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Stairway Leads To Mayan History

By Robert Cooke, Newsday,
19 September 2002

Thanks to a powerful hurricane, archeologists are now deciphering a long-hidden account of the ancient Mayans' bloody history, a story that is not pleasant reading.

The carved writings, exposed on a staircase that decorates an ancient pyramid, tell of wars, betrayals, sibling rivalry, sacrifices and mutilations. All this occurred 1,300 years ago as two major city-states vied for dominance of an area now mostly in Guatemala.

When I read those glyphs, I had to blink to make sure I was reading it correctly, said Maya hieroglyph expert Federico Fahsen at Vanderbilt University.

Previously, the city-states of Tikal and Calakmul were considered independent powers that hadn't engaged in major, sustained conflict.

But the pyramid's stairway tells a starkly different story. The site is in a smaller city, Dos Pilas, ruled by the brother of the king of Tikal. Dos Pilas was an important outpost controlling trade on the Pasion River, a major route between the highlands and lowlands.

Usually when you find a new set of inscriptions, they're interesting, but they confirm things we already know, said anthropologist Arthur Demarest, at the Vanderbilt Institute of Mesoamerican Archaeology. This extends [Mayan] history we didn't know about back almost 50 years. These wars and the dynasty are new information.

National Geographic is reporting the discovery of the steps in the October issue of its magazine.

The writings tell of Calakmul conquering Dos Pilas in about 650 AD, with the young Dos Pilas king then turning against his brother in Tikal. In a long campaign, Calakmul then overpowered its rival, Tikal.

After sacking Tikal, the writings say, the king and nobles were taken to Dos Pilas to be sacrificed. There are tales of pooled blood, piles of skulls and the kings of Dos Pilas and Calakmul doing a victory dance.

Archeologists already knew of eight of the inscribed stairs at Dos Pilas, Fahsen said. But during the summer of 2001, a hurricane knocked a tree down and some glyphs were exposed. Demarest expected to see only a couple of steps, but instead of finding one or two, it just kept going, eventually revealing 10 new ones, for a total of 18.

Mayan scribes carefully carved stories of conquests, defeats and celebrations occurring during a little-known 60-year period in the seventh century AD.

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

Now it seems that Dos Pilas was a pawn in an ongoing conflict between the major powers.

War Story

Maya hieroglyphics newly uncovered in Guatemala recount how the Central American civilization was torn apart by a war between the cities of Tikal and Calakmul. The two powers probably fought over control of Dos Pilas, a major trade outpost near the Pasion River.