“Elaborate Underworld” of Mayan Pyramids Explored by Archaeologists for the First Time

“Elaborate Underworld” of Mayan Pyramids Explored by Archaeologists for the First Time

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Archaeologists have been exploring the ancient Mayan Temple of Kukulkan and the ruins of Chichén Itzá for the first time in more than five decades. As they have stated, the first two weeks of the research have already provided interesting new discoveries.

Archaeologists Could Verify Local Legends with the Use of Modern Technology

A team of archaeologists from the Great Maya Aquifer Project is attempting to discover if local legends of an elaborate underworld are myth or reality. The team plans to investigate the ancient Mayan Temple of Kukulkan and the ruins of Chichén Itzá with the use of a modified ground-penetrating radar that will help them explore the structure of the step-pyramid, looking for passages and rooms as National Geographic reports .

Cenote passageway at Chichen Itza ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

They also plan to scan the wider area of Chichen Itza to find tunnels and caves, while they will use a kayak-mounted sonar to investigate sinkholes. “Something on this scale has never been attempted, but we’re confident that it will help us understand this site in a way that wasn’t possible before,” Guillermo de Anda, an underwater archaeologist with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and director of the Great Maya Aquifer Project tells National Geographic .

The Ik Kil cenote, close to Chichén Itzá, México ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Architectural Wonder of “El Castillo”

According to archaeologists, this will be the first inclusive exploration of the site in more than five decades. The step-pyramid, popularly known as “El Castillo”, looms at the center of Chichén Itzá, a 79-foot pyramid of stone. Also known as the Temple of Kukulkán, the structure embodies Mayan myth along with natural astronomical cycles.

  • Alignment of the Pyramids of Chichen Itza
  • Advanced Engineering Discovered at the Maya Observatory at Chichen Itza

El Castillo Pyramid at Chichén Itzá, one of best known archaeological sites of the Maya civilization (CC BY 2.0 )

The phenomenon that El Castillo is famous occurs twice each year, at the spring and fall equinoxes. As the equinox sun sets, a play of light and shadow creates the appearance of a snake that gradually undulates down the stairway of the pyramid. This diamond-backed snake is composed of seven or so triangular shadows, cast by the stepped terraces of the pyramid. The sinking sun seems to give life to the sinuous shadows, which make a decidedly snaky pattern on their way down the stairs.

  • Original pyramid found underneath two outer pyramids at Chichen Itza in Yucatan
  • 1,000-year-old Maya pyramid might collapse into sacred ancient sinkhole in Mexico

Serpent head at the base of El Castillo ( CC BY ND 2.0 )

Thousands of people gather to see this phenomenon, which may have been viewed by the ancient Maya as the manifestation of the god Kukulkán, the feathered serpent. But was the effect intentional, or merely just an accident? It isn’t possible to read the minds of the Maya who built the structure roughly a thousand years ago, but various signs suggest the effect was deliberately created. The most obvious of those signs are the large snake-head sculptures carved into the base of the stairway. As the shadow moves down the stairway, the body of the snake ultimately unites with one of these enormous heads.

Great Discoveries Have Taken Place Already

The project is currently underway, with the first two weeks being very productive for the archaeologists, as they have already discovered two submerged caves and several dry caves, one of which contains a stone carving of a female figure. Experts suggest that an accurate picture of water flows will help them reveal the locations of new subterranean passages beneath the historic site, and perhaps the mythical labyrinth itself, if it really exists. “With this data, I believe we will conclusively find out if the local legends of an elaborate underworld are true,” Guillermo de Anda tells National Geographic .

"Cenote de los Sacrificios" at Chichén Itzá, a karst lake ( CC BY 3.0 )

For now, however, all they can hope is that modern technology will allow them to create a 3D map of the site. “We need to wait for the data to be processed to have a better interpretation of what it all means,” Corey Jaskolski (who is leading the digital preservation project) told National Geographic . And continued, “But I believe that this approach will tell us much more about the structure of the pyramid and what may be hidden behind its inner walls. In the end, we’ll be able to combine data from these imaging tools and produce a millimeter-scale, 3D ‘super map’ of the entire site, above and below the ground.”

  • Secret Underground Cavern Thought by the Maya to be Portal to the Underworld
  • A Rogue Archaeologist, Atlantis, and the Chac-Mool

‘Secret’ Cenote, one of the known underground caves at Chichen Itza ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The project is supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society and overseen by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Human-animal hybrid cave paintings from lost civilization discovered (PHOTOS)

Some of the artwork was already known to archaeologists but had been misidentified as far more recent than it actually was. The Taíno people, a forgotten civilization that were wiped out following the conquests of Christopher Columbus, who mistook them for Indians, etched and painted a series of pictograms of animal-human hybrids and complex geometric designs.

"For the millions of indigenous peoples living in the Caribbean before European arrival, caves represented portals into a spiritual realm, and therefore these new discoveries of the artists at work within them captures, the essence of their belief systems and the building blocks of their cultural identity," said researcher Jago Cooper from the British Museum, as cited by Science Alert.

