The ancient Mayan city of Chactun was once a metropolis with around 35,000 inhabitants. It had sculptures, ball courts, temples, and fifteen pyramids (one of which was an impressive 75 feet tall.) But it was abandoned completely well over 1,000 years ago and lost to scholars until this year.
The city covered just under 54 acres of jungle but remained unnoticed by everyone except for a few unknown lumberjacks who cut down trees in the area around 20 years ago. They never told anyone what they had found, so it was left to a Slovenian archaeologist, Ivan Sprajc, to discover the city after combing through aerial photographs of the nature reserve.
“Sprajc and his team…then spent three weeks clearing a 16-km path through the jungle to reach the site. After mapping the site for six weeks and documenting the monuments, they blocked the path before leaving to prevent access.”
It’s not surprising that Sprajc and his team chose to limit access to the site. Recently, a 2,300-year-old pyramid was bulldozed for gravel in Belize, prompting international outrage, but only a $5,000 fine.
Pyramids in Mayan Society were used for ritual purposes. Some were used as tombs, like their Egyptian counterparts, but not always. Some were the site of human sacrifice, others had astronomical significance, but all were usually large enough to be seen towering from the surrounding jungle, landmarks to travelers and traders in the region.
Jill Worrall, writing for New Zealand’s Timaru Herald has a great description of the similar, but larger Mayan city of Tikal, which has the same kinds of pyramids and ball courts found at the newly-discovered Chactun:
“To one side of the Gran Plaza are two sloping parallel walls of limestone with a stretch of grass between them. This is the Mayan ballcourt….Whereas some games were played for recreation, others were part of rituals, involving human sacrifices. Although some guidebooks state it was the losing team (or at least its captain) who was killed, our guide was adamant that in fact it was the entire winning team. It was considered an honour to be chosen to be a sacrifice to the Mayan gods. Priests apparently opened up the chest of the victim and tore out the heart.
You can stand in the ballcourt today and imagine the scene, but even more so in small forest clearings near ruined temples or shrines where sacrificial stones can still be found, many still stained with blood. However, before anyone could conjure up images of grisly modern-day human sacrifices we were told that although the Mayans still perform religious ceremonies, in Tikal only animals such as rooster are used.”
More from Smithsonian.com: