The Lacantún River leading into Mexico's Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve

The Lacantún River leads into Mexico’s Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, where archaeologists believe Sac Balam’s ruins are hiding.

BRENT WOODFILL

In search of the ‘white jaguar’: Archaeologists travel deep into the jungle to find a lost Maya city

CHIAPAS STATE IN MEXICO—About 7 hours by kayak up the Tzendales River, our GPS receiver falls overboard and vanishes in the deep blue water. We are on the fourth day of an expedition deep into the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, one of Mexico's largest, most remote protected areas. On the side of the GPS was an SOS button that we could press to contact emergency services or even summon a rescue helicopter. Now, traveling up a river no one else has navigated for at least 10 years, our small group of archaeologists, guides, and observers is cut off.

But maybe that's fitting, as we are seeking a lost city. Called Sac Balam, it was founded more than 400 years ago by the Lacandon Maya, one of several Indigenous groups in southern Mexico and Central America who resisted Spanish colonial rule for centuries.

It wasn't the kind of Maya city tourists flock to today. Sac Balam didn't have majestic stone temples, elaborate tombs, or intricate sculptures. In fact, it was probably so unassuming that its ruins might elude an untrained eye. But hundreds of Lacandon once lived there, hidden from Spanish eyes and free to continue a way of life their ancestors had practiced for centuries: planting corn and beans, raising turkeys, weaving strong thatched roofs to resist the tropical rain, and leaving offerings to their gods in nearby caves. The Lacandon had looked at this impenetrable, remote jungle and had seen safety.

Until 1695, that is, when the Spanish finally found the city. Less than 20 years later, they forcibly relocated its inhabitants and abandoned the place once and for all. It faded off colonial maps and back into the forest. If found, Sac Balam could offer archaeologists an unparalleled time capsule of Lacandon culture, showing how they preserved their independence as the world changed around them. This summer, I joined a small team led by Brent Woodfill, an archaeologist at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, that was determined to find the lost capital and bring this little-known period of Maya history back to life.

The conquest of Mexico is often portrayed as a monolithic event. In 1521, Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, in what is now Mexico City. The Aztecs controlled territory from the central Mexican highlands down through Oaxaca and the Pacific coast of Chiapas; when Tenochtitlan fell, all of that land—a good portion of what is now Mexico—passed from one empire to another.

On the Lacandon trail

This summer, a team of archaeologists went searching for Sac Balam, a lost Maya capital. Based on Spanish records, they plotted an arc showing the city’s possible locations—which remained out of reach.

Las Guacamayas ecolodge Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve Base camp Tzendales River End of jungle hike Chaquistero Mountains Camp Garrapata End of kayak journey Possible locations of Sac Balam Lacantún River 0 10 Km Chiapas Palenque Comitán Yaxchilán LakePetén Itzá Lake Miramar MEXICO GUATEMALA Zacpeten
(GRAPHIC) N. DESAI/SCIENCE; (DATA) RUBÉN NÚÑEZ OCAMPO

The Maya world was different. Covering about 390,000 square kilometers in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, this region was not ruled by a single emperor. Each Maya city state was largely independent, embedded within a complex web of ever-shifting allies and enemies. (Think ancient Greece, not ancient Rome.) Each one had to be individually brought under Spanish rule, whether by conquest or diplomacy. "Because the Maya are never centralized, it's very hard to conquer entire areas," says Maxine Oland, an archaeologist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst who studies the Colonial period in the Maya world.

What resulted was a patchwork of Spanish-style colonial cities, majority-Maya towns that traded with the Spanish and (by force or by choice) converted to Christianity, and independent Maya capitals such as Sac Balam that resisted colonial rule. In between were vast expanses of forest where Maya people often fled to escape colonial violence and oppression. These different ways of life coexisted, often uneasily, for centuries.

Historical documents record almost nothing about life in the independent Maya capitals. Sac Balam is a particular mystery, because it was founded to stay hidden. The Lacandon originally lived in a city called Lakam Tun, on an island in Lake Miramar, on the western edge of Montes Azules. But after repeated Spanish attacks, they realized that to stay safe and independent, they would have to retreat deep into the jungle. They named their new city Sac Balam, or "the white jaguar," and lived there, undisturbed, for 109 years. When the Spanish finally discovered and conquered Sac Balam, it was the second-to-last independent Maya capital standing. (The last, Nojpeten, the capital of the Itza Maya in northern Guatemala, fell just 2 years later.)

To understand life in Sac Balam, you need to look at the buildings and artifacts its residents used and left behind, says Josuhé Lozada Toledo, an archaeologist at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico City. "Sac Balam preserves the story of a community that was erased from history," he says. Excavating what's left of its houses, community buildings, ceramics, and religious offerings "would be an act of cultural revindication."