In the Taíno religion, for example, both the sun and moon emerged from caves, making them a key feature of their religious canon. "Most of the precolonial pictographs are in very narrow spaces deep in the caves," says Victor Serrano from the University of Leicester as cited by The University of Leicester Press, where the team&rsquos findings were published.

To correctly date the artwork, the international team of archaeologists and anthropologists, along with their high-tech equipment, had to squeeze through a network of 70 tiny caves. Employing cutting-edge techniques such as portable X-ray fluorescence (P-XRF), scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM/EDX) on paint and charcoal samples, the team were able to establish the methods used to not only create the artworks on the cave walls but also the paint and charcoal themselves.

The team also used radiocarbon (C14) and Uranium-thorium (U-Th) dating methods to more accurately define the period of history in which the artworks were created. These methods have the potential for widespread application across the globe and could advance the integration of cave art research in archaeology.

Taíno people left their legacy embedded in the rock of Mona Island, which today is a 57-square-kilometer (22 square mile) uninhabited nature reserve consisting mostly of limestone and vegetation to the west of Puerto Rico. "As a Puerto Rican, these groups of people that visited and lived in Mona Island are my ancestors, and their story is of utmost importance," says Serrano.

The majority of the pictograms were created by scratching at the rock face with tools or with their hands while the remainder were paintings created with the use of charcoal or bat droppings (guano) that had been mixed with plant resins. The paintings were created in a multi-step process with additional layers and touch-ups detected by the archaeologists.

The words "hurricane, canoe, and tobacco" are all Taíno in origin. In addition, the Taíno are believed to be among the first peoples to cultivate sweet potato, corn and pineapple, creating a legacy that endures to this day, unbeknownst to many.

Archaeologists Search Ancient Pyramid for Clues to Maya Underworld

Chichén Itzá, Mexico At the spring and fall equinoxes, the setting sun casts serpent-like shadows along the northern stairs of El Castillo, or “the castle.” Built more than a thousand years ago by the ancient Maya, the pyramid towers 100 feet over the ruins of Chichén Itzá, a World Heritage site and popular tourist destination on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Related Video:

Adventurers and archaeologists have explored the ruins for more than a century, but mysteries endure. Is there a watery labyrinth beneath the great pyramid, as local legends hint? Are there hidden chambers in the heart of the monument, as some archaeologists suspect?

Seeking clues, a multidisciplinary team of scientists and engineers is launching the first comprehensive investigation of Chichén Itzá in 50 years.

“Something on this scale has never been attempted, but we’re confident that it will help us understand this site in a way that wasn’t possible before,” says Guillermo de Anda, an underwater archaeologist with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and director of the Great Maya Aquifer Project. “With this data, I believe we will conclusively find out if the local legends of an elaborate underworld are true.”

The site’s Maya inhabitants considered caves, tunnels, and natural sinkholes called cenotes to be thresholds to the realm of the gods, says de Anda, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. “They believed that everything from fertility to rain and lightning originated in this subterranean world. The clues they left behind make it clear that they went to great lengths to appease and appeal to the dwellers of this spirit world.”

Those lengths often included human sacrifice. De Anda examined hundreds of human bones found in the Sacred Cenote (sometimes called the Well of Sacrifice) at Chichén Itzá and found evidence of unhealed wounds and fractures that would have occurred at or near the time of death.

Early archaeologists and treasure hunters at Chichén Itzá and elsewhere often damaged ancient sites to collect and remove artifacts. The new low-impact technology, most of it built or adapted by engineers at National Geographic, allows researchers to locate and study artifacts without disturbing or removing them from their environment.

During the ambitious, multiyear project, the team will use specially modified, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to locate hidden passageways and peek behind interior walls of El Castillo. The team will also employ GPR and other remote imaging technology to identify and map tunnels and caves around the pyramid and elsewhere.

An estimated 3,000 cenotes remain hidden beneath the forest canopy in southern Mexico, many harboring clues about ancient Maya civilization. The team will use drone-mounted LIDAR (light detection and ranging) and thermal sensors to penetrate the dense foliage and locate the natural sinkholes.

The researchers will also use kayak-mounted sonar to explore known cenotes and locate underwater entrances to caves and tunnels that would have been accessible when the water table was much lower. By mapping the movement of water through subterranean passages beneath the site, they hope to identify connections between underground systems that are referenced in Maya oral history but never confirmed.

Some of the most famous pyramids were constructed during different periods of Mayan civilization. One such Mayan pyramid is High Temple located at Lamanai. This pyramid is 33 meters tall and was still occupied when the Spaniards arrived.

Several large pyramids are also located at Coba among which the most famous is Nohoch Mul pyramid which is about 42 meters tall.

Other famous Mayan pyramids include

  • The Pyramid of Canaa which is 43 meters tall,
  • Temple 16 at Copan which is 30 meters tall
  • The High Pyramid at Calakmul which is 55 meters tall

Archaeologists uncover secret ‘passage to the underworld’ at Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan

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The mystery surrounding the ancient city of Teotihuacan in Mexico continues to unfold after archaeologists found a hidden tunnel beneath the Pyramid of the Moon that they believe was built to represent the “passage to the underworld.”

