Arsonists Threaten Maya City, National Park in Guatemala

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 6, 2004
More than a millennium ago, fierce power struggles raged between Maya kings in the city of Waka, deep in the Guatemalan jungle. Today, the city is once again under assault, this time from drug smugglers, cattle ranchers, and the impoverished farmers they hire as arsonists.

Last year, more than 2,000 forest fires were set in the region, burning more than 100,000 acres.

On the front lines of this battle: archaeologist David Freidel, whose team is excavating the ancient site, nestled inside Laguna del Tigre National Park, Central America's largest nature preserve. As the forest disappears, he warns, the Maya history is being wiped out, too.

Freidel believes Waka was once an important economic and political center of the Maya world, a stop on a royal road between major cities like Calakmul to the north and Tikal to the west. Among the most important discoveries his team has made in Waka is a royal tomb containing a female Maya ruler.

Now, Freidel is part of a collaboration by conservationists, residents, and the Guatemalan government that is calling for 230,000 acres of rain forest to be set aside for special protection, and promoted as an eco-tourism destination.

"The situation is extremely serious," said Freidel, a professor at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, who has worked in Maya country for more than 20 years. "One of the great Maya sites could be lost forever."

Illegal Logging

Laguna del Tigre National Park, meaning "Jaguar Lake," was established 14 years ago. It's home to several endangered species, including the scarlet macaw, and the focus of much conservation work. Also threatened by deforestation are brightly colored toucans, rare pumas, and jaguars.

In recent years, cattle ranching and other forms of invasion have been encroaching on the park. Illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture are major problem, as is drug smuggling. Much of the forest in the western part of the park is gone.

"The eastern part of the park, where I am, is still under high forest," Freidel said. "But it's now under attack by unscrupulous people—cattle ranchers and wealthy people—who are divvying up the park among themselves. [They are] waiting for it to be officially pronounced dead, so they can claim the land, clear it for cattle pastures, and profit from its sale eventually."

The ranchers and smugglers, Freidel says, are rushing to complete the job of destruction before the new democratically elected administration can mobilize a defense against them.

Visitors to this remote region have to travel by plane or riverboat since few roads exist. Discovered by oil prospectors in the 1960s, Waka has been professionally studied only once, in 1971, when Harvard archaeologist Ian Graham mapped out more than 600 buildings there.

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.


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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