In Guatemala, archaeologists uncover hidden neighborhood in ancient Maya city

Recent lidar analysis has revealed that an area thought to be natural hills is now a 1,800-year-old ruin. It's located near Tikal’s Lost World complex. Credit: Thomas Garrison/PACUNAM
Since the 1950s, scientists have been excavating Tikal's ruins, an ancient Maya city in modern Guatemala. Thanks to the many decades of documenting every detail and cataloguing each item excavated, Tikal is now one of the most well-studied archaeological sites in the entire world.

The Pacunam Lidar Initiative has made a shocking discovery that ancient Mesoamerican scholars around the world are wondering if they really know Tikal. It is part of a research consortium that includes a Brown University Anthropologist.

Stephen Houston, a Brown University professor of Anthropology, and Thomas Garrison (an assistant professor of geography at Texas at Austin), discovered that the area thought to be a natural hill just a few steps from Tikal's centre was actually a collection of ruined buildings. These were designed to look similar to those in Teotihuacan which is the largest and most powerful ancient American city.

Houston stated that their lidar analysis and subsequent excavation by Edwin Romn Ramrez's team of Guatemalan archaeologists has led to new insights into the influence of Teotihuacan on the Maya civilization.

Houston stated that what we thought were natural hills had been altered and conformed to Teotihuacan's citadel. This area was likely the imperial palaceat Teotihuacan. It doesn't matter who or why this replica was built, but it does show that there was an entirely different level of interaction between Tikal & Teotihuacan.

Antiquity published the results on Tuesday, September 28th, with lidar images and a summary about excavation findings.

Houston stated that Tikal and Teotihuacan are two very different cities. Tikal, a Maya town, was relatively populous, but small in size. You could walk from one end to the other of the kingdom in a day or two, while Teotihuacan had all of the hallmarks of an empire. Although little is known about the people behind Teotihuacan's founding and governance, it is clear that their influence reached far beyond their urban center. Evidence suggests they colonized hundreds of communities hundreds of miles from their home.

Houston stated that anthropologists know for decades that the inhabitants of both cities had been in close contact for many centuries and traded often with each other for centuries before Teotihuacan conquered Tikal in the year 378 A.D. Evidence also suggests that Teotihuacan was home to Maya scribes and elites between the second century and sixth centuries A.D. Some of these scribes brought elements of the empire's culture, including its slope-and-panel architectural style, green obsidian, and unique funerary rituals. David Stuart, U.T. is another Maya expert. Austin has translated inscriptions about the time when Teotihuacan generals traveled to Tikal, including one called Born from Fire. He also unseated the Maya king.

The latest excavations and lidar discoveries of the research consortium show that the imperial power in Mexico today did more than trade with Tikal and influence its culture before conquering it.

Houston stated that the architectural complex found was likely built by Teotihuacan residents or their agents. Houston said that it could have been an embassy complex. However, when we combine our previous research with the latest findings, it suggests something heavier-handed like occupation or surveillance. It shows at the most that there was an attempt to install a foreign city plan in Tikal.

Houston stated that excavations that followed Romn Ramrez's lidar work revealed that some buildings were built with mud plaster, rather than Maya limestone. These structures were smaller versions of Teotihuacan’s citadel. This includes the elaborate cornices, terraces, and 15.5-degree east orientation of the complex’s platforms.

Houston stated that Houston thought it almost suggested that local builders were instructed to use a completely foreign building technology when constructing the sprawling new complex. Houston said, "We have rarely seen any evidence of interaction between these two civilizations. But here, it seems that we are looking at foreigners who are aggressively moving into the area."

Archaeologists discovered projectile points made with flint, a material often used by the Maya, at a nearby complex of residential buildings. This material was also used by Teotihuacan residents, providing evidence of conflict.

Archaeologists found the remains of an individual surrounded by ceramic fragments, animal bones, and carefully placed vessels near the replica citadel. It was covered in charcoal, indicating that it had been set on fire. Houston stated that the scene is not similar to any other Tikal burials or sacrifices, but it was strikingly like the remains of warriors discovered years ago in Teotihuacan’s center.

Houston stated that excavations in the middle Teotihuacan's citadel revealed the burials of many people dressed as warriors. They were then placed in mass graves." Houston said that he could have found evidence of one of these burials at Tikal.

Houston and his international colleagues have much more to discover and analyze. Andrew Scherer, a Brown associate professor of Anthropology and a bone specialist will examine the human remains in order to determine their origins. This could reveal more about Teotihuacan’s relationship with Tikal. As COVID-19 travel restrictions eased, Houston joined Romn Ramrez, Garrison and Morgan Clark, Brown graduate students in anthropology to explore buildings, fortifications, and storage tanks within nearby fortresses. Under the direction of Romn Ramrez, excavations will continue at Tikal this fall.

Houston stated that the more they learn, the more Houston hopes they will understand about Teotihuacan’s presence in Tikaland and, more generally, how its imperial power affected the Mesoamerican cultural and political landscapes.

Houston stated that people are interested in colonization and its aftermath. He also said that they are curious about how the global expansion of political and economic systems affects their views. Houston said that before European colonization of Americas, there was a history of powerful empires and kingdoms interfacing with small civilizations in a way that had a significant impact. The influence of Teotihuacan on Mesoamerica can be explored as a way to learn more about colonialism's beginnings, oppressions, and collusions with locals.

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