Mayan Archaeology. Fall 2018

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Ancient altar reveals Mayan 'Game of Thrones' dynasty

GUATEMALA CITY (AFP).- A 1,500 year old Mayan altar discovered in a

small archeological site in northern Guatemala is drawing comparisons to popular

fantasy drama television series "Game of Thrones" for its descriptions of the Kaanul dynasty's

political strategies aimed at bringing entire cities under its control.

The altar, carved out of limestone and weighing around one ton was found at the La Corona

archeological site in the jungle region close to the borders with Mexico and Belize, Tomas Barrientos,

co-director of excavations and investigations at the site told journalists.

Barrientos said the altar was found in a temple and showed King Chak Took Ich'aak, La Corona's ruler, "sitting and holding a scepter from which emerge two patron gods of the city."

According to studies, the 1.46-meter by 1.2-meter slab contains a hieroglyphic Mayan inscription corresponding to May 12, 544.

Other discoveries have allowed researchers to determine that King Chak Took Ich'aak also governed the nearby city of El Peru-Waka some 20 years later.

Barrientos says these pieces of evidence show that the Kaanul dynasty, or Serpent Kingdom, developed a political movement in La Corona that allowed them to defeat their Tikal "arch rivals" in 562 and thereafter rule the Mayan lowlands in southeast Mesoamerica for two centuries.

'Mayan Game of Thrones'

That political movement was based around alliances with small cities surrounding Tikal ahead of the final victory push.

Alongside those revelations, researchers also found details of a wedding between a princess from the Serpent Kingdom and a King of La Corona, Barrientos said.

"This altar shows us a part of Guatemala's history and in this case, around 1,500 years ago, I would call this the historical Mayan version of Game of Thrones," he added, comparing the Kaanul kingdom's maneuvering to that in Game of Thrones of noble families competing over control of the seven kingdoms.

Barrientos said the altar "fills in the gaps" and "pieces together the puzzle" of the Mayan culture's political relationships.

"It's a high quality work of art that shows us they were rulers entering into a period of great power and who were allying themselves with others to compete, in this case, with Tikal."

La Corona "was the place where the most important historical Mayan political movement began to take shape."

The Serpent Kingdom expanded from its capital Dzibanche to present day north Guatemala, Belize and the Mexican state of Campeche but was finally defeated by Tikal.

Dangerous excavations

"Having information about what happened next, how they were plotting a political strategy here, teaches us a lot about politics in those times and the fight for territory," said Barrientos.

Excavating and investigating in the remote Mayan Biosphere Reserve where La Corona lies can be hazardous, though.

The region is constantly at threat from looting, invasions and incursions by criminal gangs, drug-traffickers and illegal ranchers, accused by environmentalists and authorities of starting forest fires that damage pre-Columbian monuments.

Culture deputy minister, Gladys Palala, told AFP that authorities are trying to counter encroachment by criminal groups besieging Peten, an area ripe with "archeological remains."

"Wherever you go and excavate, you find (something). It's an eminently archeological area," she said.

The Mayan culture reached its apogee during the classical period from 250-900 before going into decline over the next 300 years.

© Agence France-Presse

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The Maya civilization used chocolate as money

By Joshua Rapp LearnJun. 27, 2018 , 11:45 AM

Your Hershey bar may have been worth its weight in gold in Mayan times. A new study reveals that chocolate became its own form of money at the height of Mayan opulence—and that the loss of this delicacy may have played a role in the downfall of the famed civilization.

The study is on the right track, says David Freidel, an anthropologist and Maya expert at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who was not involved with the work. Chocolate “is a very prestigious food,” he says, “and it [was] almost certainly a currency.”

The ancient Maya never used coins as money. Instead, like many early civilizations, they were thought to mostly barter, trading items such as tobacco, maize, and clothing. Spanish colonial accounts from the 16th century indicate that the Europeans even used cacao beans—the basis for chocolate—to pay workers, but it was unclear whether the substance was a prominent currency before their arrival.

