Excavations Challenge Views of Maya Development in Yucatán

National Geographic News
May 17, 2001
Scientists studying the Maya city of Chac in the north of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula have discovered that it flourished much earlier than previously thought, and its early inhabitants apparently interacted—perhaps through trade—with "foreigners" from the civilization that dominated central Mexico at the time.

The evidence suggests that as early as A.D. 300, Chac and other settlements nearby were in contact with Teotihuacan, a powerful metropolis not far from present-day Mexico City that existed from about the first to the sixth centuries A.D.

Michael Smyth, an anthropologist at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, who has been directing research at Chac since 1995, said recent excavations challenge earlier conclusions that northern Yucatán was not well established until much later and was outside the range of Teotihuacan's influence.

"Research at the site is helping to resolve some of the region's long-standing problems with chronology," said Smyth, whose work is supported by the National Geographic Society. "Radiocarbon dating of objects found at the site indicates Chac's origins date from about A.D. 300, at least two centuries earlier than any other known settlement in the area."

According to Smyth, pottery and mortuary patterns uncovered from burial sites at Chac are typical of those associated with Teotihuacan. Many architectural features at Chac, including the layout of buildings and the prevalent use of serpent imagery, are further signs of Teotihuacan's influence.

Researchers working at a number of ancient sites in the Puuc hills region of Yucatán have long questioned why Mexican motifs and symbolism appear on early-style Maya buildings, Smyth explained.

Signs of Early Trade

From a range of scientific evidence, the researchers have concluded that Chac developed into a flourishing community during the Early-Middle Classic Period (A.D. 300–650). It grew to an area of about three square kilometers (1.1 square miles) with an estimated 6,000 inhabitants by the Late Classic period (A.D. 650–800), well before the region's great cultural flowering in A.D. 800–1000.

The site appears to have been mysteriously abandoned and ritually destroyed in the late eighth century, when other sites in the Puuc hills region of Yucatán underwent rapid growth and development.

Smyth thinks trade wars may help account for the many signs found at Chac indicating the presence of people from outside the region.

Teotihuacan's lowland trade routes, he explained, appear to have been seriously disrupted or even severed during a period of prolonged intercity warfare with major Maya powers in the southern lowlands that began in the sixth century. "At this time, not coincidentally, Teotihuacan's influence becomes more apparent at Chac and other sites in northern Yucatán," said Smyth.

Evidence from some burial sites at Chac, he added, suggests that foreign traders of middle-level social status—perhaps a group from Teotihuacan responsible for maintaining long-distance contacts—may have lived in Chac.

The discovery of 19 burial sites from residential groups at Chac shows pottery and mortuary patterns typical of Teotihuacan people residing in foreign settlements. Thirteen of the burials were found in a large substructure dating to the Middle Classic period, with certain architectural characteristics reminiscent of residential apartment compounds from Teotihuacan.

Many Serpent Images

Chac, which may have been named after the Maya rain god Chac, is located near the ancient sites of Uxmal and Sayil in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Exploration of a 60-foot-tall pyramid at Chac has revealed two earlier pyramids that lie beneath. Numerous substructures have been discovered beneath other buildings excavated at the site.

The layout of the site and orientation of the buildings, which follow Central Mexican conventions, and stylistic elements, such as sloping walls and recessed panels incorporated into Maya architecture, suggest the residents of Chac were familiar with Teotihuacan symbolism.

Even more compelling, said Smyth, are the many examples of early serpent imagery found at the site's great pyramid. Serpents are more reminiscent of architecture at Teotihuacan than the decorative elements typically found on early Puuc buildings.

Also, a small, hemispherical vessel recovered at the foot of one of the earlier pyramids shows decoration strikingly similar to renderings of the earth goddess found at Teotihuacan.

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