Arsonists Threaten Maya City, National Park in Guatemala

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Royal Road

The first people may have arrived in Waka around A.D. 150. At its peak, between A.D. 400 and 800, the city and its environs were home to tens of thousands of people. Over a period of 700 years, 22 kings ruled at Waka.

Known from ancient Maya inscriptions as Waka—but today known as El Peré—the city was once an important crossroad between one Maya capital, Calakmul, and another, Tikal. The name Waka means "stood up place," because the site is located on a 130-meter-high escarpment towering above a tributary of the San Pedro River, called the San Juan.

"The city is very important because it strategically commanded two really critical overland and water routes," Freidel said.

Pulled between Calakmul and Tikal, Waka found itself switching allegiances back and forth over time. The arrival of famous warriors and conquerors, such as Siyaj k'ak', is celebrated on several magnificently carved stone slabs, or stela, which are among the largest known in the Maya world.

"Waka was part of a world of people who knew each other, intermarried, had diplomatic liaisons and commercial treaties, who fought each other, betrayed and reconciled with each other," Freidel said. "We can tell you a really cool story about the connection between these places."

Inside the palace complex, the team discovered a royal burial chamber dating to around A.D. 620. The chamber contained a female ruler or queen and over 2,400 artifacts. The woman's royal status was signaled by a war helmet that is generally associated with male rulers and important warriors.

"She was treated with enormous reverence," Freidel said. "The tomb adds reinforcement to the notion that royal women were really important at Waka." The female ruler also had stingray spines placed on her pelvic region. Stingray spines were used as bloodletting implements to ceremonially bleed the genitalia of Maya kings.

"That this female ruler had these implements supports the idea that in ancient Maya culture, gender roles were sometimes blended," said David Lee, a Southern Methodist University graduate student, who made the discovery.

Ecotourism

Freidel hopes the tomb is just one of many more discoveries to come. While his current dig runs for three years, Freidel says he hopes archaeologists will continue working the site indefinitely.

Seeking to save forest and Maya cultural heritage, Freidel and his colleagues have formed a conservationist alliance called the K'ante'el Alliance—meaning "precious forest" in Maya—that calls for the preservation of 230,000 acres in northwestern Guatemala for ecotourism and research.

The preserve, Freidel hopes, would provide jobs to local villagers, save the environment and its endangered species, and establish a permanent research center to study the heart of Maya civilization.

"I thought I was doing archeology," Freidel said. "But the reality is that archeology in a place like Guatemala, in the Petén, cannot be pure science any longer. We're part of a collective response that can be made to the problem … . Waka is a wonderful site that could become a gateway for ecotourism."

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