Over 2000 years ago in 300 BC, Mesoamerican peoples began to develop larger settlements and built this great city that had once been home to more than 125,000 inhabitants, making it the sixth-largest city in the world at the time.

Panoramic view of Teotihuacan. Image via Wikimedia.

“It was the largest city anywhere in the Western Hemisphere before the 1400s,” Arizona State University archaeologist Robert Cowgill told National Geographic. “It had thousands of residential compounds and scores of pyramid-temples comparable to the largest pyramids of Egypt.”

Indeed, along the famed Avenue of the Dead one can find the Pyramid of the Sun, which is the largest structure in Teotihuacan and the Pyramid of the Moon, the second-largest located at the end of the road.

Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan as seen from the Pyramid of the Moon. Image via Wikimedia.

We don’t know who built the city exactly. The city predates the Aztec culture by 1,000 years, but there is evidence that many different peoples, including Mayans, lived in the city and influenced the architecture that has made it famous around the globe and now hosts millions of tourists every year.

Even the true name of the city remains unknown since it was the Aztecs who gave it the name we know today that means “birthplace of the gods”, while Mayan hieroglyphic texts identify it as puh, meaning “Place of Reeds.”

Example of Mayan hieroglyphs, which identify Teotihuacan as “puh”. Image via Wikimedia.

By the time the Aztecs moved in, the city had already been abandoned and lay in ruins, and archaeologists have been investigating Teotihuacan’s downfall for decades, offering several theories.

Some say the city was invaded and sacked by a foreign enemy. But there is evidence that an internal uprising caused by an ecological disaster resulted in a population decline and an overthrowing of the ruling class.

Because many structures showed evidence of being burned, researchers understandably concluded that a rival civilization attacked the city. The problem is that only structures belonging to the ruling class were burned, which indicates an internal revolt. But why did the population rise up against the ruling class?

It turns out that a famine during major droughts caused by a climate change in 535-536 AD could have been the cause. The city relied overwhelmingly on agriculture for food, growing everything from tomatoes, maize, beans, pumpkins and more, but once the droughts kicked in, the food supply started to dwindle and there was not enough food for the large population. A reason for this sudden climate change may have been the 535 AD eruption of the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador. After all, the volcano resulted in several Mayan cities being wiped out or abandoned, why not Teotihuacan?

The caldera of the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador that erupted in 535 AD. Image via Wikimedia.

Just because we don’t know exactly who built the city or why it was abandoned, it doesn’t mean we haven’t learned a lot about Teotihuacan and the people who lived here.

Archaeologists have been excavating the site for decades, and have found murals, stone masks, statues, figurines and evidence of human and animal sacrifices.

Onyx jaguar sculpture found at Teotihuacan that may have been used to hold the hearts of sacrificed humans. Image via Wikimedia. A stone mask made of marble found at Teotihuacan. Image via Wikimedia.

A lot of this evidence of human and animal sacrifice has been found at the Pyramid of the Moon, built between 100 and 450 AD at the end of the Avenue of the Dead. Connected to the street is a staircase that leads to a stage where these rituals were performed. The site of the pyramid also serves as a burial ground for the sacrificed and there is an altar dedicated to the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan.

Aerial view of the Pyramid of the Moon at the end of the Avenue of the Dead. Image via Wikimedia. A mural featuring the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan. Image via Wikimedia.

In a recent excavation, archaeologists recently made an exciting find when they discovered a tunnel beneath the pyramid they believe served as a metaphorical passage to the underworld, which makes sense since humans were sacrificed at the site.

A collective burial of human sacrifices at Teotihuacan. Image via Wikimedia.

“In the explorations carried out at the end of the 1980s, through tunnels excavated in the body of the pyramid, archaeologists Ruben Cabrera and Saburo Sugiyama found skeletons of individuals with cranial deformation, as in the Mayan area, and various green stone objects, so it is not difficult to think that something similar could be found in the subsoil,” Dr. Veronica Ortega of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History told IFLScience.

“The tunnel is located to the south of the Plaza de la Luna,” Ortega continued. “But it is likely that there is another entrance to the east side, so it is essential to have complete radiography to know where its entrance is.”

Indeed, the reason why the team found the tunnel in the first place is that they used an imaging technique called electrical resistivity tomography to map structures below the surface.

Technology has been more crucial than ever before in archaeological excavations. New satellite imaging technology, for instance, has helped researchers identify thousands of Mayan structures and potential sites than had been previously known.

“These large complex offerings constitute the sacred core of the city of Teotihuacan, so all people considered it the mecca of civilization, hence what can be found inside can help unravel the relationships that this ancient metropolis with other regions of Mesoamerica,” Ortega concluded. “The discovery confirms that the inhabitants of Teotihuacan followed the same pattern in their large-scale temples and that their function was to emulate the underworld.”

It’s certainly an interesting development that makes us yearn for more knowledge about this ancient civilization and their great city. And perhaps archaeologists will find more as new technology is applied to the site. Perhaps one day, we will learn the true name of the city and find out who built it. For now, we’ll just have to settle for a creepy tunnel that we definitely would not want to enter at night.

