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 trail climbed over what was once possibly a 60-foot-high perimeter wall surrounding a portion of the western part of the city—it was built in the Late Preclassic, Hansen said— and followed one of the elevated causeways to La Danta just over a mile east. We parked and started our ascent.

Hansen has excavated, mapped and explored 51 ancient cities in the Mirador basin. “What you had here was the first state-level society in the Western Hemisphere, a thousand years before anyone suspected,” he said. It was not just the monumental architecture of La Danta and structures at sister cities like Nakbe and Tintal that were sophisticated. The achievements of the Preclassic Maya were reflected in the way they made the leap from clans and chiefdoms to complex societies with class hierarchies and a cohesive ideology; in the technical sophistication that enabled them to quarry huge limestone blocks without metal tools and move them to building sites without the wheel; how they collected rainwater off building roofs and stored it in reservoirs and cisterns; how they projected time in their calendars and preserved the records of their civilization in their still-enigmatic histories on stelae in images and glyphs that scholars have yet to decipher (unlike glyphs from the Classic period that have been decoded); how they constructed their homes with posts, stone and stucco; decorated their teeth with jade and brownish-red hematite inlays; imported exotic items such as obsidian, basalt and granite; wrapped the craniums of their infants to modify the shape of their skulls; and adorned themselves with shells from the Caribbean and Pacific Coast—as if civilization were keyed as much to aesthetic refinement as to written language, the specialization of labor or regimens of religious and social control.

To feed their burgeoning population, they terraced fields and carried mud up from swampy marshes to grow maize, beans, squash, cocoa, gourds and other crops. “What brought them here were the swamps,” Hansen said. And in his view it was the destruction of the swamps with their nutrient-rich mud that caused the wholesale collapse of the society sometime between A.D. 100 and 200. What killed the swamps and crippled the farms, he believes, was the runoff of clay into the marshes after the massive deforestation of the surrounding area—deforestation caused by a demand for firewood the Maya needed to make lime plaster. They plastered everything, from major temples like La Danta to their plazas and house floors, which over time got thicker and thicker, an extravagance Hansen attributed to the temptations of “conspicuous consumption.”

Hansen believes that El Mirador’s inhabitants may have initially gone to the Caribbean coast and then migrated back inland, where they finally ended up in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula at Calakmul, which emerged as a powerful city-state and rival to Tikal in the sixth and seventh centuries. “Mirador was known in the Preclassic as the Kan Kingdom—Kan meaning ‘snake’—and the kings of Calakmul referred to themselves as the Lords of Kan, not as the Lords of Chiik Naab, which is the original name of Calakmul,” Hansen said.

We came to the first tier of La Danta pyramid, a high forested platform of cut stone and rock fill that was some 980 feet wide and 2,000 feet long and covered nearly 45 acres.

“We calculate that as many as 15 million man-days of labor were expended on La Danta,” Hansen said. “It took 12 men to carry each block—each one weighs about a thousand pounds....We’ve excavated nine quarries where the stones were cut, some 600 to 700 meters away.”

Before long we mounted another platform. It was about 33 feet high also and covered about four acres. The trail led to a set of steps that climbed to a third, 86-foot-high platform that served as the base for a triad of an impressive central pyramid flanked by two smaller pyramids—a formidable sight with its vertiginous staircase bisecting the west face.

“You don’t find the triadic pattern before about 300 B.C.” Hansen said of the three pyramids. Based upon conversations with present-day Maya spiritual leaders, researchers believe the three-point configuration represents a celestial hearth containing the fire of creation. The Maya thought three stars in the constellation Orion (Alnitak, Saiph and Rigel) were the hearth stones surrounding the fire—a nebula called M42, which is visible just below Orion’s belt.

Archaeology at El Mirador is often less about bringing the past to light than keeping it from collapsing: Hansen spent three years just stabilizing the walls of La Danta. He had experimented to find the optimal mortar mix of finely sifted clay, organic compounds, lime, crushed limestone and a form of gritty, decomposed limestone called “sascab.” And the archaeologists decided against clearing the trees entirely off the temples as had been done at Tikal because they had learned it was better to leave some shade to minimize the debilitating effects of the sun. Hansen and an engineer from Boeing had designed a vented polycarbonate shed roof that filtered ultraviolet light and protected some of the most delicate stucco carvings on the Jaguar Paw Temple from rain.

We hiked around the base of the upper platform and climbed a cantilevered wooden staircase that zigzagged up the near-vertical east face of La Danta, which plunged more than 230 feet to the jungle floor.


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