Maya Hieroglyphs Recount "Giant War"

D.L. Parsell
for National Geographic News
September 19, 2002

Newly translated inscriptions at an ancient pyramid in Guatemala suggest that the Maya civilization, at its peak, was dominated by two powerful city-states that engaged in a protracted "superpower" struggle.

The evidence comes from hieroglyphs on a building at Dos Pilas, a relatively small but strategically important Maya kingdom now partly obscured in dense rain forest.

The inscriptions, which appear on the staircase of a Maya pyramid dating from the seventh century, are one of the most extensive Maya texts ever found.

The texts show that Dos Pilas played a major role in fierce and bloody warfare that raged back and forth between the major Maya cities of Tikal and Calakmul for a century, until Tikal finally prevailed in about A.D. 695.

The inscriptions offer strong evidence supporting a theory proposed a decade ago by two Maya experts who challenged the prevailing belief that conflicts in the region were mainly local clashes between independent city-states. In their alternative interpretation, Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube proposed that these campaigns reflected a larger struggle between major powers.

Arthur Demarest, a professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee who organized the translation of the newly revealed glyphs, said their content has convinced him, after years of skepticism, that Martin and Grube were right.

"Rather than being an independent actor, as previously thought, it now appears that Dos Pilas was a pawn in a much bigger battle," said Demarest. "In today's terms, Dos Pilas was the Somalia or Vietnam of the Maya world, used in a war that was actually between two superpowers."

Some of the inscriptions at Dos Pilas first came to light years ago. The glyphs describe repeated clashes between Dos Pilas and Tikal, a successful attack on Tikal by Calakmul, and eventually a great defeat for the king of Tikal.

Information about these events was fragmentary, however, and many questions were left unanswered. Two years ago, a storm blew through Dos Pilas, knocking down a tree and exposing ten more steps, which have provided a much more complete picture of events.

Federico Fahsen, a Guatemalan expert on Maya glyphs, headed a team that traveled to Dos Pilas last year to excavate the steps and document the inscriptions. "The hundreds of new glyphs fill in a vital 60-year gap of unknown Maya history and clarify many of the political and military relationships of this critical period," said Fahsen, an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt.

Demarest added, "It's rare that you find a new monument and it fills in such a large blank spot about the history of a region."

Continued on Next Page >>


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