New complexities to Mayan demise

Freshly uncovered hieroglyphs tell the story of an ancient superpower conflict

If Herman Melville had written the tale of conquest and betrayal etched in ancient stone stairs in Guatemala, it might have begun: "Call me Balaj Chan K'waiil."

Born on the eighth day of the month KEH (Oct. 15, 625 AD), Balaj Chan K'waiil would rise at the tender age of four to head a strategic city-state, protected by his powerful father, who ruled the region from his capital 70 miles away. Years later, Balaj Chan K'waiil's domain would fall prey to a kingdom vying against his family's realm for supremacy. To keep his grip on power, the young man would swear fealty to the rival, and later defeat and sacrifice his brother at the rival's behest.

The events etched by scribes some 1,500 years ago represent a missing link in Mayan history, forcing scholars to revise their views of Mayan politics and warfare.

Indeed, the events may have helped set the Mayan civilization on its path to disintegration, according to Arthur Demarest, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University who was involved in the project.

Until now, he says, Mayan city-states during this period had largely been viewed as small regional powers fighting local battles. The war between Balaj Chan K'waiil and his brother, already mentioned in other glyphs, was seen largely as a dynastic family spat.

The new inscriptions, however, paint a broader picture of superpower struggles between the two kingdoms fighting each other through proxies, such as Dos Pilas under Balaj Chan K'waiil. Indeed, coupled with other lines of evidence, Dr. Demarest says, the staircase represents a "keystone" in piecing together the story of the decline and fall of the Maya, a story that he maintains bears strong parallels to the fall of other major civilizations, such as ancient Rome.

After the superpower struggle defeated one combatant and exhausted the other, "the Maya world just broke up into regional powers, setting the stage for a period of intensive, petty warfare that finally led to the collapse of the Maya," he says.

A field team led by Federico Fahsen, widely regarded as Guatemala's foremost authority on Mayan inscriptions, began working on the steps last summer after a government inspector there found the step partially exposed by a storm-felled tree. The team uncovered 10 steps inscribed with hundreds of glyphs. The find brought to 18 the number of inscribed stairs vaulting a ceremonial pyramid at the site, known as Dos Pilas.

With an emergency grant from the Foundation for the Advancement of MesoAmerican Studies, and additional funding from other organizations, the team rushed to photograph, catalog, and begin translating the find before looters got wind of it.

The new inscriptions tell of a Mayan world divided between the city-states of Calakmul, in what is now southern Mexico, and Tikal, 130 miles away in what today is northern Guatemala.

In 629 AD, Tikal established a military outpost at Dos Pilas, along the Passion River – one of the most vital trade routes at the time. Throughout the early years of his rule at Dos Pilas, Balaj Chan K'waiil was loyal to his elder brother in Tikal. But when Balaj Chan K'waiil was in his 20s, his holdings were overrun by the army of Calakmul. Its ruler allowed Balaj Chan K'waiil to hold onto power at Dos Pilas in exchange for his allegiance in Calakmul's struggle for dominance over Tikal.

When Mr. Fahsen read the glyphs for the first time, he says, he was stunned.

"I had never heard of Calakmul actually invading and defeating the king of Dos Pilas," he says. "We thought that, at most, they may have had a weak alliance."

The alliance proved anything but weak. Balaj Chan K'waiil conquered Tikal and brought his brother and other officials back to Dos Pilas for ritual sacrifice – an event recorded in grisly detail in glyphs.

Ironically, the researchers say, Calakmul's victory didn't last. Years later, Tikal brought Calakmul to its knees. Balaj Chan K'waiil was nearly 60 when he died. Dos Pilas continued under three more kings before it was abandoned to the rain forest around 760.

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