What's going on in the mural, even from only the glimpse we have, it's clear it will provide significant knowledge of Maya religion and Maya rulership in a period at the beginning of Classical Maya civilization."

Familiar Theme

Saturno and David Stuart, a curator of Maya hieroglyphs at the Peabody museum and a senior lecturer in anthropology at Harvard, went to San Bartolo last June with art specialists and Guatemalan archaeologist Héctor Escobedo to assess the mural and develop a preliminary conservation plan. Looters in recent years had removed a large section of the wall below the mural, leaving parts of it with little support. San Bartolo, a site previously unknown to archaeologists, covers about 12 acres (5 hectares). Its ruins include a large complex built around an 80-foot-tall (24-meter) pyramid that encompasses at least six earlier phases of construction. The building in which the mural was found was completed in the most recent phase of construction.

Full-time guards have been posted at the site, and Saturno will return next month with a field team to continue excavation and restoration activities. Karl Taube, an archaeologist at the University of California-Riverside and an expert in ancient Mesoamerican history, religion, and art, said the part of the San Bartolo mural that's visible appears to show the dressing of the maize god. The deity—recognizable by his characteristic slanted eyes and flattened and elongated head—is surrounded by several other people. He gazes over his shoulder at two half-clothed maidens kneeling behind him.

"The scene," Taube said,"is part of a mythological story in which the maize god travels through the underworld and is eventually resurrected. Aspects of the corn god myth can be seen on many vases and other artwork from A.D. 600 to 800, he noted. It was very common during the Classic period because it plays into the Maya creation myth.The San Bartolo mural," he added,"is the first known depiction of this particular myth in narrative form. Until now," Saturno said, "examples of Maya artistry from about A.D 100. have been limited to ceramic pieces, stone monuments, and architectural sculptures, especially large stucco masks that adorned the facades of buildings. "Although we have individual artifacts, there [have been] few narratives or images of historical or mythological events," he said.

A Maya "Masterpiece"

Several Maya experts who have seen the San Bartolo painting or photos of it said it is unexpectedly sophisticated for the period in which it was painted, which casts new light on artistic achievement in Preclassic Maya civilization.

"It points to the highly cosmopolitan and sophisticated nature of Maya society and culture during the Late Preclassic," said Taube.

Norman Hammond, a professor of archaeology at Boston University who has excavated Preclassic Maya sites in Belize, called the San Bartolo mural "arguably the most significant find since Bonampak." The murals discovered at Bonampak, Mexico, in 1946 cover the walls and ceilings of three rooms with colorful depictions of Maya court ceremonies, battles, and daily life. They were painted about A.D. 790, not long before the Maya civilization collapsed in A.D. 900.

"Bonampak is the acme of Classic Maya mural painting, but the San Bartolo mural shows that this semi-naturalistic style was in existence half a millennium before," said Hammond.

Freidel said the mural "is a masterpiece of Maya art, regardless of what else has been found." For the paint to bond onto the plaster wall of the room discovered at San Bartolo, the artists had to work quickly and with great confidence while the plaster was still damp, he explained. "Sometimes archaeologists have been able to detect drip lines on Preclassic painted monumental masks, where the artist was unable to control the flow of paint," he said. "The San Bartolo mural was painted by a great master, with fine-line exquisite details all perfectly rendered."

The discovery of the mural has generated much excitement among Maya scholars, who say they are eager to find out what lies behind the obscured panels.

"There appear to be many more scenes and figures behind the dirt and fill of the chamber," said Houston, noting that the full significance of the mural will only become clear with fuller excavation. The discovery," he added, "is rather like finding a new Maya book, and all of us are drooling to see what's to come."

Serendipitous Discovery

San Bartolo, in Guatemala's northeastern Petén province, was unknown to archaeologists until last year, when William Saturno discovered an ancient Maya mural at the site.Saturno went to Petén in March 2001 to track down and record inscriptions of Maya stelae carved monuments as part of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, based at Harvard's Peabody Museum. He originally planned to visit ruins farther north, near the border with Mexico. That itinerary fell through when guides were unable to make the trip for lack of sufficient time. They suggested that Saturno visit San Bartolo, which local reports suggested might have previously undocumented stelae. The site was only about five hours away, the guides assured Saturno, insisting they could make the round-trip journey in a day.

"The journey to San Bartolo was neither short nor as easy as originally described," Saturno recalls dryly. "It took the party of six more than 21 hours to get there, travelling by vehicle and on foot. They arrived exhausted and without adequate food and water. "All we had was Cup-a-Soup instant mix, but no water," Saturno says, noting that the temperature was 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (32 to 38 degrees Celsius) and he was carrying about 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of photo equipment.

There were no stelae at the site. But Saturno found something far more remarkable, which has made San Bartolo a significant archaeological site. The guides wandered off to forage for vines from which to extract resin, which they filtered through their shirts to provide drinking water. Saturno explored the central plaza of the ruins, where a cluster of three mounds faced a large pyramidal temple.

A series of tunnels ringing the tall structure indicated that looters had been active at the site. "They were probably looking for tombs to find Maya polychrome pottery to sell on the black market," Saturno says. "They weren't going to find any," he notes, because such vessels were produced mainly after A.D. 400, and later analysis suggested San Bartolo had already been abandoned by that time.

Becoming severely dehydrated and eager to escape the heat, Saturno wandered into a looters tunnel cut into one of the site's main pyramids. "Just past where the light enters," he says, "I could see the remains of buildings they had dug into."

He aimed a flashlight at the walls. "I started laughing," Saturno says. "There was this Maya mural, a very rare thing. The looters had cleared off a section and left it.

"I felt," he says, "like the luckiest man on the planet."

Rethinking the Preclassic Period

At its peak during the Classic period, Maya civilization consisted of city-states much like those of ancient Greece, which were governed by an elaborate system of kingship and social hierarchy. Rulers were thought to be descendents of the gods, which helped ensure the continuity and stability needed to develop a complex society, a successful system of trade, and significant cultural advancement.

The Preclassic period of Maya civilization has long been viewed as a loosely organized, largely agrarian society. That view is changing.

"In the last 25 years we have made important breakthroughs in our understanding of the Preclassic period," said Maya expert David Freidel. "It's now clear it can't be regarded as merely a precursor of the Classic period."

Evidence shows that in the Preclassic period, Maya settlements were well established in northern Guatemala, Belize, and parts of southern Mexico a total area about the size of modern-day New Mexico. Excavations at El Mirador in Petén in the late 1970s and early 1980s revealed that Preclassic Maya civilization was far more complex than previously suspected. A major metropolis from about 150 B.C. to A.D. 150, El Mirador had as many as 200 buildings and a population of tens of thousands.Despite important discoveries such as this, however, the picture remains sketchy. One major reason, according to Maya experts, is that Petén a thriving center of Preclassic Maya life is heavily forested and still relatively uncharted by archaeologists.

The Preclassic period "presents a frustrating paradox," said Stephen Houston, who has many years of experience running excavations in the Maya region. "It had immense cities and monumental architecture, yet little is known of its society or system of rulership. The San Bartolo mural," he added, "may resolve this paradox with a considerable body of well-preserved images and, we fervently hope, new hieroglyphic texts. From this we may learn more about how the Preclassic Maya linked religious belief to the organization of society."

William Saturno and David Stuart of Harvard University estimate that San Bartolo was active from 400 B.C. to A.D. 300 or 400—a time of major transition in Maya culture. "It is important not just for the art," Saturno said, "but for what it may tell us about a period of dramatic change leading up to the establishment of kingship and dynastic rule, the building of pyramids, the differentiation of social classes, and the florescence of a universal art style and hieroglyphic writing."

San Bartolo, he said, "opens a window on the past that we didn't have."

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Remains of Mayan Ruler Discovered in Honduras

(May 29, 2001 - Tegucigalpa, Honduras)

The jade-encrusted remains of a powerful Mayan king have been unearthed in Honduras by a Japanese archeologist in a key finding from the ancient and mysterious civilization, the tourism ministry said on Friday.The remains belong to one of the 16 rulers of the Mayan dynasty that ruled the city of Copan, in what is now Honduras, between 426 and 763 A.D., the ministry said.

Archeologist Seiichi Nakamura, who made the discovery, said the king may have served between the 6th and 10th regimes of the Copan dynasty.The tomb contained a skull, a femur and an ornamental breastplate and kneecap with jade inlays. It was dug up in August but was only recently confirmed to hold the remains of a Mayan king. The discovery means that the remains of eight of Mayan's 16 rulers of Myan have now been found.The burial site was located at a religious temple that lies among ruins stretching across some 214,000 square feet. Some 20 recoverable buildings, 36 skeletal remains, 10 religious offerings, 37 ceramic vessels and other objects were also found at the site.

