How do you make sense of a lost civilization? History textbooks would have us believe that we know everything about our past, but the truth is that our record has more gaps than most experts would care to admit. Take, for instance, the downfall of the Mayas.
Generations of archaeologists have slaved away trying to solve this mystery, but to no avail. However, a recent discovery may have massive implications for the long-standing enigma. The gigantic time capsule is shocking the world not only because it’s incredibly well-preserved, but also because it was hiding in the most unlikely of places.
These days, many remnants of the Maya empire look more like tourist traps than historical ruins. Packed sites, like the pyramids of Chichén Itzá, convinced some archaeologists that there was little left to find in Mesoamerica. Fortunately, a 2019 discovery proved them dead wrong.
Alfredo Barrera Rubio led a team of experts deep into the jungles of the Yucatán. It was one of the lesser-explored regions of Mexico, though there were precedents for huge archaeological discoveries there — particularly in the abandoned city of Kulubá.
Western scholars had been studying the general area since the 1930s, but Rubio felt confident that the area still held secrets to be uncovered. His immediate goal was to better understand Maya architecture in Kulubá. But also on his mind was the collapse of this great empire.
In contrast to the Aztec and Inca peoples, the Maya were never conquered by Spanish conquistadors. They vanished long before Europeans made contact with the Americas, but historians can’t agree what force took them down.
After flourishing through most of the first millennium of the modern period, the Maya way of life suddenly fell apart by 1000 A.D. Did a plague or political power struggle cause the empire to crumble? Were they conquered by the Toltec culture?
While Rubio didn’t expect to find the exact answer, he figured their efforts might provide a valuable piece of the puzzle. In spite of the dense forests and vast expanse of empty land, the team got off to a promising start.
Preliminary survey excavations unearthed a variety of artifacts, all pointing to the fact that the site was once a hotbed of Maya activity. Encouraged by their quick start, the archaeologists dug deeper into the ground and deeper into the forest.
It wasn’t long before Rubio and his collaborators hit pay dirt. The structure almost seemed like a mirage at first, with its 20-foot walls rising out of the tree line. This was no mere house, or storage building.
The archaeologists suspected they’d stumbled upon a palace. They could hardly wait to explore its pristine corridors and inner chambers, but first they had to marvel about exactly where they found it.
As sprawling as the Yucatán jungle might be, Rubio could only chuckle when they charted their discovery on the map. They were really just a short trip away from one of the most crowded cities in Mexico.
The palace lay just 100 miles west of Cancún, the spring break mecca of the world. While most collegiate parties weren’t necessarily on the lookout for Maya ruins, Rubio found it hard to believe that nobody had beaten them to the site before.
Regardless of their luck, the archaeologists had their work cut out for them. The palace building covered over half a football field, and the elements had obscured many of its features. But that wasn’t a problem for these experts.
Clearing away the grime, they started to make sense of the structure’s six-room layout. Two residential rooms were likely used for sleeping or socializing. A space with an oven suggested the presence of a kitchen. Then, there was the space with an altar.
The Maya were a fervently religious people, so it wasn’t unusual to have a place of worship within the palace. But what really left Rubio flabbergasted were the human remains buried nearby!
It was a groundbreaking moment. By learning more about the residents of the palace, perhaps the archaeologists could get closer to the answer of the Maya’s disappearance. After all, they deduced that this palace had a storied history of its own.
Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History
Their analysis suggested that the royal residence was in continuous use from roughly 600 through 1050. This made it possibly one of the final holdouts of Maya civilization. Suddenly, these archaeologists weren’t the only ones eager to get a closer look into the site.
Rubio was thrilled to learn that the Yucatán State Government agreed to financially back his big project. There was much to examine, but in the meantime, the experts had to address a more pressing issue. How could they best preserve the Kulubá site?
Conservationist Natalia Hernández Tangarife proposed a novel strategy. She advocated “using the vegetation to help conservation; reforesting specific parts with trees to protect the structures, especially painted sections of the site, from direct light and wind.”
Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History
Hopefully the archaeologists get all the time they need to piece together the palace’s full history. Years after an initial discovery, new technology or a fresh perspective can completely shift our understanding of a site.
When archeologist Guillermo de Anda and his crew arrived in the ancient city of Chichén Itzá on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, their original mission was to better understand the ancient Maya civilization.
More specifically, they wanted to access and study what is called a cenote, a sinkhole the ancient tribes believed were portals of access to the underworld. The cenote they sought was allegedly beneath the Temple of Kukulka.
Their plans changed, however, when a local told them about “The Cave of the Jaguar God.” Besides a totally awesome name, the cave was steeped in a history Guillermo couldn’t ignore.
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See, archeologist Víctor Segovia Pinto had visited the cave in 1966 and, in an apparently unspecific report, noted “extensive amounts of archeological material” hidden inside. Instead of excavating it, however, he curiously ordered the cave sealed up.
Over the next 50 years, most locals of the former-Mayan settlement forgot about Jaguar God. So Guillermo and his crew were delighted by the opportunity to find what Víctor had ignored. They knew what caves meant to the Mayans.
As Mayan expert Holley Moyes said, because of their believed connection to the underworld, “Caves and cenotes… represent some of the most sacred spaces for the Maya, ones that also influenced site planning and social organization.”
So, refocusing their energies on the potential of Jaguar God, Guillermo and his crew recruited a Mayan priest to conduct a 6-hour purification ritual. This would ensure their safe journey into the potential holy hot spot.
Their offering to the cave guardians was modest: honey, a fermented drink called pozole, and even tobacco, but it got the job done. Officially protected in the eyes of Maya, they entered the long-sealed cave.
Kayla Ortega via NPR
Inside was a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare: for well over an hour, Guillermo crawled on his stomach through narrow, twisting tunnels, only a headlamp illuminating the pathway.
Guillermo didn’t seem to mind. “I’ve analyzed human remains in [Chichén Itzá’s] Sacred Cenote,” he said. “But nothing compares to the sensation I had entering, alone, for the first time in that cave. You almost feel the presence of the Maya.”
After an hour-and-half of painstakingly slow crawling, his helmet finally illuminated something curious.” I couldn’t speak,” Guillermo recalled of the moment he finally understood what he saw. “I started to cry.”
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It wasn’t that he’d finally reached a chamber with enough room to stand up in that made him cry, either. Rather, he’d stumbled upon the archeological equivalent of a winning lotto ticket.
Piles of ancient artifacts lay before him: grinding stones, decorated plates, and more, all in “an excellent state of preservation,” despite looking like they were caked in a few billion years’ worth of mud.
Impressively, thanks to centuries of dripping water, stalactites formed around some of the ancient artifacts and ritual objects, like this incense burner. All in all, there were about 150 well-preserved items in that cave!
Kayla Ortega via NPR
“Thinking about Maya in ancient times going there, through those passageways, crawling with a big incense burner and a torch,” Guillermo said, “you see how important these caves were for them.”
Along with giving Guillermo newfound respect for the Maya, the cave and the items inside, he knew, would provide invaluable information on the tribe’s rituals — and more.
Karla Ortega / Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History
“Jaguar God can tell us not only the moment of collapse of Chichén Itzá,” Guillermo surmised. “It can also probably tell us the moment of its beginning.”
Viajes National Geographic
“Now we have a sealed context,” he continued, “with a great quantity of information, including usable organic matter, that we can use to understand the development of Chichén Itzá.”
More than that, though, experts believe further study of the area will shed some light on the region’s climate, and how disastrous droughts possibly led to the Maya’s mysterious first demise.
“By studying these caves and cenotes,” National Geographic archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert said, “it’s possible to learn some lessons for how to best use the environment today, in terms of sustainability for the future.”
NPR via Karla Ortega
For this reason, Guillermo believed his work in archeology was truly saving the world. By studying Maya, he said, “we can understand the footprints of humankind’s past, and what was happening on Earth during one of the most dramatic moments in history.”
