Unraveling the lost world of the Maya

Archaeologists may have only scratched the surface

From the dizzying top of Temple IV, dense jungle canopy spreads to the horizon in every direction, rolling in the wind like the surface of the ocean.

Some 215 feet below lies Tikal, the greatest of the Mayan cities, much of it still buried by trees and vines that have swallowed Temple IV up to the base of its crowning platform. The ruined roof combs of Tikal's huge temples and palaces rise islandlike above the undulating canopy, mute monuments of a long-lost civilization.

Generations of archaeologists have worked to excavate this vast city since a Spanish governor rediscovered it in 1848. They're still at work today, clearing trees and vines from nearby temples, searching for clues to how the ancient Maya lived and what caused them to abandon their great cities six centuries before the Spanish conquest. New inscriptions, villages, even entire cities are being discovered every year, creating great excitement among archaeologists.

The latest and most stirring find was announced Sept. 8: the discovery of a nearly intact 170-room palace buried at Cancuen, a remote site 70 miles south of Tikal. The palace - a three-story complex built around 11 courtyards - is the largest Mayan palace ever discovered. It's so large, in fact, that previous expeditions to Cancuen mistook it for a great jungle-covered hill.

"It's a very exciting time in Maya archaeology," says Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt University, who discovered the Cancuen palace. "If you're working in Egypt, it's a big deal to find the tomb of Ramses' second cousin or something like that. But in the Yucatan, we can still find whole cities, kingdoms, and dynasties."

Over the past decade, archaeologists have discovered numerous new sites, transforming our understanding of classic Mayan civilization. But their expeditions are becoming a race against time, as increasingly sophisticated looting operations raid Mayan ruins for valuable artifacts, stealing important clues before they can be evaluated.

Last year, Guatemalan archaeologist Salvador Lopez found the ruins of the small city of El Parajal smoldering in a clearing where peasants had burned the forest to make pasture land. While El Parajal's ceremonial plazas weren't damaged by the fire, all of the carved limestone tablets (or stelae) had been smashed or stolen by looters.

Looting more profitable than farming

A large proportion of the stolen artifacts are believed to make their way to the United States and Europe via Cancun, Mexico, according to George Thompson, head of the government Department of Archaeology in neighboring Belize. "It's a huge market and very well developed," he says. "Because of television and the Internet, more people are realizing the true value of these artifacts. And looting is a lot more profitable than subsistence farming."

Despite this, scholarly understanding of ancient Maya has been growing rapidly over the past 20 years. Scientists have deciphered Mayan inscriptions, revealing records of many royal dynasties and the wars they fought with one another.

Researchers have also learned that the Maya developed an advanced civilization as early as 400 BC, seven centuries earlier than had been previously thought. At their peak, between AD 600 and 800, the Maya built enormous monumental cities like Tikal and may have numbered in the millions. Most of the great cities were abandoned between 800 and 900. For the past century and a half, archaeologists have been trying to figure out why.

"There are as many theories about the Maya collapse as there are Maya archaeologists," says Norman Hammond of Boston University. "But we've moved away from single-cause explanations. We no longer believe that it was due entirely to warfare or internal revolt or soil exhaustion. Whatever happened was very complex."

At Tikal, the collapse appears to have occurred over many decades. Christopher Jones of the University of Pennsylvania thinks Tikal was weakened by the shifting of trade from inland rivers and trails it controlled to mari-time routes dominated by rivals on the coast of what is now southern Mexico. Drought, warfare, and environmental degradation may slowly have finished it off.

Forty miles to the east in what is now Belize, the small city of Xunantunich lost three-quarters of its population during the 9th century, but struggled on for another 100 years. "There's no evidence of warfare or mass graves," says Richard Leventhal of the University of California at Los Angeles. "Their social and political system seems to have slowly fallen apart and led to a shift in birth and death rates." The city may have slowly withered away.

Other cities appear to have collapsed overnight. Arlen and Diane Chase of the University of Central Florida have been leading digs at Caracol, an enormous and largely unexcavated city in the mountains of western Belize that may have been larger than Tikal. But unlike its famous rival, Caracol appears to have been thriving right up to the end. "Their trade networks seem to have been doing quite well, and there's no evidence of a change in diet," Diane Chase says. "But then it's abandoned very quickly." The Chases found indications that the city may have been sacked, including signs of burning and an unburied child found sprawled in the debris of a central plaza.

What to make of a city abandoned swiftly?

Working at La Milpa in northwestern Belize, Dr. Hammond found evidence that the city was in the midst of a massive expansion project when its inhabitants was suddenly left. Some terraces were abandoned within a day of completion, as were quarries stockpiled with finished altars and construction blocks. "Something really serious happened," he says. "It's as if the entire city was abandoned very swiftly."

Hammond thinks the Maya may have been victims of their own success. Some estimates put the Mayan population in the lowland jungles at a staggering 200 people per square kilometer. "Just before the collapse, there are more Maya around than ever before, and they're packed into cities that are larger, more numerous, and more closely spaced," he says. "The slightest added stress could have precipitated a catastrophic spiral of collapse."

But the collapse was no total. Smaller towns and cities continued to thrive in what is now northern Belize and southern Mexico. Marilyn Masson of the State University of New York at Albany has been digging in the ruins of several small villages in northern Belize that appear to have thrived in the centuries after the collapse of the lowland cities.

There she's found evidence of a more egalitarian society, one without divine rulers where ordinary villagers owned valuable jade and obsidian items. "Their settlements aren't as big or centralized, but they were prosperous and involved in an international network of trade that spread across the region," she says.

Masson says the postclassical Maya appear to have continued prospering right up until the Spanish Conquest. "When the Spanish came, they saw 25-foot-wide seagoing canoes laden with trade goods moving in and out of the Bay of Honduras," she says. "Part of the Maya world never collapsed at all."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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