The newly uncovered area is about 2 miles from the acropolis of Copan, where the Honduras government is constructing a highway.The Mayan culture sprung up in the region spanning southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and is renowned for its imposing edifices, social organization, astrological advances and the existence of a calendar. Archeologists and scientists still do not fully understand the causes of the civilization's decline.The Mayan ruins in Honduras are among the impoverished nation's most visited tourist attractions.

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Mayan city is older than believed

(May 26, 2001 - Yucatan)

Chac, a Mayan city in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, flourished hundreds of years earlier than previously believed, according to new evidence that also shows extensive outside influence on the community.

Chac is one of several Mayan cities in the northern Yucatan - a region increasingly popular with tourists - that were believed to have flourished between A.D. 800 and 1000.But new research, including radiocarbon dating, indicates that Chac existed as early as A.D. 300, growing to as many as 6,000 residents, Michael P. Smyth, an anthropology professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., said in a telephone interview.

Smyth, preparing to return for his seventh season of research in Mexico, said he also has uncovered carvings, pottery and other indications that the community was heavily influenced by the great city of Teotihuacan in central Mexico. While Teotihuacan had a large sphere of influence, that had not been thought to extend to the northern Yucatan until much later. At the time Chac was flourishing, wars in southern Mexico disrupted trade routes between that area, Guatemala and Teotihuacan, located near the site of present day Mexico City.

"With trade disrupted, Teotihuacan may have begun looking elsewhere for products it wanted to import and the Yucatan would be a likely area to go," said Smyth, "whose research is supported by the Washington-based National Geographic Society. Radiocarbon dating of objects found at the site indicates Chac's origins date from about A.D. 300, at least two centuries earlier than any other known settlement in the area," Smyth said.

He said Chac appears to have been abandoned and ritually destroyed in the late eighth century, when other sites in the Puuc hills region of the Yucatan underwent rapid growth and development. It is located near the ancient sites of Uxmal and Sayil. Smyth said that in exploring a 60-foot-tall pyramid, he discovered that two earlier pyramids lie beneath it. Numerous substructures have been discovered beneath other buildings excavated at the site. And he said buildings at the site incorporate elements from Teotihuacan into Mayan architecture. For example, there are many early serpent images in the Great Pyramid Plaza. Serpents are more reminiscent of architecture at Teotihuacan than the decorations of early Maya.

Smyth also reported finding 19 burial sites at Chac with pottery and mortuary patterns typical of Teotihuacan native. While the Teotihuacan culture dominated a large part of what is now Mexico, much remains to be learned about it, Smyth said. With as many as 200,000 people in A.D. 500, Teotihuacan was probably one of the four or five largest cities in the world, he said, but much of the language and culture of the people there remains a mystery.

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Inside the city of the black tiger

(Thursday, 25 January, 2001, 13:06 GMT)

Ek Balam in Mexico

The ruins of Ek Balam may have an important significance.

One hundred and fifty miles inland from the crowded beaches and throbbing bars of Cancun, Mexico, lies a recently discovered ancient Mayan city of great beauty and potentially huge archaeological significance. Since the discoveries at Ek Balam are so recent, they do not yet appear in any guide books. When I went to visit, I had the ruins to myself - an unheard of luxury in Mexico's better known Mayan cities, which are busy tourist attractions. The custodian's ledger showed that a grand total of eight people had visited that day.

Archaeologists began serious work at the site of Ek Balam, which means black tiger or jaguar in Mayan, just over two years ago. What they dug out from the encroaching jungle were huge, fully intact plaster sculptures unlike any others found in Mexico's ancient sites.

Intricate details

Ek Balam reached its peak of civilisation around 1000 AD. While it is not the largest Mayan city in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, it has by far the most detailed and beautiful friezes. The most impressive is found on the side of the main pyramid, where an elaborate six metre high doorway known as the Gate of Hell is still fully intact. The entrance is actually depicted as the gaping jaws of a monster. Large sharp fangs surround the door. Above it are two huge eyes and a cross-legged god is perched on the nose. The face is covered in full size statues of the city's rulers and Mayan gods. In each of the eye sockets, a statue of a human figure is perched looking out over the city.