Featured Image: Pyramid of the Moon from Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan by Daniel Case via Wikimedia (CC BY SA 3.0)

Massive 3,000-year-old Mayan Monument discovered in Southern Mexico

The discovery challenges the theory that early Mayans lived only in small villages as they began to transition from hunting and gathering to growing maize and using pottery.

An enormous 3,000-year-old earthen platform topped with a series of structures, including a 13-foot-high pyramid, has been identified as the oldest and largest monumental construction discovered in the Maya region, according to a paper published today in the journal Nature.

The temple site in Tabasco, Mexico, was discovered by archaeologists from the University of Arizona and an international team during an expedition in 2017. The team then excavated the site and radiocarbon-dated 69 samples of charcoal to determine that it was constructed sometime between 1,000 to 800 B.C. Until now, the Maya site of Ceibal, built in 950 B.C., was the oldest confirmed ceremonial center. This oldest monumental building at Aguada Fénix turned out to be the largest known in the entire Maya history, far exceeding pyramids and palaces of later periods.

Aguada Fénix’s design suggests that early Mayan societies were fairly egalitarian and didn’t have a powerful ruling class.

It’s the latest discovery to support the emerging view that some of the earliest structures built in the Maya region were significantly larger than those built more than a millennium later during the Classic Maya period (250-800 A.D.), when the empire was at its peak.

The Mayan civilization flourished in the Americas before European colonization. The Maya built huge cities and had an advanced knowledge of astronomy, but their civilization collapsed around 800 AD.

Daniela Triadan at the University of Arizona in Tucson and her colleagues have described for the first time how they conducted an airborne survey using lidar, a remote sensing method that uses lasers to create a 3D map of the surface below, to scan the ground in Tabasco state in south-east Mexico.

From the ground, it’s impossible to tell that the plateau where this site was discovered hides something extraordinary, the research team said. However, from the sky, with laser eyes, and beneath the surface, with radiocarbon dating, it became clear just how historically important the location was.

They found 21 sites for conducting Mayan ceremonies, all centered on rectangular earthen platforms running roughly north to south.

Researchers say the finding could dramatically transform the way archaeologists understand the timeline of the Mayan civilization.

Previously, it was believed that the Mayans developed their civilization slowly between the years 1,000 and 350 B.C. during a period known as the Middle Preclassic, with people living only in small villages as they began to transition from hunting and gathering to growing maize and using pottery.

But the newly discovered monument, dubbed Aguada Fénix by the researchers, challenges that consensus. The structure, which the researchers say was likely used as a ceremonial center, was built during the same time period but is nearly 4,600 feet long, 30 to 50 feet high and features nine different street-like causeways that were connected to the overall structure by a series of ramps.

The team estimates that between 3.2 and 4.3 million cubic metres of earth were used, requiring 10 to 13 million person-days of work. “It would have taken probably thousands of people,” says Triadan.

No residential buildings have been found on or around the structure, so it is unclear how many people may have lived nearby. But the large size of the platform leads archaeologists to think that the builders of Aguada Fénix gradually were leaving their hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind, likely aided by the cultivation of corn—evidence of which also has been found at the site.

The flat and open design of Aguada Fénix seems to have been built with egalitarianism in mind. “The whole construction itself seems to be this communal open space,” says Triadan.

There is no sign of monuments made for members of a powerful ruling class, such as large statues, Triadan says. In contrast, later Mayan pyramids were built by a society that had acquired a powerful ruling class who stood at the top of the pyramid, meaning others had to look up to them.

The fact that monumental buildings existed earlier than thought and when Maya society had less social inequality makes archaeologists rethink the construction process those sites went through.


There is evidence of Xunantunich being settled as early as the ceramic phase of the Preclassic period. The findings have been insubstantial to prove that Xunantunich was a site of importance. It was not until the Samal phase in AD 600–670 that Xunantunich began to grow significantly in size. Architectural constructions boomed in Hats’ Chaak phase (AD 670–750) when Xunantunich's connection with the polity Naranjo solidified. Left in a state of abandonment at approximately AD 750 due to an unknown violent event (see Euan MacKie's work in 1959–60, above, which may be relevant here), Xunantunich did not re-establish itself as a strong presence in the region until Tsak’ phase in AD 780–890. [1] [2]

The core of the city Xunantunich occupies about one square mile (2.6 km²), consisting of a series of six plazas surrounded by more than 26 temples and palaces. As a polity in whole, Xunantunich contains 140 mounds per square km, as discovered in the surveys done by the XSS. [1] One of Xunantunich's better known structures is the pyramid known as "El Castillo" (not to be confused with the El Castillo at Chichen Itza). The site is broken up into four sections – Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D, with Group A being central and most significant to the people. Prior to the seventh century, the site was mainly occupied by small houses, formulating the occasional village. With the architectural boom in the Samal phase, we see the extreme importance of cosmological and political placing of the monuments in relation to the axis mundi (the intersection cardinal axis of the site the heart of the site). [8]

El Castillo Edit

It is the second tallest structure in Belize (after the temple at Caracol), at some 130 feet (40 m) tall. El Castillo is the “axis mundi” of the site, or the intersection of the two cardinal lines. Evidence of construction suggests the temple was built in two stages (the earlier dubbed Structure A-6–2nd, which dates to around 800 AD, and the later Structure A-6–1st). Structure A-6–2nd had three doorways, whereas Structure A-6–1st only had doors on the north and south. The pyramid lays underneath a series of terraces. The fine stucco or "friezes" are located on the final stage. The northern and southern friezes have eroded, and the others were covered during the reconstruction and over time. There is a plaster mold on the Eastern wall frieze. The frieze depicts many things. Each section of the frieze is broken up by framing bands of plaited cloth or twisted cords (which represent celestial phenomena). [9] The frieze depicts the birth of a god associated with the royal family, gods of creation, as well as the tree of life (which extends from the underworld, the earth, and the heavens). [3] [10]

Structure A-1 Edit

Structure A-1 was built in the Late Classic, at around 800 AD. It bisected Plaza A-I, which had until then been the most important plaza in the site. It now lies on top of the original ball court of Xunantunich between Structure A-6 (El Castillo) and A-11. It became a ritual space solely for the rulers and elite, which doubled as an impediment to other public spaces. [10]

Burial chamber Edit

On July 19, 2016, a team led by Jaime Awe discovered an untouched burial chamber attached to a larger building. It is considered to be one of the largest Mayan burial chambers found within the last 100 years. The chamber contained the corpse of a male, aged between 20 and 30 years. The chamber also contained a number of ceramic vessels, obsidian knives, jade pearls, animal bones and some other artefacts made of stone. Osteologists believe the man was athletic and quite muscular when he died. [11] [12] [13]

During a time period when most of Mayan civilizations were crumbling, Xunantunich was managing to expand its city and its power over other areas within the valley. It lasted a century longer than most of the sites within the region. It is known that Xunantunich superseded Buenavista as the hub of sociopolitical administration for the upper valley, in addition to the main location for elite ancestral and funeral rites and ceremonies. One theory is the move was made due to political strife in the lowlands due to neighbors vying for control over Buenavista, and that Xunantunich was a much more easily defensible site (located on top of a hill). [14]

There is evidence of trade and communication between other sites in abundance. First, there is the disbursement of pine. Pine naturally grows in the Mountain Pine Ridge, which is accessible via the Macal River. It was imported to Xunantunich, where the disbursement of this valuable commodity could be controlled by elites and rulers. This resource was used in ritualistic and building purposes for the upper class, which would sometimes be given to members of the lower class to strengthen socio-political strategies. [15] Similarities between pottery among different sites is a trait commonly looked for by archaeologists. The difference between qualities of pottery can accentuate gaps between social classes within a location, just as it can show the difference between classes of other polities. In the Terminal Classic period, equality in the distribution of pottery at Xunantunich can be seen as political currency across the Belize Valley. [16] Pottery types became uniform among sites found in the areas in Belize Valley around Xunantunich, further evidence of their strong relationships with the “Stone Woman” site. [2]

Naranjo Edit

Due to regional conflicts, Naranjo, a regional polity, began to disintegrate around the 9th century. It transformed from a regional authority to a smaller site, which eventually disappeared into the background. [5] For reasons not yet understood, documentary hieroglyphs rapidly disappeared in AD 820 at Naranjo which aligns with the earliest stela at Xunantunich, Stela 8. The stela, hieroglyphs and architecture are stylistically similar to Naranjo's in style [10] From here, there was a power shift to Xunantunich, although the influence of Naranjo prior to this is certain. The construction of the core site itself is extremely similar to the layout of Naranjo's Group B layout. The pronounced north-south axis (believed to be a link to royal authority and continuity) is shared between the two, the buildings are placed in similar spots, and the shapes of the buildings resemble one another.


Father Ximénez's manuscript Edit

In 1701, Father Ximénez came to Santo Tomás Chichicastenango (also known as Santo Tomás Chuilá). This town was in the Quiché territory and is likely where Fr. Ximénez first recorded the work. [10] Ximénez transcribed and translated the account, setting up parallel Kʼicheʼ and Spanish language columns in his manuscript (he represented the Kʼicheʼ language phonetically with Latin and Parra characters). In or around 1714, Ximénez incorporated the Spanish content in book one, chapters 2–21 of his Historia de la provincia de San Vicente de Chiapa y Guatemala de la orden de predicadores. Ximénez's manuscripts were held posthumously by the Dominican Order until General Francisco Morazán expelled the clerics from Guatemala in 1829–30. At that time the Order's documents were taken over largely by the Universidad de San Carlos.

