An early Maya metropolis: El Mirador raises questions for archaeologists

Located in the Central Maya Lowlands in what is now northern Guatemala, the Preclassic city of El Mirador was a giant compared to most of its contemporaries. Its massive ruins still tower above the rainforest canopy. They are silent witnesses to Maya ingenuity and the Maya’s ability to sustain such a massive settlement so early in their history. Agriculture involving the cultivation of corn, beans and squash enabled its inhabitants to thrive.

Manmade plaster-lined catchment areas collected water, making up for the absence of rivers. Even in such apparently mundane aspects of city life, the Maya showed their artistic nature.

El Mirador: An early Maya metropolisDr. Richard Hansen kneeling next to plastered panel at El Mirador.
(Image courtesy of Dr. Hansen).

In March 2009, archaeologists discovered a series of panels made of carved and modeled-lime plaster that lined a water collection system in an area of the city known as the Central Acropolis. The panels and water collection tanks date to the Late Preclassic period, from 300 B.C. to the beginning of our era. The panels, which flank the series of pools in this unique water control system, depict two “swimming” individuals that are framed by cosmic monsters of great importance in ancient Maya art.

According to Dr. Richard Hansen, who led the team of archaeologists at El Mirador: “[T]he ‘swimmers’ represent the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh.” He is referring to the Quiche Maya text of the Maya creation story, which was found in the highland town of Chichicastenango in A.D. 1700 and transcribed by a Dominican monk named Francisco Ximenez by about 1704 A.D.

Dr. Stephen Houston, who has worked at the neighboring site of El Zotz, says, “These figures represent god impersonators and bear no secure connection to twins in the Popol Vuh.” Instead, he argues,”Perhaps the artists commemorated a narrative of the first rainmakers and their watery assistants. In this way the rulers of El Mirador, through the mechanism of deity impersonation, presented themselves as supernatural agents who controlled the rain.”

El Mirador: An early Maya metropolisReplica of the El Mirador panel on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

What we have here is one of the earliest representations to mythical characters we know from the Popol Vuh. The problem is that there is a huge time gap between this plaster panel and the earliest-known document referencing the Popol Vuh. The Newberry Library’s manuscript of this creation story is one of the most widely known and possibly the earliest surviving copy. It was transcribed between 1700 and 1715 in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, by the Dominican priest Francisco Ximénez. Father Brasseur de Bourbourg published a French translation of the text in1861. Images of the title page and first page of the text of the Ximenez manuscript are also on display. An original print of the latter, dating back to 1861, is currently also on display at our Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History exhibit.

An alternative interpretation of what we see in the panel is that it illustrates the role of Maya royalty.  As intermediaries between our physical world and the supernatural one, Maya rulers were called upon to ensure plentiful rains.

Proponents of either hypothesis have reasons to support their line of thinking. Because there are no inscriptions clearly identifying these characters in the water as either mythical heroes or historical rulers from El Mirador, I would favor a third interpretation: we just do not know who is represented here.

Visit Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History through March 31 and draw your own conclusions.

Debunking doomsday? Curator of Anthropology Dirk Van Tuerenhout on the real history of the Maya

One of the most vexing questions that seems to torment a whole lot of people these days is: “do I need to buy Christmas gifts this year?” A lot has been made of the Maya calendar, its end on December 21 this year, and the end of the world as we know it.

But the question that vexes me is: why do people even believe in this you-know-what? You can find the answers to these questions and more at the newly opened Maya exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History surveys about 3,500 years of Maya history, starting with the earliest evidence, which dates back to about 1500 BC. The story covers the colonial period and ends with the contemporary Maya. Toward the end of the exhibit, visitors have a chance to learn more about the different ways of Maya timekeeping. The exhibit ends with a video featuring Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining that the fearmongers who talk of a once-in-a-lifetime celestial alignment with all kinds of dire consequences actually “forgot to tell us something.”

In this blog, I want to address the basics of Maya history; I will start with the who, when and where questions.

First: Who are the Maya?

Learn about the real Maya at Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes HistoryThe term “Maya” refers to people who used to live, and continue to live, in southern portions of Mexico (including the Yucatan Peninsula, Tabasco and Chiapas), as well as Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. The term “Maya” is a western label; the Maya refer to themselves by the language they speak. Someone might say, “I am a Mam”, or “I am a Chorti.” This translates into “I am part of the people who speak Mam, or Chorti.” Today, 30 different Mayan languages are still spoken. Additional languages have disappeared since the arrival of the Spaniards.

Learn about the real Maya at Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes HistoryImage courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Maya are still around, and so are many parts of their traditions. Although their culture was absorbed into that of the Conquistadores, there remain many vibrant expressions of Maya culture. In addition to the geographic areas identified in the map above, Maya people now also call other parts of the world home, including Houston.

