for National Geographic News
When archaeologist Joel Palka ventured into the rain forests of northern Guatemala to study the disappearance of the ancient Maya, locals laughed. The "ancient" Maya had, in fact, been in the area as recently as the 1920s, they told him.
In the early 1990s, when Palka was first in the region, there had been virtually no archaeological research done on the unconquered Maya. They were a mysterious people who had retreated deep into the rain forests of southern Mexico and Guatemala after the Spanish first arrived in the Yucatán in 1511.
In 2006, Palka and Fabiola Sánchez Balderas, president of the Maya culture and conservation organization Xanvil, returned to map the ancient Maya sites and investigate sacred rock art and cave shrines at Lake Mensabak in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
What they found was evidence of an ancient settlement of Lacandon Maya, a group that had long been overlooked and ignored by archaeologists, according to Palka.
Descendants of the unconquered groups still live there today. The current residents of Mensabak are modern Maya who, unlike some of their ancestors, have had contact with outside communities.
"The lion's share in Maya archaeology has been devoted to research on the tombs, temples, and awe-inspiring finds of Classic Maya civilization," said Rani Alexander, an archaeologist at New Mexico State University.
"Joel's is the only project that follows the cultural transformation of the free Lacandon from the 16th century to the present."
(Related: "Maya Rise and Fall" in National Geographic Magazine [August 2007].)
Ancient and Modern
Palka, now at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and Sánchez Balderas surmised that the ancient sites and shrines they uncovered in 2006 at Lake Mensabak belonged to Classic Mayans from A.D. 600-800 and Historic Mayans from A.D. 1525-1950.
The "ancient" Maya that locals said were in Guatemala until the 1920s were actually post-conquest Maya who resisted assimilation, according to Palka. After the 1920s some adopted new lifestyles while others, such as the Lacandon, slipped across the border into Chiapas and held tight to tradition.
Lake Mensabak is located in the remote and lush Lacandon rain forest. It is far off the beaten path of the well-known Classic Maya sites in Chiapas, such as Palenque and Yaxchilan.
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