Gruesome death

The Gate of Hell is still covered in original plaster-work, and is just as the Mayans must have seen it centuries ago.

The main pyramid

Digs in the main pyramid have revealed elaborate friezes

It is thought that the rulers of Ek Balam threw their captured prisoners into the doorway which led to a 20-metre drop. At the bottom of the pit were spikes on which the poor captives were impaled and there they died. With its flashing monstrous eyes and huge teeth, it is still a fiercely imposing sight. The pyramid at Ek Balam is not fully intact, though from what is left of it, archaeologists estimate that it must have been some 30 metres high. This would make it one of the tallest in the Yucatan.The base is covered in well-preserved Mayan hieroglyphs which are still being deciphered. Much of Ek Balam is still to be excavated. The site is about a kilometre wide and less than one third of it has been recovered from the jungle growth.

Twin pyramids

Can Cuen in Guatemala Only last year there was a Mayan find in Guatemala. But recent work uncovered some other interesting treasures including a mysterious pair of small twin pyramids. These buildings were built with astrological precision in mind. The two pyramids are joined with a steep split down the middle. When the sun rises at the spring equinox on the 21 March, the rays fall directly through the schism. When it sets that night, the last rays of sunset fall back through the split in the other direction. Archaeologists are looking for funds in order to resume work at Ek Balam. They think there is still a lot to be discovered in the city of the black tiger.

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Mayan Mansion

(November 13, 2000)

Last summer, an archaeologist (scientist who studies remains from past human life), Arthur Demarest, was hacking his way through a tangled jungle in Guatemala. Then the forest floor caved in beneath him. Demarest's plunge left him chest-high in a pit of hissing snakes--and directly on top of one of the largest ancient Mayan palaces ever discovered. "No one has ever found a palace this well preserved in a century," he says.

The royal residence covers an area greater than four football fields and consists of 170 high-ceilinged rooms and 11 spectacular courtyards. The virtually intact palace is part of the city of Cancuen (kahn-KWEN)--Mayan for "place of serpents."

The extraordinary ruin could overturn current theories about Mayan civilization, which dominated parts of Central America from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D.: Absent from the buried city are the trademark Mayan pyramids thought to have religious and military significance.

Unlike other Mayan cities, researchers now think Cancuen may have prospered without warfare or religion. Instead, the site teems with signs of wealth and commerce. Demarest's group has unearthed Mayan luxury goods like pyrite (fool's gold), obsidian (volcanic glass rock), and jade, a green mineral--all used to make jewelry. One female skeleton was even found in her grave with jade-filed teeth!

Demarest estimates it will take another decade to completely excavate (dig up) and partly restore the palace.

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Scientists 'find lost Mayan king'

(Tuesday, 26 September, 2000, 07:21 GMT 08:21 UK)

Map of Honduras

Scientists in the Central American republic of Honduras have unearthed what they believe could be the remains of one of the rulers of the Mayan dynasty. The relics were found on Monday at a recently discovered archaeological site in the west of the country less than two miles from the ancient Mayan city of Copan.

This is the first major breakthrough in digging in the area, which was first come upon only two months ago when workmen were carrying out major road repairs nearby. The site, which measures around 20,000 square metres, is believed to be an extension to the mighty city of Copan, which until now has been the best known archaeological site in Honduras. The area contains evidence of 27 buildings, believed to be the houses of some of Copan's residents, as well as ten different tombs.

Ancient bones

Mayan ruins

On top of one of the tombs, scientists discovered a cranium, femur and pectoral bones as well as a kneecap encrusted with jade, all of which are thought to belong to one of Copan's 16 known rulers. The Mayan civilisation is believed to have lasted 1000 years.

Archaeologists are convinced that the abundance of ceramics and other artefacts close by indicate the importance of the person or persons buried there. They believe the tomb was set in a courtyard used for ritual ceremonies to which ordinary Mayans would not have had access. Once the tomb is fully opened, they expect to find the remains of other members of royalty inside.

Dates debated

But experts are still debating over the exact period to which the tomb and its occupants would have belonged.

Archaeological dig Another significant find was made in Guatemala recently. Relics found at the site come from the sixth or seventh century, but some of the ceramics near the grave could date back as far as 400 BC. The Mayan dynasty spread across the territory of four modern-day Central American nations as well as Mexico and lasted for more than 1000 years.

