Clues about Mayans from El Mirado hills

By , Dr. Raymond T. Matheny is a professor of archaeology at Brigham Young University.

In the center of the flat, rain-soaked Peten Forest in northern Guatemala, five miles from the Mexican border, the horizon is broken by a cluster of hills. The native Guatemalan chicle workers call the area El Mirador -- The Lookout -- where their ancestors, the proud Mayans, once lived.

But the hills of El Mirador are man-made -- pyramids, platforms, public buildings, and homes -- that have been buried under rock, soil, and trees from 1 ,500 years. A team of archaeologists from Brigham Young and Catholic Universities is carefully digging through this time capsule, hoping that the "hills" of El Mirador yield clues to puzzling questions that have baffled scientists for years about the Mayan civilization: What caused the collapsed and sudden disappearance of this huge empire? How did these people adjust to a climate that battered them for eight months with torrential rains and then produced droughtlike conditions the other four? When did this culture reach its zenith?

El Mirador is the diamond in the string of jewels that make the existing Mayan sites in Central America. Ian Graham, a well- known Harvard University archaeologist, who first mapped some of the city in 1967, called it "the most important lowland Mayan site in existence." It is suspected that at one time El Mirador was the most populous city of its time. It was to the Old World what New York is to the New.

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Two extensive expeditions into El Mirador during 1979 and 1980 are proving Graham's utterance to be prophetic. The secrets of El Mirador are challenging some traditional views of the Mayans.

It has been commonly believed that the Mayan culture peaked around AD 500 and then vanished by AD 900. Yet samples of pottery shards and remains of huge public buildings indicate that the peak of activity may have come around 200 BC to AD 100 -- half a millennium earlier. More than 90 percent of the artifacts recovered from the private dwellings, temples, plazas, and the "downtown" reservoir date from before the time of Christ.

These findings fortify the theory that the Mayans had a highly sophisticated society about the same time the Romans were settling their capital town. this could have an effect on traditional theories about the Mayan's political structure, class order, economics, religious practices, and technical knowledge.

One mystery that seems unsolved by the archaeological explorations is the good preservation of the entire city. Limestone was a cheap, abundant resource for the Mayans, but it disintegrates easily when exposed to seasonal temperature and climate, especially the monsoon weather of Guatemala. How is it, then, that nearly 200 structures and 12 pyramids still stand?

As we debated this issue, a remarkable discovery was made at the temple called Tigre, or jaguar. As workers cleared away debris from the steep, vertically angled steps that led up one side of the pyramid, they found a huge stucco mask, perhaps measuring 20 feet long, sitting next to a remarkably well- preserved stairway of the temple facing a huge plaza. The half human, half animal face is so precisely carved that the growl of the god's lips, the claws jutting from the hands, and the earspool planted in the ear lobe are all clearly identifiable. It appears to be a symbolic representation of a werejaguar.

Did the polytheistic Mayans, sensing an outside invasion or death from climactic factors, bury their god under rocks and earth to protect it for centuries? Nobody knows, but the mask is just one example of the art and architecture that have survived more than 2,000 years of time.

In addition to the stucco head, the team explored a massive building named Danta, about 1 1/2 miles from Tigre. This is one of the largest known buildings in antiquity anywhere in the world. It stands about 200 feet high and has a base of about 1,000 feet.

The importance of Danta is that it is on a centerline with other massive buildings in the area and that each platform has a series of smaller buildings somewhat like a small village. Our observations suggest that the placement of these buildings may relate to significant astronomical events -- the summer or winter solstice, the appearance of major constellations at certain times of the year, etc.

Danta is one of the most unusual formations found in Meso-America and nothing like it exists anywhere else. The temple site of Tigre is six times as large as any other lowland building discovered, but Danta may be even larger.

The remains of an early Mayan culture still exist in Belize, the country east of Guatemala, surrounded by the warm currents of the Caribbean. Water was plentiful there and a Mayan settlement at this location was logical. But how did the Mayans support a megalopolis in the center of a forest?

A problem facing the investigators is to understand how the ancient Mayans used the harsh forest environment to raise food for a considerable population. Soil tests suggest that root crops may have been successfully raised in the bajos, or seasonal swamps. Much of the forest near El Mirador on the uplands must have been removed for some kind of food production, but no rock-and-soil terraces known at other Mayan sites have been found. Also absent are "raised fields," which are narrow rows of soil piled high enough above low ground flooding. Some food may have been imported from food-producing areas, engendering a brisk trade network.

Modern technology relies on short-term solutions to tropical land management problems, such as the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that have harmful long-term effects and can disrupt the forest's fragile tropical ecosystems. Further investigation and study of the bajos may lead to a greater understanding of tropical ecology.

Like spokes from a wheel, three long causeways -- earthen dams or dikes -- stretch through the northeast corner of El Mirador away from the great temple Tigre. These causeways were undoubtedly foot bridges that the Mayans used to get from one end of the city to the other, but they may have also played a role in the Mayan's sophisticated water system. They could have served as dams to hold the city's drinking water.

During the 1981 expedition, which began in January and will end in May, we hope to dig into the interior of some of the temple sites and pyramids of El Mirador to find buried deep within these ancient structures new information about the Mayans' civilization, their language, religious habits, or societal organization. Homes of the Mayan "elite" have already been uncovered, and this indicates some type of class structure.

Already, it is apparent that only a skilled society, with a high degree of political and economic sophistication, once occupied El Mirador at a surprisingly early date -- before the time of Christ.

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