The History of Maya research

A strange thing happened when the first Europeans arrived on the shores of the Americas. On the one hand, their presence brought about upheaval and ended the independence of indigenous cultures, such as the Aztecs, Maya and many others. On the other hand, some Europeans were fascinated by the “exotic” nature of these new cultures and set out to study them. One such person was Diego de Landa, the second bishop of Yucatán.

Diego de Landa manuscript on the ancient MayaA page from de Landa’s manuscript, with an attempt to represent the ancient Maya”alphabet. One can see renderings of maya glyphs with associated Latin script letters. (Image courtesy of

Initially, most of the people who studied the Maya and other indigenous people were friars. Their goal was to convert people, and that required learning about their new flock — including learning the language. These friars produced dictionaries for several Maya languages, which have been a great help to modern researchers in their attempts to translate ancient Maya hieroglyphs.

During the colonial period, Spain initiated some efforts to study the ruins of Maya cities, such as Palenque. These efforts resulted in reports sent back to Madrid, but did little otherwise to bring the culture of the ancient Maya to the attention of a wider public. That did not happen until the 19th century, when European and American explorers traveled through the region.

Perhaps the best known of these travelers are John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, whose contributions, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán; Incidents of Travel in Yucatán; and Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán were hugely popular. They still are today. After World War I, American museums and universities started extensive research programs, culminating perhaps in the University of Pennsylvania’s Tikal Project of the 1950s and 1960s. Today, for  a variety of reasons, those efforts have been scaled back. It should be noted, however, that archaeologists from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras are now playing a much bigger role than in the early days of investigations.

Cultural subdivisions 

The ancient Maya and their modern descendants live in a wide range of natural environments. They lived in the breathtaking mountains in Guatemala and adjacent Chiapas, where we can still visit them today. They also existed the middle of the rainforest and in the challenging coastal plains and mangrove swamps of the Yucatán peninsula.

Maya culture: a timeline

We know where the Maya lived; next we deal with another question: how far back in time can we identify them as Maya in the archaeological record? Western researchers have superimposed a chronological framework on Maya history using terminology borrowed from European archaeology. Thus we find terms like the Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic periods. While this may make sense to us, ancient Maya would have no clue what we are talking about. A division of time into units known as “bak’tuns,” which are almost 400 years long, would be more familiar to them.

Earliest beginnings

Human presence in this part of the world predates 10,000 BC. Evidence of mammoth hunters has been found in the Highlands of Mexico and Guatemala. A rare paleoindian point from Guatemala is on display here in Houston. Surveys in Belize have produced data on human activity dating back to the same period, as well. Recent discoveries in caves off the coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico, have yielded some of the oldest known human remains in the Americas.

Tentative dates suggest that permanent settlements existed along the Belize coast as long ago as 4,300 BC. The abundance of wildlife and plant life may have been the reason why people could stay permanently, as there is no evidence of agriculture to explain this sedentary (permanent) lifestyle.

Pre-Classic period (c. 1700 BC — 250 AD)

To date, the earliest known pottery from the region comes from the Pacific coast of Guatemala and dates to 1,700 – 1,500 BC. In Belize, the earliest ceramics date to 1,000 – 500 BC. These dates, part of the Preclassic period, mark the appearance of the Maya in the archaeological record.

At this stage, Maya communities are small, probably with a population of only a few hundred people. These are early farmers, who grew corn, squash and beans in their gardens. They also hunted and fished wherever possible.

Because these were small communities, the permanent structures they built were also modest. Still, they did produce house platforms. Their houses looked like a lot of Maya houses still look today: poles stuck into the ground (or platform) and a thatch roof. The walls were covered with mud in a manner that archaeologists call “wattle and daub.” Sometimes, when a house burned down, the mud got baked and the impressions of the sticks that made up the walls were preserved. These broken pieces of baked clay with stick impressions are found frequently in excavations. Modern Maya houses of this nature have two doors, and representations of dwellings in Maya art show them to have the same configuration.

Maya public buildings, such as temples, were also small in scale. Their presence, however, indicates that these early Maya made the time — and had the necessary workforce — to put these types of buildings together. Efforts like these are also interpreted as evidence of the presence of an authority figure. In other words, they had a chief or a headman in the village telling them what to do.

As always, there are exceptions to the rule. While small-scale architecture was probably the norm for a large portion of the Pre-classic Maya, we do know of Preclassic Maya cities that were huge.

Examples of such a Pre-classic behemoths are Nakbe and El Mirador in northern Guatemala. Nakbe goes back to at least 1,000 BC. Initially, its architecture (both regular dwellings and public structures) seems to have been small-scaled. However, around 600 – 400 BC, the Maya started building larger structures. This culminated toward the end of the Pre-classic period, when they built four of their largest structures.

