Uncovering the secrets of an ancient Mayan city

Archaeologists and researchers decoding the secrets of one of the most magnificent ruins of the Mayan empire – the ancient city of Tikal – have made a ground-breaking discovery that potentially rewrites our understanding of interactions in the ancient Americas.

Tikal, in the north of modern-day Guatemala, has been extensively studied since at least the 1950s. The sprawling city – which itself covers 400 hectares – is the crowning jewel of 570 square-kilometre Tikal National Park, a lush region of tropical forests and wetlands that sequesters potentially thousands of archaeological ruins within its borders.

A major political and cultural centre for the ancient Maya, Tikal is one of the best understood and most deeply studied archaeological sites in the world. So it came as a surprise when researchers engaged in the Pacunam Lidar Initiaive, a research consortium using light detection and ranging software (lidar) to image the surface of the Earth, made a startling new discovery about the city.

Just a short walk from the centre of Tikal, in an area previously thought to be natural hills, the team discovered a neighbourhood of ruined buildings built in the style of Teotihuacan, the largest and most powerful city in the ancient Americas, more than 1000km away in modern-day Mexico.

Stephen Houston, co-author of the new study published today in the journal Antiquity, says the lidar analysis, coupled with a subsequent excavation by a team of Guatemalan archaeologists led by Edwin Román Ramírez, raises big questions about Teotihuacan’s influence on the Maya civilisation.

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“What we had taken to be natural hills actually were shown to be modified and conformed to the shape of the citadel — the area that was possibly the imperial palace — at Teotihuacan,” Houston says. “Regardless of who built this smaller-scale replica and why, it shows without a doubt that there was a different level of interaction between Tikal and Teotihuacan than previously believed.”

Houston says that Tikal and Teotihuacan were radically different cities. Tikal, a Maya city, was densely populated but small: “you could have walked from one end of the kingdom to the other in a day, maybe two.”

Teotihuacan, on the other hand, was a vast empire. Unlike Tikal, little is known about the civilisation that founded and governed Teotihuacan, but their influence reverberates across the continent.

Archaeologists have known for a long time that the two population hubs traded goods before the people of Teotihuacan conquered Tikal in around 378 AD. There’s also some evidence that people from the Mayan empire may have lived in Teotihuacan and brought the great city’s cultural influence home with them, including funerary rites, architectural styles and green obsidian. But Houston says these latest lidar findings suggest a more intimate connection between the two cities.

“The architectural complex we found very much appears to have been built for people from Teotihuacan or those under their control,” Houston says. “Perhaps it was something like an embassy complex, but when we combine previous research with our latest findings, it suggests something more heavy-handed, like occupation or surveillance. At the very least, it shows an attempt to implant part of a foreign city plan on Tikal.”

The archaeological excavations of the site found that some buildings were built of mud plaster rather than the traditional Maya limestone, and were designed to be replicas of the buildings that make up Teotihuacan’s citadel – accurate down to the intricate cornices and the 15.5-degree east-of-north orientation.

“It almost suggests that local builders were told to use an entirely non-local building technology while constructing this sprawling new building complex,” Houston says. “We’ve rarely seen evidence of anything but two-way interaction between the two civilizations, but here, we seem to be looking at foreigners who are moving aggressively into the area.”

At a nearby set of residential buildings, archaeologists also found projectile points made of flint (a material used by the Maya) and green obsidian (used at Teotihuacan), a find they interpreted as evidence of a conflict. And nearby to the replica citadel, the archaeologists found a burial surrounded by vessels, ceramics, bones and projectiles, surrounded by the remains of a fire. Houston says this is unlike other burials and sacrifices at Tikal, but characteristic of warrior burials at Teotihuacan.

“Excavations in the middle of the citadel at Teotihuacan have found the burials of many individuals dressed as warriors, and they appear to have been sacrificed and placed in mass graves,” Houston says. “We have possibly found a vestige of one of those burials at Tikal itself.”

Houston says the intricacies of sites like Tikal and Teotihuacan may yet help us understand more about the machinations and impacts of waves of colonial expansion and interaction.

“At this time, people are quite interested in the process of colonisation and its aftermath, and in how our views of the world are informed or distorted by the expansion of economic and political systems around the globe,” he says.

“Before European colonisation of the Americas, there were empires and kingdoms of disproportionate influence and strength interacting with smaller civilisations in a way that left a large impact. Exploring Teotihuacan’s influence on Mesoamerica could be a way to explore the beginnings of colonialism and its oppressions and local collusions.”

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