Earlier this month experts digging in the jungle of northern Guatemala unearthed evidence of a huge new Mayan city previously ignored by archaeologists.

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Lost Mayan palace found in Guatemala

(Saturday, 9 September, 2000, 01:32 GMT 02:32)

The ruins of Can Cuen

Archaeologists in Guatemala say they have found an ancient palace which is forcing scholars to reconsider their ideas about the Mayan civilisation, which was prevalent before the arrival of the Spanish in Central America.The archaeologists stumbled across the ruins while carrying out excavations at the ruins of a city in the northern highlands of Guatemala known as Can Cuen. The limestone building, which dates from the eighth century, has more than 170 rooms arranged around 11 courtyards.

Experts say the elaborate nature of the palace suggests it was actually built during a time of peace and relative economic stability when it had been thought that most cities in the area were at war with one another.

Archaeologists have known about Can Cuen for almost 100 years. Recently discovered references to Can Cuen's importance as a trading centre forced researchers to look more closely at the site. Archaeologist Arthur Demares, from the Vanderbilt University in the US, was leading the expedition. He said they had been at the site two weeks without realising the extent even of the main palace buried in the jungle. One day he was walking along the palace's highest level when he fell up to his armpits in vegetation that had filled a hidden courtyard.

"That's when I realised the entire hill was a three storey building, and we were walking along the top of the roof," Professor Demarest said.

The ruins of Can Cuen An artefact recovered from Can Cuen (National Geographic)

Further excavations revealed that the palace is not only one of the largest and most elaborate residences of the ancient Mayan kings so far discovered but it is also one of the best preserved. Although the archaeological team says it will take them at least 10 years to excavate the entire city covering 13 sq km, it has already forced scholars to review their ideas about the ancient mines. One of Guatemala's foremost authorities on deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics, Frederico Fahsen, said that most Mayan kingdoms relied on religion and warfare for their power but it seems that Can Cuen kings thrived for more than 1,000 years on commerce alone using their wealth to forge alliances with neighbours.

"Mayan cities were in a constant state of war with their structures dedicated to the Gods in heaven. Now we've discovered something exactly the opposite," Mr Fahsen said.

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Hurricane work uncovers ancient site

July 8, 1999 Published at 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK

Ancient site

Workmen in Honduras carrying out reconstruction work in the wake of Hurricane Mitch have uncovered the remains of an ancient Indian culture.

"The site was inhabited by a pre-hispanic culture that has not yet been identified," said National Heritage spokesman, Gilberto Sanchez. "We found a main plaza, around which there are remains of various types of ancient ceramics," said Mr Sanchez.

Items discovered at the site included arrowheads, flints, volcanic rocks used to grind corn, tools used to make earthenware casks and pieces of coloured ceramic. The discovery was made as workmen began to construct a town called Nueva Morolica to replace a village about 10 km (six miles) to the north which was destroyed by Hurricane Mitch at the end of last year.

Rehousing plan in doubt

The government purchased the site from local ranchers, and was planning to relocate refugees from the old town. Those plans are now uncertain. Mr Sanchez said the government's Institute of Anthropology and History would survey the site this week and try to protect the remains. It would also decide if El Tejar should be declared an archaeological zone - a move that would oblige officials to find somewhere else to build Nueva Morolica.

This is the first time that remains of a civilisation pre-dating the 6th Century Spanish conquest have been found in southern Honduras. Western Honduras is home to the treasured Copan site, containing pyramids and numerous sculptures from the Mayan civilisation which also flourished across southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador.

Mr Sanchez said he believed the artefacts discovered at Nueva Morolica were from the Lenca or Chorotega culture, from the pre-Columbian era - but this had yet to be confirmed.

The ancient Lencas were the fiercest local opponents of the Spanishconquest in the early 16th Century. Their 100,000 descendants are the most widespread Indian culture in modern Honduras.

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Scientists puzzle over ancient ruins in Miami

Dig site

(January 7, 1999, EST 1728 GMT)

For the last six months in south Florida, an archeological dig has drawn the attention of scientists, history buffs and curious onlookers. Some call the find, in the shadow of modern Miami, the first of its kind in eastern North America, a unique prehistoric monument that could date back thousands of years.

