Saturday, January 10, 2015


Fig.1: I'll wait until they install the escalator.
Remember the days of exploring in your backyard and pretending to come across an ancient lost city? Well if your backyard was a rainforest in the El Petén region of Guatemala, this might have become a reality (though your face being clawed off by howling monkey might have become a reality too). This is what reportedly happened to a tree-gum collector named Ambrosio Tut (an awesome name and an awesome profession) in 1848 when he spotted some stone temples rising above the treetops. This proved to be the ancient Mayan city of Tikal, one of the largest and most influential urban centers in Mesoamerican history. At its height, it was home to as many as 75,000 people and controlled other city-states nearly 500 km away. Its power is plainly visible in its many temples (fig.1), built so high that they would have even given Rocky Balboa issues. It was among the most visited and studied Mayan sites in the world until 2012 when, as we all know, the world ended just as the Maya predicted. Boy, do I miss that world.

Like most things in Central and South America, "Tikal" is not the right name to use here (just ask the equally misnamed Aztec and Inca). Tikal was given its name, Mayan for "at the waterhole," upon its discovery due to its ancient reservoirs and the sweet hole-in-the-wall bar just off of Temple VI. However, transliterations of hieroglyphic inscriptions found all over the site refer to the city as "Mutal," though the meaning of the term is as unknown as the reason Bigfoot just can't take a good picture. Another thing that's annoyingly unknown is when settlement began in the area. It appears that agriculture began around 1000 BC, but the temples weren't constructed until around 400 BC, and the first true signs of civilized culture (government, economy, high-speed internet, etc.) didn't come around until the 1st century AD. The rise of Tikal led to its rivalry with the nearby Mayan city of Calakmul, with whom it completed for vital resources, which often led to wars and/or stealing the other's football mascot.

Fig.2: Location of Tikal and other Mayan cities. While united by similar cultures and languages, 
these separate cities often got along as well as me and my intestines after I eat Mayan food.
The most notable recorded event in Tikal's history took place in 378 AD under the rule of Chak Tok Ich'aak, or Great Jaguar Paw (let's call him "Jagy" for short). Many of the temples, as well as the central palace, were built up during Jagy's reign, which was a total bummer when invaders from the west came in on January 14 of that year and stuck a spear in Jagy's Jaguar heart. The invasion force was led by Siyah K'ak', or Fire is Born (let's call him "Fiery"), a general from the present-day Mexican city of Teotihuacan under the orders of a figure known as Spearthrower Owl ("Owlly"). Fiery placed one of Owlly's sons, Yax Nuun Ayiin, or First Crocodile (we don't need to nickname him; his Maya name is easy enough), on the throne of Tikal, and the city opened up a special relationship with Teotihuacan. How long Owlly's descendents ruled Tikal is uncertain, especially since the foreign kings quickly adapted to the Mayan culture (they found freaking people out about the end of the world to be super fun), but its association with Teotihuacan only increased Tikal's power and influence in the region.

Fig.3: Seems like a lot of work just to 
make a "Beware of Dog" sign.
While Tikal did not directly rule over other cities outside its boundaries, it did establish some colonies that would be dependent on the motherland for resources and authority (but unlike the later Spanish colonialism in the region, smallpox didn't enter into the equation). One of the more famous such colonies is Copán in present-day Honduras, established in the 400s right on the southeastern edge of the Mayan cultural region. Copán even became so big that it began creating colonies of its own, such as nearby Quiriguá, making Tikal a proud grandmotherland who always had yummy hard candy ready in the treat dish whenever the youngens came to visit. Of course, these connections from all over Mesoamerica helped bring the moolah into Tikal's coffers, allowing for another large building spree in the 5th century. Huge slabs of rock carved with symbols or depictions, called stelas (fig.3), are very prominent throughout the site, much to the pleasure of Marlon Brando. One stela even mentions a possible female ruler simply known as the "Lady of Tikal," proving that it wasn't only men that overcompensated for something by erecting large stones in their own honor.

