Clues about Mayans from El Mirado hills
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.