Apocalypto — 150 AD

September 21, 2009

The study of the ancient Maya is relatively new compared to that of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. Our understanding of the Maya before the arrival of the Spanish may never reach the same level as we have for Old World cultures. However, major discoveries, utilizing new technologies paired with backbreaking archaeological work in steamy jungles and on freezing mountain peaks, continue to be made. That aspect, as well as the fact that Precolumbian cultures in general charted their own path, independent from the Old World, makes this such an interesting area to study.

Archaeologists drew on their knowledge of Classical archaeology when they started studying Precolumbian cultures. For example, they borrowed from Classic Old World archaeology by dividing Precolumbian history into three parts: the Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic. The underlying assumption here was that everything started out small and then grew into a more complex web of city states trading and fighting each other, only to succumb to the onslaught of the invading Europeans.

Humble beginnings, triumphant zenith and ultimate collapse. Simple enough, right? Not quite.

Creative Commons License photo credit: malias

There are major differences between Old and New World archaeology. Most known Preclassic Maya sites were small, with the beginnings of public architecture that would make later Maya sites so popular among tourists today. One site, however, left its humble beginning behind very quickly and grew into a huge city centuries before other Maya cities ever did. That site was El Mirador.

Located in the northern part of the Department in El Petén, Guatemala, El Mirador was first noted by archaeologists during pioneering mapping efforts in 1893. During the 1920s, the Carnegie Institutionwent from Campeche to Tikal and reported on their travels through the Mirador Basin. Subsequent aerial reconnaissance conducted in 1930 yielded the first photographs of these pyramids and the raised roads connecting them. In the 1960s, Ian Graham mapped the sitefollowed by additional mapping efforts in the 1970s and 1980s. One archaeologist who has spent most of his career working at El Mirador is Dr. Richard Hansen. Over the years, this project has seen tremendous growth, encompassing archaeology, biology, as well as community development.

Grand Jaguar 2
Creative Commons License photo credit: auntjojo

El Mirador can best be described with superlatives. Two of its platform-pyramid complexes are among the largest by volume in the world. Known as La Danta (or tapir) and El Tigre, these pyramids are 72 and 55 meters tall respectively. These magnificent buildings were part of a Preclassic community which some estimate may have had 100,000 inhabitants, perhaps even more. It is considered larger than the much better known Maya site of Tikal.  El Mirador may have been 38 sq. km in size. What makes this development even more interesting is the location: no major rivers in the vicinity, and as far away from the sea as one can get in Guatemala.

In is against this backdrop that archaeologists found evidence of a pitched battle fought on the top of El Tigre pyramid. Bone fragments were found together with hundreds of spear tips and arrow heads. Many of these projectile points were made from obsidian, or volcanic glass, which was traced back to a source in the Central Mexican highlands. Currently additional research is underway to help identify the two combatant parties.

It is tempting to see this event as part of a power struggle that played out during the early centuries of our era. We know that Teotihuacan, located in the Basin of Mexico, was meddling in Maya affairs during the fourth century AD. We know that central Mexican art forms, architectural canons and perhaps people were present at Maya sites such as Tikal, Copan and Piedras Negras. We do not really know what happened and why the city of Teotihuacan had extended its influence that far into Central America.

What remains equally enigmatic is why there would have been a battle. Is this an example of inter-site warfare? Was Tikal keen on disposing of a major competitor? Given the known chronology of Teotihuacan’s involvement in the Maya cities just mentioned, the suggested date of El Mirador’s demise, at 150 AD, may be a few centuries too early to make this a workable hypothesis.
This is just the beginning of this story. The last word on this topic has not been written yet. In the meantime, it is fascinating to get a glimpse into a single event – that of a violent conflict – fought at the top of a Maya pyramid now almost 2000 years ago. Apocalyptic indeed.

I would like to add one final point: the site of El Mirador and its architecture served as a source of inspiration for the Maya city portrayed in the 2006 Mel Gibson movie, Apocalypto. Dr. Hansen served as one of the movie’s advisors.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

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