To find out, Joanne Baron, an archaeologist with the Bard Early College Network—a network of schools that focus on college-level teaching for high school–aged students—in Newark, New Jersey, analyzed Mayan artwork. She focused on published research and other available Maya images during the Classic Maya period from about 250 C.E. to about 900 C.E. in the southern Maya lowlands in modern-day Mexico and Central America. The objects—including murals, ceramic paintings, and carvings—depict typical market exchanges and tribute payments to Maya kings.

Chocolate didn’t pop up much in the earliest art, Baron found, but it became more prevalent by the 8th century C.E. That’s also around the time people seem to be using it as money—that is, an item widely accepted as payment for goods or services rather than a one-off barter. The Maya usually consumed their cacao as a hot drink, a steamy broth served in a clay cup. One of the earliest depictions of it used in exchange dates to the mid-7th century. In a painted mural displayed in a pyramid that may have been a central marketplace near the Guatemalan border, a woman offers a bowl of what looks like frothing hot chocolate to a man in return for dough used for making tamales. This early depiction suggests that although chocolate was being bartered at this point, it may not have been traded as a form of currency, Baron says.

But later evidence shows that chocolate became a little more like coins—in the form of fermented and dried cacao beans. Baron documented about 180 different scenes on ceramics and murals from about 691 C.E. through 900 C.E. which show commodities delivered to Maya leaders as a tribute, or a kind of tax. Goods like tobacco and maize grain are sometimes given as tribute, but the items that pop up most in these scenes are pieces of woven cloth and bags labeled with the quantity of dried cacao beans they contain, she reports in Economic Anthropology.

Baron believes the fact that Maya kings collected cacao and woven cloth as tax shows that both had become a currency at this point. “They are collecting way more cacao than the palace actually consumes,” she says, adding that the surplus was probably used to pay palace workers or to buy things at the marketplace.

Freidel says cacao was almost universally loved by the Maya. But it would have been far more prized than crops like maize because cacao trees are susceptible to crop failure and didn’t grow well near Maya cities.

Some scholars believe drought led to the downfall of the Classic Maya civilization. Baron speculates that the disruption of the cacao supply which fueled political power may have led to an economic breakdown in some cases.

Freidel says the rise in artistic depictions of cacao may not necessarily indicate increased importance as a currency. As the Classic Maya period unfolded, he says, more and more people wrote things down and painted murals or pottery scenes. “Is it actually getting more important or are we just learning more about it?”

He is also skeptical that the loss of cacao contributed to the Maya’s downfall. Cacao beans were not the only type of currency, Freidel notes—woven cloth and other goods like maize grain or certain types of green stone were also possibly used as money. “My guess is that one commodity crashing would not cause the system to crash.”

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Tulane archaeologist leads team to major Maya find

September 12, 2018 11:45 AM

A team of archaeologists co-led by Tulane University professor Marcello A. Canuto has discovered a nearly 1,500-year-old carved altar at the Classic Maya site of La Corona, located in jungle forest of the Petén in northern Guatemala.

The discovery, announced Sept. 12, 2018 at the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City, presents new evidence for how a powerful kingdom – known as Kaanul dynasty – began its two-century domination of much of the lowland Maya region.

“The discovery of this altar allows us to identify an entirely new king of La Corona who apparently had close political ties with the capital of the Kaanul kingdom, Dzibanche, and with the nearby city of El Peru-Waka,” said Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane and co-director of the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project (PRALC).

The altar is made of limestone and displays the image of previously unknown king, Chak Took Ich’aak, carrying a double-headed serpent effigy from which the site’s patron gods emerge. It is accompanied by a column of hieroglyphs that record the end of a half-katun period in the Long Count Maya calendar corresponding to May 12, 544 AD.

