for National Geographic News
Archaeologists have found the earliest known Maya stone carving bearing the portrait of a woman.
The discovery was made earlier this year in the jungles of northern Guatemala at a site called Naachtun, some 55 miles (90 kilometers) north of the Maya city of Tikal.
The portrait, which is carved into a stone monument known as a stela, shows a woman's face with her hands upheld.
It dates back to the fourth century A.D., suggesting that women held powerful positions early in Maya society either as queens or as deities.
"The individual depicted must have been exceptionally important to the people of Naachtun," said Kathryn Reese-Taylor, director of the University of Calgary team that made the discovery.
Who Was She?
Naachtun was founded between B.C. 50 and A.D. 150, but its period of greatest growth appears to have been between A.D. 150 and A.D. 400, the initial stages of what archaeologists call the Classic Maya period.
Martin Rangel, a member of the research team, discovered the stela protruding from a looter's trench in 2004, but the archaeologists decided to rebury it and properly excavate it this year.
Other images of queens have been found on stelae dating back to the early sixth century A.D. But this monument represents the earliest such monument.
"[It] is a wonderful and intriguing discovery," said David Freidel, a Maya expert at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
The main figure is a disembodied head with two hands on each side holding the symbols known as "7 Black K'an" and "9 Ajaw," denoting supernatural locations. The head is in profile and looks to the viewer's left.
The woman wears an elaborate headdress with a reptilian creature as its main element and waterfowl coming off the top. It also features feathers and a sacrificial dish.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES