El Mirador, the Lost City of the Maya

Now overgrown by jungle, the ancient site was once the thriving capital of the Maya civilization

The peak of La Danta—one of the world's largest pyramids—pokes through the forest canopy. "All this was abandoned nearly 2,000 years ago," says archaeologist Richard Hansen. "It's like finding Pompeii." (Christian Ziegler)
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We were hovering now over the heart of the ancient city of El Mirador, once home to an estimated 200,000 people and the capital of a complex society of interconnected cities and settlements that may have supported upwards of a million people. The last thing you would ever guess from a casual aerial overview was that virtually every topographical contour in the primordial forest was created not by geological and environmental forces but by the vanished inhabitants of one of the world’s foundational civilizations.

“All this was abandoned nearly 2,000 years ago,” Hansen said. “The whole thing developed before Tikal existed. It’s like finding Pompeii.”

A clearing appeared below us and we fluttered down onto a grassy strip, scattering a delegation of butterflies.

It’s a dedicated archaeologist whose affection for a place increases even after he’s gone into personal debt to keep his research and conservation work going, weathered death threats from irate loggers, had close encounters with fer-de-lances and falling trees, survived a jungle plane crash that nearly killed him, his wife and the oldest of his seven children and incinerated the only copies of his master’s thesis. By the same token it’s a versatile scientist who can enthrall audiences at Hollywood fund-raisers and bargain in flawless Spanish with muleteers hauling sacks of specially formulated Preclassic Maya mortar.

“To do this you have to be a jack-of-all-trades or an absolute idiot,” said Hansen as we sat around that first evening on the long log-and-plank benches of the dining hall, an open-sided barnlike structure with a translucent plastic roof and special gutters that funnel rainwater into a 25,000- gallon cistern. Hansen was wearing a tan cap, a grungy off-white cotton shirt and stained off-white cotton pants—light-colored fabrics make it easier to see which exotic insects might be trying to attach themselves to flesh. (I was immediately regretting my choice of dark gray trousers.)

During the Mirador field-research season, which runs from May to September, there are as many as 350 people in the camp, including scientists from some 52 universities and institutions. The archaeological work could proceed year-round but Hansen spends the off-months raising money (with the goal of maintaining a minimum annual budget ofabout $2.5 million) and preparing publications (now up to 177). He also teaches at Idaho State University in Pocatello, where he is an assistant professor in the department of anthropology and the senior scientist at the university’s Institute for Mesoamerican Research.

“If I had five minutes for every hour I’ve spent chasing dollars, I’d have another 50 publications,” he said with a sigh.

There was only a skeletal crew of workmen on hand now, along with guards Hansen had employed to ward off looters, and the camp cook, Dominga Soberanis, a short, powerfully built Maya woman who had fixed us all a supper of fried chicken and black beans on a steel sheet over a wood fire. Fresh tomatoes had come in on the helicopter, and there were pitchers of rice milk and tea brewed from the leaves of the allspice tree that grew in the ramón forest.

That afternoon, after Christian had amused himself at my expense by crying “Snake!” while fumbling in feigned horror with what looked like a fer-de-lance but proved to be a brown stick, Hansen had shown us around the camp. Tent sites, storage magazines, screening tables, a well-equipped research building adjacent to the dining hall and guest bungalows where we had stashed our gear were linked by a web of root-riddled trails. Hansen was billeted in a bungalow that also served as his office. By some modern shamanism, it had Internet access.

We wandered out to the old helicopter landing strip where campsites had been established for tourists. Some 2,000 to 3,000 visitors a year either make the trek in from Carmelita or fly in by helicopter from Flores. Rangers stationed in the area were feeding an orphaned baby spider monkey creamed corn; dozens of ocellated turkeys—beautiful iridescent birds found only on the Yucatán Peninsula—were pecking at the grass. Meleagris ocellata is among the most photogenic of the 184 bird species recorded to date in the basin, which is also a key stopover for many migratory birds that travel the flyways of the eastern United States. The turkeys scrambled for cover under the trees when a pair of brown jays cried out. Their jay-dar had spotted a raptor overhead—possibly an ornate hawk-eagle (Spizaetus ornatus).


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