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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“The basin is a contained, enclosed, integrated cultural and natural system, unique in the world,” Hansen said. And a veritable ark of biodiversity with some 300 species of trees (many festooned with orchids) and upwards of 200 animal species (many endangered or threatened), from tapirs and crocodiles to five of the six cats indigenous to Guatemala. In the past few years, researchers have found two bird species—the hooded oriole and the Caribbean dove—for the first time in Guatemala, and discovered nine previously unknown moth species. Efforts to preserve the basin’s ancient ruins go hand in hand with conserving one of the world’s living treasures.

When Hansen came to the Mirador basin as a graduate student in 1979, scientists had been studying the better-known Maya sites in Mesoamerica—such as Palenque and Copán—for more than a century. El Mirador (“the look-out” in Spanish) was still largely unexplored. While some of the basin itself had been surveyed in 1885 by Claudio Urrutia, an engineer who noted the presence of ruinas grandes, the existence of El Mirador wasn’t officially reported until 1926. And it would be another 36 years before an archaeologist, Harvard University’s Ian Graham, would map and explore a portion of the area, partially revealing the extraordinary dimensions of the city.

What was most puzzling was the age of the site. Monumental architecture on the order of what had been found at El Mirador had always been associated with the Classic period of Maya history, from A.D. 250 to about A.D. 900; architecture of the Preclassic era, from 2000 B.C. to A.D. 150, was supposedly less sophisticated (as were, presumably, its political and economic systems). For nearly 40 years the only known Preclassic structure was a nearly nine-yard-high truncated pyramid excavated in the 1920s at Uaxactun, some 12 miles north of Tikal, by a Carnegie expedition. When the late William Coe of the University of Pennsylvania began excavating at Tikal in 1956, he was puzzled by the complexity of the earlier layers. In a 1963 article for the journal Expedition, he noted “things were not getting simpler” or more “formative.”

Writing up his own research in 1967, Graham, who went on to found the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard, speculated that the poor condition of the ruins he examined at El Mirador might be attributed to an inferior brand of mortar rather than the sheer antiquity of the buildings. Examining pottery that Graham’s colleague Joyce Marcus had collected at El Mirador in 1970, Donald Forsyth (now a professor at Brigham Young University) noted that the bulk of the ceramics were in the Chicanel style—monochrome red, black or cream, with thick bodies and the rims turned outward—that clearly dated the surrounding ruins to the Late Preclassic period (300 B.C. to A.D. 150). But could such monumental public architecture really have been built 700 to 1,000 years before the zenith of the Classic period, when, scholars supposed, the Maya had achieved the organizational, artistic and technical expertise to pull off such feats?

The dig Hansen joined was headed by his thesis adviser, Ray Matheny, from Brigham Young University, and Bruce Dahlin of Catholic University. “[Hansen] was a real go-getter,” Matheny told me later. “I’m very proud of him.” Twenty-six years old at the time, Hansen had grown up in Idaho in a Mormon family, the oldest of three brothers. He got a bug for archaeology at age 6 hunting arrowheads on his father’s potato farm in Rupert. He planned to become a lawyer, but his undergraduate degree was delayed after he shattered his right leg in a ski accident. As all he needed for law school were good grades and test scores, he thought the fastest way to get them would be to major in Spanish, which he spoke, and archaeology, which he loved. Degrees in hand, he postponed law school for the chance to join an excavation north of Tel Aviv for two years, an experience that buried the lawyer and begot the archaeologist. It also turned up his wife, Jody, a scientific illustrator who first impressed him with her dogged work hauling buckets of sand. When they returned from Israel, Matheny invited Hansen to assist with a newly funded project at El Mirador.

So it was that Hansen found himself in March 1979 excavating a room on Structure 34, the Jaguar Paw Temple. The temple, one of the most intensively studied of all the ruins at El Mirador, is part of the Tigre complex in the western side of the city. Hansen had been given to understand it was most likely from the Classic period, but as he cleared the chamber, he came to the original plaster floor littered with pot fragments that had not been disturbed for centuries. “When the Maya walked away, they left everything in place,” he said. “We’ve found flakes of a stone tool right around the tool.” The potsherds had the colors and the waxy telltale feel of the Chicanel style, which dated the temple to two centuries before Christ. Hansen stared at them in disbelief.

“I realized at that moment the whole evolutionary model for the economic, cultural and social history of the Maya was wrong. The idea that the Maya slowly became more sophisticated was wrong. And I thought, ‘Man, I’m the only person in the world at this moment who knows this.’”

By morning Tropical Storm Richard had eased, but the sky was still overcast and Hansen was surprised to hear the helicopter arriving out of the clouds. “You made it! Welcome!” he cried as three Californians scurried clear of the rotor: Andre Lafleur, an officer for a land trust in Santa Cruz; a travel consultant named Randy Durband; and Joanna Miller, a board member of the Walt Disney Family Museum, established in San Francisco to commemorate her famous grandfather. They joined us at the dining hall for a breakfast of eggs, tortillas, beans and fried Spam. Dominga, the cook, tossed a few stale tortillas into the woods and called “Pancho! Pancho!” Duly summoned, a white-nosed coati appeared, wary and cute, striped tail high. He looked like a lanky raccoon.

Andre, Joanna and Randy had been invited by the Global Heritage Fund, a Palo Alto-based conservation group—and one of several foundations that financially support Hansen’s work in the basin, including the Foundation for Cultural and Natural Maya Heritage (PACUNAM) and Hansen’s own Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies (FARES). The FARES board includes actor Mel Gibson, who has given several million dollars to the cause and who hired Hansen as a consultant for his 2006 Maya chase film Apocalypto.

We headed east on a dirt track in two Kawasaki all-terrain vehicles. At more than 14 square miles, greater El Mirador is three times the size of downtown Los Angeles; for many years Hansen would routinely hike 10 to 12 miles a day to check on various sites. The ATVs, donated by a family of prominent Central American brewers, were much appreciated by his now 58-year-old knees. We were bound for La Danta, the pyramid complex we had circled on the flight in.


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