“For several centuries during the Classic period, the Kaanul kings dominated much of the Maya Lowlands,” said Tomas Barrientos, co-director of the project and director of the Center for Archaeological and Anthropological Research at the University of the Valley of Guatemala. “This altar contains information about their early strategies of expansion, demonstrating that La Corona played an important role in the process from the beginning.

The team also included David Stuart, director of the Mesoamerica Center of the University of Texas at Austin along with Guatemalan archaeologists Maria Antonieta Cajas and Alejandro González.

Since 2008, Canuto and Barrientos have directed a multidisciplinary research program focused on the Maya city and involving archaeological excavation, hieroglyphic decipherment, regional settlement analysis using LiDAR imagery as well as a variety of chemical and material analyses. The PRALC will continue investigating the altar to better understand its importance and to define how the Kaanul kingdom came to exercise power over much of the Maya Lowlands.

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Cross-Legged Woman's Tomb Reveals Ancient Maya Kept Jaguars in Cages

By Rafi Letzter, Staff Writer | September 12, 2018 02:00pm ET

A tomb in the ancient Maya city of Copán, in Honduras, holds the skeleton of a young woman who was cross-legged, surrounded by large animals. The bones of two deer and a crocodile lay alongside her. And most impressive: A complete puma skeleton was also found in the tomb, apparently slaughtered as part of the burial ritual. They'd all been there since the year A.D. 435, early in Maya history.

Now, researchers say the puma skeleton may have been domesticated, according to a paper published today (Sept. 12) in the journal PLOS One that describes the cross-legged woman's tomb. That ancient puma was part of a vast scheme of big-cat domestication, the researchers wrote.

"Encoded into the bones of jaguars and pumas at the Maya site of Copán was evidence of both captivity and of expansive trade networks," Nawa Sugiyama, an archaeologist at George Mason University in Virginia, and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Exotic animal burials

It's not uncommon for archaeologists to find the remains of big cats and other animals in Mesoamerican cities. At one site alongside a sacrificial altar in Copán, there were so many mixed-up remains of big cats, packed so tightly, that excavators took to calling them "jaguar stew," the researchers wrote in the study.

But those animals, buried as part of rituals performed in the city, have revealed new insights about life in Copán. Though people living in the Americas in that period were known to only have domesticated dogs and turkeys, chemical analysis of the big cats and other animals found in the city reveal that they, too, were kept and raised in captivity, and not merely hunted from local game grounds. [Prince's Tomb: Images from a Mayan Excavation]

The first evidence of large captive animal populations at Copán, the researchers wrote, is that the surrounding wilderness simply wasn't big or rich enough to support all the big cats found in these sites. And careful analysis of the bones suggests that at least some of the animals weren't living in the wild at all — meaning that early Mesoamericans kept and traded big cats and other animals far earlier than archaeologists realized.

Animals including jaguars and pumas, but also deer and birds, were likely kept in pens and traded around the Copán valley, the researchers found. That means there was a significant animal trade in South American more than 1,000 years before Moctezuma, ruler of Technochitlan, kept a famous zoo of sacrificial animals.

The evidence for domestication was revealed in the bones of the jaguar, puma and other felids found around Copán, which were often were rich in C4, a carbon-containing molecule common in agricultural plants like maize, but not wild plants. That means those big cats were likely eating captive prey fed human food — meaning they themselves were likely kept in captivity, the researchers wrote. However, other bones found at the same site were rich in C3, a molecule common in wild plants in the region, suggesting they ate a wild diet. That means, the researchers wrote, that the people of Copán likely kept big cats in captivity and slaughtered them. But they would supplement those slaughters with cats killed in wild hunts.

Studies of pelts, deer and other animal remains found around Copán also revealed oxygen isotopes, or versions of oxygen with different numbers of neutrons, that probably didn't come from the local area. Likely, the researchers wrote, the people of Copán were keeping not just big cats in captivity but a whole range of animals, and trading their furs, skins and other byproducts far and wide.

Originally published on Live Science.