From 1852 to 1855, Moritz Wagner and Carl Scherzer traveled in Central America, arriving in Guatemala City in early May 1854. [11] Scherzer found Ximénez's writings in the university library, noting that there was one particular item "del mayor interés" ('of the greatest interest'). With assistance from the Guatemalan historian and archivist Juan Gavarrete, Scherzer copied (or had a copy made) of the Spanish content from the last half of the manuscript, which he published upon his return to Europe. [12] In 1855, French Abbot Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg also came across Ximénez's manuscript in the university library. However, whereas Scherzer copied the manuscript, Brasseur apparently stole the university's volume and took it back to France. [13] After Brasseur's death in 1874, the Mexico-Guatémalienne collection containing Popol Vuh passed to Alphonse Pinart, through whom it was sold to Edward E. Ayer. In 1897, Ayer decided to donate his 17,000 pieces to The Newberry Library in Chicago, a project that was not completed until 1911. Father Ximénez's transcription-translation of Popol Vuh was among Ayer's donated items.

Father Ximénez's manuscript sank into obscurity until Adrián Recinos (re)discovered it at The Newberry in 1941. Recinos is generally credited with finding the manuscript and publishing the first direct edition since Scherzer. But Munro Edmonson and Carlos López attribute the first (re)discovery to Walter Lehmann in 1928. [14] Allen Christenson, Néstor Quiroa, Rosa Helena Chinchilla Mazariegos, John Woodruff, and Carlos López all consider the Newberry's volume to be Ximénez's one and only "original."

Father Ximénez's source Edit

It is generally believed that Ximénez borrowed a phonetic manuscript from a parishioner for his source, although Néstor Quiroa points out that "such a manuscript has never been found, and thus Ximenez's work represents the only source for scholarly studies." [15] This document would have been a phonetic rendering of an oral recitation performed in or around Santa Cruz del Quiché shortly following Pedro de Alvarado's 1524 conquest. By comparing the genealogy at the end of Popol Vuh with dated colonial records, Adrián Recinos and Dennis Tedlock suggest a date between 1554 and 1558. [16] But to the extent that the text speaks of a "written" document, Woodruff cautions that "critics appear to have taken the text of the first folio recto too much at face value in drawing conclusions about Popol Vuh's survival." [17] If there was an early post-conquest document, one theory (first proposed by Rudolf Schuller) ascribes the phonetic authorship to Diego Reynoso, one of the signatories of the Título de Totonicapán. [18] Another possible author could have been Don Cristóbal Velasco, who, also in Titulo de Totonicapán, is listed as "Nim Chokoh Cavec" ('Great Steward of the Kaweq'). [19] [20] In either case, the colonial presence is clear in Popol Vuh's preamble: "This we shall write now under the Law of God and Christianity we shall bring it to light because now the Popol Vuh, as it is called, cannot be seen any more, in which was clearly seen the coming from the other side of the sea and the narration of our obscurity, and our life was clearly seen." [21] Accordingly, the need to "preserve" the content presupposes an imminent disappearance of the content, and therefore, Edmonson theorized a pre-conquest glyphic codex. No evidence of such a codex has yet been found.

A minority, however, disputes the existence of pre-Ximénez texts on the same basis that is used to argue their existence. Both positions are based on two statements by Ximénez. The first of these comes from Historia de la provincia where Ximénez writes that he found various texts during his curacy of Santo Tomás Chichicastenango that were guarded with such secrecy "that not even a trace of it was revealed among the elder ministers" although "almost all of them have it memorized." [22] The second passage used to argue pre-Ximénez texts comes from Ximénez's addendum to Popol Vuh. There he states that many of the natives' practices can be "seen in a book that they have, something like a prophecy, from the beginning of their [pre-Christian] days, where they have all the months and signs corresponding to each day, one of which I have in my possession." [23] Scherzer explains in a footnote that what Ximénez is referencing "is only a secret calendar" and that he himself had "found this rustic calendar previously in various indigenous towns in the Guatemalan highlands" during his travels with Wagner. [24] This presents a contradiction because the item which Ximénez has in his possession is not Popol Vuh, and a carefully guarded item is not likely to have been easily available to Ximénez. Apart from this, Woodruff surmises that because "Ximenez never discloses his source, instead inviting readers to infer what they wish [. ], it is plausible that there was no such alphabetic redaction among the Indians. The implied alternative is that he or another missionary made the first written text from an oral recitation." [25]

Many versions of the legend of the Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué circulated through the Mayan peoples [ citation needed ] , but the story that survives was preserved by the Dominican priest Francisco Ximénez [6] who translated the document between 1700 and 1715. [26] Maya deities in the Post-Classic codices differ from the earlier versions described in the Early Classic period. In Mayan mythology Hunahpú and Xbalanqué are the second pair of twins out of three, preceded by Hun-Hunahpú and his brother Vucub-Hunahpú, and precursors to the third pair of twins, Hun Batz and Hun Chuen. In the Popol Vuh, the first set of twins, Hun-Hunahpú and Vucub-Hanahpú were invited to the Mayan Underworld, Xibalba, to play a ballgame with the Xibalban lords. In the Underworld the twins faced many trials filled with trickery eventually they fail and are put to death. The Hero Twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, are magically conceived after the death of their father, Hun-Hunahpú, and in time they return to Xibalba to avenge the deaths of their father and uncle by defeating the Lords of the Underworld.