Researchers, digging and sifting buckets of rocks and black dirt, have uncovered an unusual, intricately carved circle in the limestone bedrock.

"I was really struck by the symmetry of the circle. It's absolutely, at least to the eye, absolutely perfectly circular," says John Ricisak, field director for the excavation.

Scientists believe the Native American site, which some believe was used for ceremonies, dates back 500 to 2,000 years.

"Whoever was using this location was somebody who had clout. This probably was a council's house or a chief's house, somebody who was probably in control of this particular village," speculates Bobb Carr of the Miami-Dade Historical Division. Archeologist theorize Florida's Tequesta Indians created the site, unearthed accidentally by a developer who tore down a 50-year-old apartment complex. The dig location, coincidentally, is next to a barrel-chested statue of a Tequesta Indian who guards the mouth of the Miami River.

"The mouth of the Miami River would have been a preferred place to be if you were a prehistoric hunter and gatherer," Ricisak says.

Aerial view of site

An aerial view of the site reveals a circular shape

Unearthed so far have been stone tools, beads, shells and evidence of animal sacrifice. One of the carved holes in the circle faces directly east, toward Biscayne Bay, and is in the shape of an eye with a stone pupil.Speculation on the purpose of the circle has focused on the possibility it was a celestial calendar on the order of Stonehenge or perhaps evidence of a breakaway band of sophisticated Mayan Indians from Central America. The latter theory is based on the discovery of small axes made of basaltic stone -- a material not native to Florida but found in the Caribbean basin.Pottery shards date the site at least 2,000 years, but the prehistoric circle probably goes back to around 1100. Just before Christmas another clue surfaced: the complete remnants of a 5-foot shark.

"It suggests it was buried for a purpose. It was buried as an offering," Ricisak says.

Around the circle are holes of various shapes and sizes cut into solid bedrock. The directions of north, south, east and west appear to be marked on three of the four points by a cavity resembling an eye. Inside each, a stone suggests an iris.

Eye stone

An eye-shaped stone carved from solid bedrock

"If that's exactly what the creators intended, who can say, but it certainly doesn't take a lot of imagination to see that it's eye-shaped," says Ricisak.

After surviving hundreds or thousands of years, the site now faces a major threat. The developer intends to break ground for high-rise condominiums. Because archeologists don't have the $25 million to buy out the developer, nor does the developer appear interested in preserving the site, archeologists had to come up with another alternative. Scientists plan to move the dig, slice it up and take it to another location. There they can try to solve the mystery of the ancient circle in a modern city.

Correspondent Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.

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Astronomical clues crack Mayan calendar's code

(New Scientist vol 138, page 12 - April 03, 1993)

A calendar that could unravel the history of the Maya Indians has been deciphered after meticulous study of four Mayan manuscripts. Franz Joseph Hochleitner, an archaeologist at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora in Brazil, says the calendar will allow him to date important events described in the documents. 'These manuscripts depict a lot of dynastic history but at the moment, without any dates, we can't say what is happening,' he says.

The Maya lived in the forests of what is now Guatemala, Honduras and southern Mexico. Their civilisation was one of the most advanced in the Americas and they recorded their history. But little is known of the Maya because only four of their manuscripts survived plundering by the conquistadors. They are kept in museums in Dresden, Paris, Madrid and the US.

Mayan hieroglyphics have proved particularly difficult to untangle. The Maya had a complex system of calendars, and parts of three calendars have been deciphered from some of the preserved manuscripts. Hochleitner has now found a fourth calendar which uses a system of hieroglyphics to represent dates and appears in all four manuscripts.

The key to recognising the new calendar was the discovery that a 'chuen figure', the head of a rain god, represents a period of time, and that all dates are connected with some astronomical event, such as an eclipse or particular positions of planets or comets. The chuen figure represents 'katuns' - periods of 20 years of 360 days - while dots and dashes represent years, months and days.

Hochleitner has worked out how Mayan dates relate to the modern calendar, and hence to astronomical events. The Maya timed their most important ceremonies to tie in with such events, the most important of which was the appearance of Venus. On this day, they held religious festivals with human sacrifices. Perfect accuracy was demanded from the astronomers who predicted the dates. Execution was the usual penalty for getting it wrong.

Brian Homewood, Rio de Janeiro

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