But Guillermo’s profession was noble for reasons beyond that which he listed. Thousands of miles from Jaguar God, for instance, archeologists used science to answer a 14,000-year-old question about some of our earliest ancestors.
Specifically, the Heiltsuk people, the First Nation indigenous to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, have laid claim to the remote Triquet Island for nearly 5,000 years. But archaeologists dismissed their claim of ownership at first for one glaring reason.
Simon Fraser University
The continental glacier that formed over Canada during the last Ice Age would’ve also covered Triquet Island, making it uninhabitable. But even with the facts stacked against the Heiltsuk, a small group of researchers took it upon themselves to uncover the truth once and for all.
The Robinson Library
The archaeologists began an extensive excavation of the remote island in the hope of discovering traces of a past civilization. What they found there not only shocked the entire archaeological community, but it also changed history forever.
Beneath several layers of earth, they found remnants of an ancient, wood-burning hearth. But how could this be? According to researchers, it would’ve been impossible for humans to dig their way through the glacial ice to get to the soil below.
As they continued digging, researchers unearthed additional artifacts, including tools and weapons. This discovery stumped the team as the Heiltsuk people traditionally didn’t use tools of this kind.
The Heiltsuk people had derived their food source from fishing and smoking salmon, utilizing small, precise tools to harvest the fish. The tools and weapons found were much larger and likely would’ve been used to hunt large sea mammals, such as seals, sea lions, and walruses.
What’s more, the team also uncovered shards of obsidian, a glass-like rock only found in areas of heavy volcanic activity. This discovery also puzzled the archaeologists, as there were no known volcanoes near that part of British Columbia. So, how did this rock — and these people — get there?
The historians deduced that whoever left these artifacts must have traversed the land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska during prehistoric times. Yet researchers still needed cold-hard facts…
Luckily, a closer inspection of the hearth revealed ancient charcoal remains, which the archaeologists quickly brought to the lab for carbon dating. When they received the results, the researchers couldn’t believe their eyes: everything they knew was a lie.
According to the carbon dating report, these bits of charcoal were an astonishing 14,000 years old, making them the oldest carbon remains ever to be discovered in North America.
Even by global standards, this was an extraordinary find. After all, these simple pieces of charcoal were older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and even predated the invention of the wheel! But that’s not the most remarkable fact about this discovery.
The 14,000-year-old discovery placed the earliest Heiltsuk at Triquet Island 2,000 years before the end of the ice age. Therefore, the island couldn’t have been covered by the massive continental glacier. And that’s not all.
Since Triquet Island was surrounded on all sides by water, the early Heiltsuk would’ve used boats to traverse the open waters. Boats, however, were not believed to have been invented until centuries later.
This meant that the Heiltsuk settled the area 2,000 years before initially believed. If this was the case, then these early men likely crossed paths with some of history’s most formidable beasts.
As the Heiltsuk people made their way south from the land bridge, they likely had to fend off giant creatures like mastodons, woolly mammoths, and giant sloths. But somehow, these humans survived, and it’s likely for one crucial reason.
Thanks to the Pacific Ocean itself, the sea level at Triquet Island remained constant for over 15,000 years. So as the sea gradually eroded the surrounding islands, the great beasts of the Pacific Northwest were kept at bay, leaving the Heiltsuk to a peaceful, secluded existence.
The most astounding realization that’s come to light is the fact that the Heiltsuk people were able to preserve their history orally for nearly 14,000 years. However, they are still being deprived of their history’s legitimacy.
When the media caught wind of the story, they seemed to focus more on what the discovery meant for the scientific community rather than acknowledge the rich history of the Heiltsuk. To many, the media’s portrayal of the nation was seen as highly disrespectful.
As a result, University of Victoria student Alisha Gauvreau — who was present during the excavation — has dedicated herself to shifting the focus of the dialogue toward the Heiltsuk people.
The Heiltsuk claim to Triquet Island stands as one of the oldest land-ownership claims in the world. Not only does this discovery speak volumes about the strength of the Heiltsuk people, but it also represents the indomitable spirit of mankind.
kris krüg / Flickr