Popol Vuh encompasses a range of subjects that includes creation, ancestry, history, and cosmology. There are no content divisions in the Newberry Library's holograph, but popular editions have adopted the organization imposed by Brasseur de Bourbourg in 1861 in order to facilitate comparative studies. [27] Though some variation has been tested by Tedlock and Christenson, editions typically take the following form:

  • Introduction to the piece that introduces Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, the purpose for writing the Popol Vuh, and the measuring of the earth. [28]
  • Account of the creation of living beings. Animals were created first, followed by humans. The first humans were made of earth and mud, but soaked up water and dissolved. The second humans were created from wood, but they were washed away in a flood. [29] ascends. [29]
  • The Hero Twins plan to kill Vucub-Caquix and his sons, Zipacna and Cabracan. [29]
  • They succeed, "restoring order and balance to the world." [29]
  • The Father and Uncle of The Hero Twins, Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu, sons of Xmucane and Xpiacoc, are murdered at a ball game in Xibalba. [29]
  • Hun Hunahpu's head is placed in a calabash tree, where it spits in the hand of Xquiq, impregnating her. [29]
  • She leaves the underworld to be with her mother-in-law, Xmucane. [29]
  • Her sons then challenge the Lords who killed their father and uncle, succeeding and becoming the sun and the moon. [29]
  • Humans are successfully created from Maize. [29]
  • The gods give them morality in order to keep them loyal. [29]
  • Later, they give them wives to make them content. [29]
  • This book also describes the movement of the Kʼicheʼ and includes the introduction of Gucumatz. [29]

Excerpts Edit

A visual comparison of two sections of the Popol Vuh are presented below and include the original Kʼiche, literal English translation, and modern English translation as shown by Allen Christenson. [30] [31] [32]

"Preamble" Edit

Xchiqatikibʼaʼ wi ojer tzij,

We shall plant ancient word,

Its root-beginning as well,

We shall begin to tell the ancient stories

"The Primordial World" Edit

Kʼa katzʼininoq,
Kʼa kachamamoq,

Kʼa kasilanik,

Kʼa kalolinik,
Katolonaʼ puch u pa kaj. [30] [33]

Still be it silent,
Still be it placid,

It is silent,
Still it is calm,

Still it is hushed,
Be it empty as well its womb sky. [30]

all is still silent
and placid.

and empty is the womb of the sky. [35] [36]

Modern editions Edit

Since Brasseur's and Scherzer's first editions, the Popol Vuh has been translated into many other languages besides its original Kʼicheʼ. [37] The Spanish edition by Adrián Recinos is still a major reference, as is Recino's English translation by Delia Goetz. Other English translations [38] include those of Victor Montejo, [39] Munro Edmonson (1985), and Dennis Tedlock (1985, 1996). [40] Tedlock's version is notable because it builds on commentary and interpretation by a modern Kʼicheʼ daykeeper, Andrés Xiloj. Augustín Estrada Monroy published a facsimile edition in the 1970s and Ohio State University has a digital version and transcription online. Modern translations and transcriptions of the Kʼicheʼ text have been published by, among others, Sam Colop (1999) and Allen J. Christenson (2004). In 2018, The New York Times named Michael Bazzett's new translation as one of the ten best books of poetry of 2018. [41] The tale of Hunahpu and Xbalanque has also been rendered as an hour-long animated film by Patricia Amlin. [42] [43]

Contemporary culture Edit

The Popol Vuh continues to be an important part in the belief system of many Kʼicheʼ. [ citation needed ] Although Catholicism is generally seen as the dominant religion, some believe that many natives practice a syncretic blend of Christian and indigenous beliefs. Some stories from the Popol Vuh continued to be told by modern Maya as folk legends some stories recorded by anthropologists in the 20th century may preserve portions of the ancient tales in greater detail than the Ximénez manuscript. [ citation needed ] On August 22, 2012, the Popol Vuh was declared intangible cultural heritage of Guatemala by the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture. [44]

Reflections in Western culture Edit

Since its rediscovery by Europeans in the 19th century, the Popol Vuh has attracted the attention of many creators of cultural works.

Mexican painter Diego Rivera did a series of watercolors in 1931 as illustrations for the book.

In 1934, the Franco-American early avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse wrote his Ecuatorial, a setting of words from the Popol Vuh for bass soloist and various instruments.

The planet of Camazotz in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (1962) is named for the bat-god of the hero-twins story.

In Munich, Germany in 1969, keyboardist Florian Fricke—at the time ensconced in Mayan myth—formed a band named Popol Vuh with synth player Frank Fiedler and percussionist Holger Trulzsch. Their 1970 debut album, Affenstunde, reflected this spiritual connection. Another band by the same name, this one of Norwegian descent, formed around the same time, its name also inspired by the Kʼicheʼ writings.

The text was used by German film director Werner Herzog as extensive narration for the first chapter of his movie Fata Morgana (1971). Herzog and Fricke were life long collaborators and friends.

The Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera began writing his opus 44 symphonic work Popol Vuh in 1975 but left the work incomplete at his death in 1983.