Lozada Toledo and Woodfill are particularly interested in reconstructing Sac Balam's trade networks, which Spanish chronicles hint were extensive but invisible to those who ended up writing history. If the Lacandon were trading with other Maya communities for goods such as salt, could they also have traded for machetes and other European objects? Or did they reject those foreign goods entirely?

Excavations elsewhere have shed some surprising light on those questions. In Zacpeten, the independent capital of the Kowoj Maya in northern Guatemala until the first half of the 17th century, Timothy Pugh from Queens College, part of the City University of New York, found three pieces of iron, a musket ball, a tobacco pipe stem—more associated with British pirates than Spanish settlers—and a piece of a cow's jaw. All seven European objects had been placed in important religious contexts; the cow jaw had even been left on an altar next to an incense burner. Apparently, select European goods had become a vibrant part of Kowoj religious and political symbolism.

Whether the same was true for the Lacandon of Sac Balam remains to be seen. The team that aims to find out consists of three archaeologists: Lozada Toledo, whose tall frame is often pensively folded over a map; Woodfill, a bearded, jovial gringo who lived in Guatemala for almost 10 years and speaks Spanish and the Mayan language Q'eqchi'; and Rubén Núñez Ocampo, a watchful young researcher from INAH in Mérida who specializes in Maya ceramics from just before the Colonial period. Rounding out the group are me and Virginia Coleman, a professional dancer and Woodfill's wife of just a few weeks. The expedition is the capstone of their honeymoon.

Brent Woodfill, standing in front of the ruins of a 150-year-old hacienda in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, plans to return to the area as often as he can.

L. WADE/SCIENCE

Others have tried to find the lost city of Sac Balam before. A 1997 expedition, inspired by the historical research of a Belgian priest turned anthropologist named Jan de Vos, ventured into another part of Montes Azules. Over the course of 6 days of hiking, they found a single cluster of ruins near the Chaquistero Mountains. But Woodfill and his Mexican colleagues think that site is likely from the Classic period, hundreds of years before the founding of Sac Balam. Joel Palka, an archaeologist at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, agrees, although he cautions that archaeologists won't be sure of the ruins' identity until they are excavated. "We won't know where the site is until we dig." Sac Balam remains as mysterious as ever.

On an early summer day, we convene in the city of Comitán and pile into Woodfill's pickup truck for the long and bumpy drive to Las Guacamayas, an ecolodge close to Montes Azules that will serve as our base for the next 12 days. The following morning, we stop by one of the many small communities founded after the government encouraged Indigenous groups from other parts of Mexico to resettle here as farmers and ranchers. Few are direct descendants of the Lacandon or other Maya groups that originally lived in the region. Still, after decades on the land, they know it as well as anybody alive.

About two dozen men and a handful of women trickle into a meeting in the cinderblock town hall, where the team will formally ask for the community's permission to study a cluster of Maya ruins nearby. Woodfill learned about the site from the community last year and registered it with INAH. Now, he wants to know whether two colleagues can map it and collect ceramics on the surface, to pin down when it was occupied. (Woodfill asked Science not to name the town because it might tip off looters.) "This part of Chiapas is a void" of archaeological knowledge, Woodfill tells the gathered community members. "Not because there aren't any sites, but because they haven't been studied."

The community is interested in ecotourism, and what the archaeologists learn could help them attract visitors. After 45 minutes of discussion and questions, the members agree to the archaeologists' request and offer to lead them to the ruins. The site lies in a patch of forest outside town, along a trail of matted leaves and slippery roots, where the guttural chants of howler monkeys echo through the trees.

A local community showed a research team this Maya hieroglyphic staircase.

L. WADE/SCIENCE

About 20 minutes down the trail, we round a bend and come upon a jumble of large rectangular stones, some with clear Maya glyphs carved into them. They are the remains of a hieroglyphic staircase that once led to the top of the palace where the city's leader would have received his subjects and performed religious rituals. This type of structure is considered a rare jewel of Maya sites. The staircase shows that "this was a powerful place," Woodfill says.

"This was the palace," he adds, pointing to the mound of earth behind the staircase remains. The community members show the researchers other features of the site, such as a large vertical stone carved with a portrait and glyphs standing half-buried at the base of a tree. All suggest it was occupied in the Late Classic period (from 600 to 850 C.E., nearly 1000 years before Sac Balam was founded), when nearby city states like Palenque and Yaxchilán were at their height. "This is what archaeological discovery is usually like—local people showing you things they know about," Woodfill says as he photographs the glyphs on the staircase stones.