Of course all this success caught the ire of Tikal's rival, Calakmul, who began to establish their own colonies and make their own cryptic stelas for archaeologists to stare at for hours on end. During the 5th and 6th centuries, almost endless warfare broke out between the two Mayan superpowers, with both sides pointing to the other when asked who started it. Tikal had the advantage at first, but in 562, Calakmul appears to have captured the city itself, executing Tikal's king and spray-painting "Calakmul rulez" all over its temples. This began what's known as the Tikal Hiatus, where all construction and writing stopped because Tikal felt it was important to focus on "me" for a change. After 130 years of brooding, Jasaw Chan K'awiil (He Who Clears the Sky) restored Tikal's confidence and took down Calakmul in 695, making them the dominant playa in the region once more. The balance of power held sway until Quiriguá, all grown up, took over their parents in Copán around 738 and then teamed up with Calakmul to go after Grandma Tikal (this is what happens when you spoil the children). The Mayan realm looked like it was going to go through another round of fighting, with scalpers all set up to sell overpriced tickets..

But soon the Mayan civilization suffered an irrevocable collapse during the 9th century. The last monument in Tikal was erected in 869, and the city became completely depopulated (and thus stopped paying the internet bill) within a hundred years. Calakmul didn't have much time to celebrate since the same thing was happening to them, as well as practically all urban centers in the region. Historians have developed many different explanation for the "Classic Maya Collapse" (which was not as refreshing as "Coke Classic"); the most excepted theory is that all the warfare forced people closer to the protective arms of their cities, which created issues associated with overpopulation such as intensive farming, environmental degradation, and a lack of an answer to the essential question: "What do I do with my feces?" Recent analysis has also determined that a major drought occurred during this time, making the waterhole that gave Tikal its modern name nothing more than a hole. While the Maya people, culture, and languages have survived through this period into colonization, independence, and the present, they would not command the same influence as they did during the 1st millennium Anno Doughnutty, and would therefore not have the power to fully enjoy the glazed goodness for another thousand years.

Fig.4: The view of Tikal from out of face-scratching range.
And so Tikal would hide away undisturbed in the rainforest for centuries, presumably getting a few books of crossword puzzles and Sudokus done. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés most likely passed right by Tikal on his way to conquist more of Central America, but didn't even bother to wave or honk. Not until good ol' Ambrosio Tut came along with his satchel full of tree-gum (that just seems like a good container for tree-gum) that Tikal became known to the world at large. After a German academic journal published a report on Tikal in 1853, archaeologists and anthropologists and anesthesiologists came to Guatemala in droves to check out the ancient city. Research went slowly, mostly because the site was in the middle of the rainforest with the aforementioned face-scratching howler monkeys, but excavation projects and tourism really picked up once they got an airstrip installed in the 1950s. To date, 60 square kilometers have been mapped out, filled with six large temples, over two hundred monuments, countless buildings, and only five Starbucks. (They must have been downsizing.)

When one thinks of Mayan ruins (as I do every morning while I'm washing my armpits), one usually picks Tikal as their go-to image. It certainly ranked up there among the most powerful city-states in the region back in its heyday, and left behind some stunning ancient art and architecture that everyone outside of Egypt could be impressed by (there's just no topping those guys). Most importantly, the same sight that allowed Ambrosio Tut to spot Tikal's temples rising above the trees was used as a backdrop for Yavin 4 in Star Wars, the home of the rebel base from which Luke Skywalker took off and then fired those proton torpedoes right into the Death Star's thermal exhaust port. I mean, how cool is that? That battle was so crucial that the New Republic would make it the starting point for their calendar which, unlike the Mayan calendar, didn't lie about when the world was ending. Semantics and geekiness aside, the remains of Tikal demonstrates the power of the Maya in Mesoamerica for over a thousand years, and how quickly Mother Nature can wipe it away. She's a sassy lady, that one.

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