The myths and legends included in Louis L'Amour's novel The Haunted Mesa (1987) are largely based on the Popol Vuh.

The Popol Vuh is referenced throughout Robert Rodriguez's television show From Dusk till Dawn: The Series (2014). In particular, the show's protagonists, the Gecko Brothers, Seth and Richie, are referred to as the embodiment of Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, the hero twins, from the Popol Vuh.

Contemporary archaeologists (first of all Michael D. Coe) have found depictions of characters and episodes from Popol Vuh on Mayan ceramics and other art objects (e.g., the Hero Twins, Howler Monkey Gods, the shooting of Vucub-Caquix and, as many believe, the restoration of the Twins' dead father, Hun Hunahpu). [45] The accompanying sections of hieroglyphical text could thus, theoretically, relate to passages from the Popol Vuh. Richard D. Hansen found a stucco frieze depicting two floating figures that might be the Hero Twins [46] [47] [48] [49] at the site of El Mirador. [50]

Following the Twin Hero narrative, mankind is fashioned from white and yellow corn, demonstrating the crop's transcendent importance in Maya culture. To the Maya of the Classic period, Hun Hunahpu may have represented the maize god. Although in the Popol Vuh his severed head is unequivocally stated to have become a calabash, some scholars believe the calabash to be interchangeable with a cacao pod or an ear of corn. In this line, decapitation and sacrifice correspond to harvesting corn and the sacrifices accompanying planting and harvesting. [51] Planting and harvesting also relate to Maya astronomy and calendar, since the cycles of the moon and sun determined the crop seasons. [52]

'Elaborate underworld' of Mayan pyramids to be investigated by archaeologists

For the first time in 50 years, the ruins of Chichén Itzá are being investigated by archaeologists. The team from the Great Maya Aquifer Project aim to discover if "local legends of an elaborate underworld are true."

Built more than 1,000 years ago, the ancient Mayan pyramid in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula will be explored using a modified ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to locate passageways and rooms in El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcan.

"Something on this scale has never been attempted, but we're confident that it will help us understand this site in a way that wasn't possible before," Great Maya Aquifer Project Director Guillermo de Anda, told National Geographic. "With this data, I believe we will conclusively find out if the local legends of an elaborate underworld are true."

The radar will also be used to search the surrounding area of Chichén Itzá for tunnels and caves, using kayak-mounted sonar to explore underground water systems, spoken of in Maya oral history but never confirmed.

"In the end, we'll be able to combine data from these imaging tools and produce a millimeter-scale, 3D 'super map' of the entire site, above and below the ground," Corey Jaskolski, who is digitally preserving the discovery, told National Geographic.

The project is currently underway, with the first two weeks already producing the discovery of two submerged caves and several dry caves, one of which contains a stone carving of a female figure.

GPR has discovered "a number of anomalies" surrounding a chamber in El Castillo housing the Red Jaguar Thrones.

  • Researchers will use radar to explore the structure of the step-pyramid, looking for passages and rooms
  • They will also scan the wider area of Chichen Itza to find tunnels and caves, and will use sonar to investigate sinkholes
  • Scientists hope the technology will allow them to create a 3D map of the site

The step-pyramid, also known as El Castillo and built more than 1,000 years ago in Mexico, has long been explored by adventurers and archaeologists — but this will be the first comprehensive investigation of the site in 50 years.

A modified ground-penetrating radar (GPR) will be used to locate passageways and rooms in El Castillo without causing any damage, and the team of scientists will use the radar to search the surrounding area of Chichen Itza for tunnels and caves.

Researchers will also use kayak-mounted sonar to explore the naturally-occurring sinkholes that dot the landscape, hoping to identify connections between underground water systems spoken of in Mayan oral history.

"Something on this scale has never been attempted, but we're confident that it will help us understand this site in a way that wasn't possible before," Guillermo de Anda, an underwater archaeologist with Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History and director of the Great Maya Aquifer Project, told National Geographic.

"With this data, I believe we will conclusively find out if the local legends of an elaborate underworld are true."

Those legends hint at a watery labyrinth beneath the great pyramid, and archaeologists also suspect there are hidden chambers in the heart of El Castillo.

The Mayans believed the sinkholes, called cenotes, were thresholds to the realm of the gods, Dr de Anda said.

The researchers are hoping laser-scanning technology and photogrammetry will help them create an accurate three-dimensional map of the area.

"In the end, we'll be able to combine data from these imaging tools and produce a millimetre-scale, 3D 'super map' of the entire site, above and below the ground," National Geographic engineer Corey Jaskolski said.

In the first week of sonar-scanning, researchers discovered two submerged caves and several dry ones, one of which contained a stone carving of a female, and Mr Jaskolski said initial GPR scans had already indicated "a number of anomalies" behind the walls of the temple and below of the floor of the Red Jaguar throne in the inner chamber.

"We need to wait for the data to be processed to have a better interpretation of what it all means," Mr Jaskolski said.

"But I believe that this approach will tell us much more about the structure of the pyramid and what may be hidden behind its inner walls."

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