The 16th of January 378 C.E. marked a turning point in ancient Maya history. On that day, foreigners arrived in the Maya city of Tikal—in what is now northern Guatemala—and Tikal’s king died. Shortly thereafter, the son of the conquering king became Tikal’s new ruler.
Many archaeologists think these invaders came from Teotihuacan, a metropolis 1000 kilometers away, near what is now Mexico City, famed for its imposing pyramids and sweeping central avenue. But a new discovery in Tikal reveals Teotihuacan may have had an outpost in the Maya city long before possibly conquering it. That bolsters the idea that Teotihuacan’s empire was born from a shattered alliance, and it could shed light on the pivotal moment when allies became enemies.
The find is “supertantalizing,” says Claudia García-Des Lauriers, an archaeologist at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, who was not involved with the work. It suggests the early connections between the cities “were relatively diplomatic and friendly,” she says. “And all of a sudden, something went wrong.”
The discovery comes thanks to a 2018 survey of the Tikal region with lidar, a technique that uses lasers beamed from planes to precisely map ancient buildings obscured by forest or other ground cover. In the southern part of the city—where maps had once indicated a mere hill—lidar revealed a large enclosed courtyard with a pyramid on its eastern side. When archaeologists examined the new images, they noticed its layout looked just like a smaller version of an iconic structure at Teotihuacan known as the citadel.
To see whether Tikal’s citadel had any other connections to Teotihuacan, Edwin Román Ramírez, an archaeologist at the Foundation for Maya Cultural and Natural Heritage (PACUNAM), started to dig. In excavations of Tikal’s citadel and two other nearby buildings, Román Ramírez and his team unearthed Teotihuacan-style weapons, some made of green obsidian from central Mexico; pieces of incense burners used in Teotihuacan’s religious and political ceremonies; carvings of Teotihuacan’s rain god; and even a burial featuring Teotihuacan-style offerings.
The coronavirus pandemic has delayed radiocarbon dating the structure. But ceramic styles found deep in the building suggest Tikal’s citadel was first built around 300 C.E.—nearly 100 years before Teotihuacan supposedly invaded. That suggests a friendly relationship that later broke down.
Román Ramírez announced the find today in a press conference hosted by PACUNAM and Guatemala’s Institute of Anthropology and History.
“We can’t say for sure that the people who built this were from Teotihuacan,” Román Ramírez says. “But they were certainly people who were very familiar with its culture and traditions,” even worshipping the faraway city’s rain god. For more clues to their origins, his team will study isotopes from the burial, which can reveal where a person lived at different points in their life.
Bárbara Arroyo, an archaeologist at Francisco Marroquín University, will be waiting for that evidence. After just one season of excavation, “I think it’s too early to surely confirm” that Tikal’s citadel is meant to emulate Teotihuacan’s.
Still, the find is a mirror image of the recent discovery of an elite Maya compound in the heart of Teotihuacan. Its walls were decorated with lavish and colorful Maya-style murals, leading archaeologists to wonder whether Maya nobles or diplomats had lived there. The murals were smashed to bits and deeply buried—right around the conquest of Tikal in 378 C.E., hinting at a sudden shift from diplomacy to violence.
Likewise, Román Ramírez can see that several decades after Tikal’s citadel was first constructed, it was suddenly remodeled using packed earth and stucco, an architectural technique used in Teotihuacan. “The abrupt change that we see in our excavations might also be reflected in Tikal,” says Nawa Sugiyama, an archaeologist at the University of California, Riverside, whose team found the Maya murals in Teotihuacan. So what made Teotihuacan turn on, and then take over, its former friend Tikal? That mystery remains to be solved.