The successor to Nakbe was El Mirador. The base of its La Danta pyramid measured six times the footprint of the largest pyramid at Tikal. This city also had raised causeways connecting different temple complexes. The size of this city (as large as Tikal or larger) and the scale of its buildings (larger than Tikal in some cases), at this early date (Middle to Late Preclassic) has forced archaeologists to re-think the trajectory of the development of Maya society.

Initially archaeologists were comfortable with a linear development: the earliest Maya were the “simplest”; the later Maya were more complex. That translated into early buildings that were small and later structures that were much larger. But El Mirador showed that linear sequence to be a false one: at a time when the Maya were supposed to be in their “simple” stage they were already building very large temples. Moreover, El Mirador itself collapsed. It took until the Classic period for cities of this nature to re-appear again.

Maya society went through many ups and downs. These swings between fortune and misfortune are well known in the Classic period Maya.

Classic period (250 – 900 AD)

The Classic period is characterized by the florescence of many Maya cities. The rulers of these cities commissioned stelae, or large carved stone slabs, to glorify their achievements. Thanks to years of meticulous archaeological research (followed by many decades of head scratching and attempts to decipher Maya writing) a general historic framework is now in place. We have a concise view of the history, as reflected in the citizens’ own texts, for more than a dozen cities. References to calendrical cycles in texts, as well as the alignment of buildings to correspond to solstices and equinoxes, testifies to the Maya’s ability in the fields of astronomy and timekeeping.

This is also a time when the Maya interact with other areas of Mesoamerica. Perhaps the best-known exchange is that between Tikal and Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico. In 378 AD, a delegation from Teotihuacan arrives at Tikal. It appears that the leader of this delegation had a military background. The texts at Tikal mention how, on the same day that this delegation arrives, the king of Tikal died. We are fortunate enough to have fairly extensive written information on this episode in Maya history.

Maya texts also mention warfare among Maya cities, and the alliances they concluded in an attempt to encircle their mutual enemies. Cities and even small rural communities fortified themselves in an attempt to protect themselves against raids. Some communities even dug large trenches and used the excavated dirt to build enormous ramparts on the inside portion of moats. This phenomenon of warfare becomes more pervasive toward the end of the Classic period; warfare is often invoked as a cause of the so-called Maya collapse.

Postclassic period (900 — 1,546/1,697 AD)

The Maya collapse did not mean the end of Maya culture. Sites in northern Belize experienced rapid growth in the 10th century. It has been suggested that part of that growth was due to the arrival of refugees from the collapsing cities.

During the Postclassic, cities in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and in the Highlands of Guatemala flourish. Perhaps the most famous Maya city at this time is Chichen Itza. Unfortunately, our understanding of that city and others is still limited.

The Postclassic period is a period of internal change; the Maya are abandoning certain practices, such as their long-held custom of complex calendrical computations. The Postclassic Maya preferred using a simplified version, instead. The Postclassic comes to an end with the arrival of the Spaniards.


The first contact between Maya and Spaniards occurred in 1502, when Columbus encountered a sea-going canoe in the Gulf of Honduras. Nine years later, in 1511, shipwrecked Spaniards land on the coast of Yucatán. Two of them survive, while the others perish at the hands of the local Maya. The Spaniards, in search of gold and other riches, had a very hard time conquering the Maya, especially those Maya living in the Yucatán Peninsula. It took them almost 20 years (from 1527 to 1546) to establish nominal control over the peninsula. It was not until 1697 that the last independent Maya surrendered. They lived in northern Guatemala on an island in Lake Petén Itza.

Colonial-period Maya

Our understanding of the colonial-period Maya is mostly text-based rather than based on archaeology. Archival documents associated with legal and religious issues are dispersed across the landscape. Those few Maya who could read and write during this period tended to serve their communities as notaries and assistants to Spanish church officials. It is from their pens that we learn of Maya attitudes and thinking with regard to the new arrivals in their world.

The Maya repeatedly rose up against the Spaniards. They did so in 1542, 1562, 1761 and from 1840 through 1901. These events have been the subject of a good number of books. The Yucatán peninsula, in particular, was the scene of a prolonged, brutal conflict known as the Caste War, which lasted from 1847 to 1901.

The Maya today

Learn about the real Maya at Maya 2012: Prophecy becomes HistoryA modern Maya couple checks voicemail. Photo courtesy Rosalinda Mendez.

While modern Maya continue to have social and economic problems, a small number hold advanced degrees and serve as junior ministers in national governments. Thirty Mayan languages are still spoken. The artistry in weaving still continues. With the advent of mass media, the Maya too are getting plugged into the wider world.

Apocalypto — 150 AD

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.