Our quest for Sac Balam won't have that kind of help. Aside from a handful of Maya communities, most people are prohibited from living in the 331,000 hectares of Montes Azules, and the reserve is largely free of roads and even trails. When faced with such huge swaths of inaccessible territory, archaeologists these days often turn to lidar, a laser-based equivalent of radar that lets them strip vegetation out of aerial photographs and expose the sites beneath. A recent lidar survey of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala—about 160 kilometers to the northeast of Montes Azules—revealed more than 60,000 ancient structures, most unknown to researchers. "The day that someone does lidar [over Montes Azules], they're going to find hundreds or thousands of sites," including, most likely, Sac Balam, says Ramón Folch González, an archaeologist who works with Palka at ASU. But Woodfill's team lacks the funding for such an expensive survey. They have to strap on their boots and explore the old-fashioned way.

After dinner at the ecolodge that night—on the eve of our 6-day quest in the reserve—Lozada Toledo unrolls a homemade map. He's spent hours poring over documents written by Spanish visitors and inhabitants after it was finally conquered in 1695 and renamed Nuestra Señora de los Dolores. Especially helpful is an account written by Diego de Rivas, a Spanish priest, who in 1698 set out from Nuestra Señora de los Dolores to Lake Petén Itzá in northern Guatemala. It took de Rivas and his men 4 days to walk from the town to the Lacantún River, at which point they continued by boat. If they walked for 8 hours a day, each carrying about 30 kilograms of supplies and traveling in a hilly area with lots of plant cover, they could have covered a little more than 1 kilometer per hour (and slightly less in higher mountains), Lozada Toledo estimated. That would place Sac Balam 34.4 kilometers from the Lacantún River. He had traced an arc of the city's possible locations, printed in red on the map.

Lozada Toledo also points to ridge lines shaded onto the map's topography; a few are close to the arc. Those would be particularly good areas to explore, he says, because Spanish chronicles describe Sac Balam as being on a flat plain at the base of some mountains. Visitors counted 100 houses and three community buildings in the relatively dense town, where turkeys and skinny dogs ran underfoot and people planted a wide variety of crops, including maize, chiles, and various fruit trees, in nearby plots. Every afternoon, semidomesticated scarlet macaws would fly out of the jungle and perch on the town's rooftops, amazing the Spanish occupiers.

Brent Woodfill, Josuhé Lozada Toledo, and Rubén Núñez Ocampo (left to right) ponder how to reach possible locations of Sac Balam.

L. WADE/SCIENCE

The houses, which were relatively small and made of adobe, have probably vanished. But the stone foundations of the community buildings might still be visible. The archaeologists will also be on the lookout for caves with offerings inside, metal artifacts like machete pieces and nails—evidence of the eventual Spanish occupation and possibly earlier trade with Maya communities more connected to the colonial state—and the ruins of a small church and an earthen fort supposedly built after the town was conquered.

The ruins of Sac Balam will be far less imposing than the hieroglyphic staircase, and far harder to find. Still, Lozada Toledo's map makes it seem tantalizingly within reach. He points to the ridge lines near the arc. "What do you think?" he asks the four guides who will accompany us. "Could we get there?"

One hour into a hike into the jungle, Isaías Hernández Lara, the head guide, uses a machete to hack a path through vines the diameter of tree branches. Some of the vines ooze red sap, and many are covered in skin-tearing spines. It soon becomes hard to tell which stains on our clothes are sap and which are blood. One vine plunges a thick spine into my inner elbow with the precision of a phlebotomist doing a venipuncture. Thinner vines snare my feet, make me trip, and slow my progress. Water has become a precious resource. I realize I didn't bring enough.

The archaeologists are doing a little better, but they, too, are stunned by how difficult this pristine jungle is to navigate. (Coleman, the dancer, is the best at following Hernández Lara's expert movements.) Then, suddenly, an unmapped stream flowing with cool water. It feels like salvation.

On satellite maps, a ridge line is only 2.8 kilometers from the river that snakes near base camp, and we thought we'd be there in a couple of hours. We didn't even pack lunch. But we've walked 4 hours by the time we spot the first sign of foothills. Defeated, we retreat to base camp.

As we wash our battered bodies and filthy clothes in the river, I realize I've been asking the wrong question about Sac Balam until now. Throughout months of research, I've wondered how the Lacandon resisted conquest for so long. After only a few days in the jungle, I'm realizing that the real question is: How did the Spanish—outsiders struggling with the forest like us—ever find them?

There’s so much that could be learned there, if people would just be willing to endure the discomforts and disappointments of working in these areas.

Prudence Rice, Southern Illinois University

The answer was the same as for the hieroglyphic staircase we "discovered" a few days ago: with help. In 1694, two Spanish priests determined to bring the gospel to Sac Balam met a leader from another Maya group, who agreed to take them to the city. The Lacandon had been trading with but also attacking and raiding Spanish-allied Maya towns for decades, and perhaps the leader had had enough.

