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Excerpt:
The following is from the August 2007 edition of National Geographic Magazine


The Maya: Glory and Ruin


David Freidel

Scholars have long puzzled over the Maya civilization's rise to glory and fall to ruin. The latest thinking is that a man named Fire Is Born made the Maya great. But no one person or problem caused the collapse. Simply put, everything went wrong.

The doomed splendor of the Maya unfolded against the backdrop of the rain forests of southern Mexico and Central America. Here, Classic Maya civilization reached improbable heights. To chart a culture whose Preclassic roots reach back 3,000 years, we begin with new evidence suggesting that the arrival of a warlord from central Mexico ushered in an age of magnificence and masterpieces such as the death mask of Palenque's King Pakal. But empires rise only to fall. . .

By 378 Waka was a prestigious center, boasting four main plazas, hundreds of buildings, temple mounds up to 300 feet (90 meters) tall, ceremonial palaces clad in painted stucco, and courtyards graced with carved limestone altars and monuments. A trading power, it occupied a strategic location on the San Pedro River, which flowed westward from the heart of the Petén. Its market was filled with Maya foodstuffs such as maize, beans, chilies, and avocados, along with chicle harvested from sapodilla trees to make glue, and latex from rubber trees to make balls for ceremonial games. Exotic goods found their way to Waka as well. Jade for sculpture and jewelry and quetzal feathers for costumes came from the mountains to the south, and obsidian for weapons and pyrite for mirrors from the Mexican plateau to the west, the domain of Teotihuacan.

A sprawling metropolis of 100,000 people or more—perhaps the largest city in the world at the time—Teotihuacan left no records that epigraphers have been able to decipher. But its motives in dispatching Fire Is Born to the Maya region seem clear. Waka sat on a promontory overlooking a tributary of the San Pedro with a protected harbor, excellent for berthing large canoes. "It was a perfect staging area" for military action, notes Southern Methodist University archaeologist David Freidel, co-director of excavations at Waka. Which may be precisely what Fire Is Born had in mind.

Waka appears to have been key to the envoy's mission: to bring the entire central Petén into Teotihuacan's orbit, through persuasion if possible, force if necessary. His principal target was Tikal, a kingdom 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Waka. Tikal was the most influential city-state in the central Petén. Bring Tikal into the fold, and the other cities would follow.

Fire Is Born's soldiers were probably shock troops, designed principally to display his bona fides and demonstrate good faith. He needed reinforcements, and he had come to Waka to get them. In return, he could offer the goodwill of his patron, a mysterious ruler known from inscriptions as Spear-thrower Owl, probably a highland king, perhaps even the lord of Teotihuacan.

Waka's ruler, Sun-faced Jaguar, apparently welcomed Fire Is Born. Based on hints in texts from Waka and other sources. Freidel, project co-director Héctor Escobedo, and epigrapher Stanley Guenter suggest that the two rulers cemented their alliance by building a fire shrine to house the sacred flame of Teotihuacan.

Read the full story. > > >

Also see: NPR's "Tomb Raiders Threaten Mayan City's History"

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