Once they finally arrived in Sac Balam, the priests convinced a delegation of 12 Lacandon leaders to travel to Cobán, Guatemala, to meet with authorities from the colonial government and the Catholic Church. But during that visit and the journey back, 10 of the Lacandon leaders fell ill and died. The attempt at diplomacy collapsed, and 1000 Spanish and allied Maya forces invaded the city, occupying it in early 1695 without a battle. It continued to exist as Nuestra Señora de los Dolores until 1712, when the remaining Lacandon inhabitants were forcibly moved to the Pacific coast of Guatemala.

It's likely many had already fled deeper into the jungle, joining Maya refugee communities that included people from all over southern Mexico. It is their descendants who occupy parts of Montes Azules today. These modern communities are also called the Lacandon, but they speak a different language from what was spoken in Sac Balam and are considered a distinct cultural group, with their roots firmly in the Colonial period.

Sac Balam, or even Nojpeten, was far from the last stronghold of Maya resistance. Rebellions were frequent throughout the Colonial period and continued once Mexico became independent. A sweeping Maya uprising in the 19th century is now called the Caste War. As recently as the 1990s, the Zapatistas, most of them Maya farmers, took over cities here in Chiapas in a Marxist uprising; in 2018 they fielded a presidential candidate. The colonial repression hasn't ended either. Entire Maya communities were massacred during the Guatemalan Civil War between 1960 and 1996—the long tail of a conquest that has never been complete.

After the failed hike, the team has one more lead to follow. Hernández Lara has heard rumors of Maya ruins at the source of the Tzendales River, one of several waterways that meet near our base camp, so we pack up our camp and set off for 2 days of kayaking against the current. Pairs of scarlet macaws fly overhead, startled iguanas clamber up the riverbank, and an occasional crocodile eyes us from a log. We drag our kayaks over dozens of small waterfalls. Somewhere along the journey, the GPS with the SOS button slips away.

As the sun drops lower in the sky, we tie up the kayaks and make camp. The site is flat, clean of brush, and swarming with so many ticks we dub it Camp Garrapata, Spanish for tick (literally, "claw-feet"). The next day, as the team continues upstream, the satellite imagery Lozada Toledo relied on for his map proves a woefully inadequate simulacrum of the real twists and turns of the river. It narrows to just 2 meters or less and is almost completely overhung by vines and drooping tree branches. But the water is steadily growing clearer and colder, raising our hopes that we might be close to its source.

After 6 hours of slow headway, the river dead ends into a squat hill, more a pile of mud than an actual geological feature. Could this be the source? One of our guides, Cornelio Macz Laj, climbs to the top and returns shaking his head: The river continues on the other side. It is too late to push on, and we turn back downstream.

The reality sinks in: This expedition won't find Sac Balam. Can it even be found, I wonder? Even if a suggestive cluster of Maya community buildings and a fort popped up on a future lidar map, archaeologists would still have to bushwhack there to excavate them. Who would want to go through all of this again?

"So, for next year," Woodfill says to Hernández Lara when we're back at the lodge, joyfully ordering steaks from the restaurant, "do you think you could go out before we get here and make sure the river is cleared?"

"There's going to be a next year?" I ask, incredulous. My thumbs are rubbed raw from paddling. Our wounds are oozing pus, and we're all still picking off blood-gorged ticks.

But the archaeologists are already planning their next attempt, based on what they've learned this time. If the guides have already macheted through the worst of the overgrowth along the river, the team would have a good chance of reaching the Tzendales River's source within 2 or 3 days. Bringing a metal detector would quickly reveal any buried colonial artifacts, a hint that Sac Balam might be close by. Or who knows? They might find Classic period sites like the one with the hieroglyphic staircase. The whole area is a blank slate, after all.

Lozada Toledo has pulled out a ruler and is correcting his map, adding detail to the paths of rivers and recalculating travel times. "Since no scientist has been here before, everything is an advance," he says. "Everything is valuable." Maybe he overestimated how fast de Rivas and his companions could walk in the jungle. Maybe Sac Balam was much closer to the Lacantún River. Maybe it's actually much more accessible than he thought.

"This is what I do," Woodfill says. "I go where no one else is going, and I hack away at it." The guides have already told him about other ruins they've heard rumors about—places they weren't ready to share until the team built up intimacy and trust. And the people in the town close to the staircase have promised to take him to a nearby cave—which might hold Maya offerings—the next time he's around. Those connections just don't happen without an intense, ongoing commitment to a place, no matter how bruised and battered you are when you leave, he says.

Other archaeologists hope Woodfill persists. "There's so much that could be learned there, if people would just be willing to endure the discomforts and disappointments of working in these areas," says Prudence Rice, an archaeologist who is now professor emerita at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Sac Balam is still out there, keeping its story safe for anyone intrepid, or stubborn, enough to seek it out.