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An Ancient Maya Palace Was Discovered in Yucatán State

Archaeologists think it was occupied by Maya elite more than 1,000 years ago

Parts of Kulubá are already open to the public, and the INAH hopes the newly discovered palace will become accessible “in the medium term.” (Mauricio Marat/INAH )
smithsonianmag.com

At the archaeological site of Kulubá, nestled amid the lowland forests of Mexico’s Yucatán state, experts have unearthed the remains of a large palace believed to have been used by Maya elite around 1,000 years ago.

According to Emma Graham-Harrison of the Guardian, the structure spans nearly 20 feet high, 180 feet long and almost 50 feet wide. It appears to have consisted of six rooms, and is part of a larger complex that includes two residential rooms, an altar and an oven. Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) says archaeologists also uncovered a burial containing “various individuals” during excavation of the palace; the organization hopes that anthropological examination of these remains will help shed light on the people who once populated Kulubá.

Experts think the site was occupied for two distinct periods: between 600 to 900 A.D. and 850 to 1050 A.D. The first era of habitation falls within the Classic Period of the Maya civilization, when the ancient people occupied a swath of territory across Mexico, Guatemala and northern Belize. They built thriving cities, and their population swelled to more than 19 million people. By around 900 A.D., however, many major Maya cities had collapsed for reasons that remain unclear; researchers have suggested challenges associated with climate change (including extreme drought), warfare and changing trade patterns played a role in the decline.

But the Maya didn’t simply vanish after their empire fell. As cities in the southern lowlands of Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras—“the heart of Maya civilization,” according to History.com—were abandoned, locations in the northern lowlands began to thrive. Among them was Chichén Itzá, a city in Yucatán state that shows signs of having been taken over by warriors of the Toltec people in the 10th century. And as the city persisted past the Classic Period, so did Kulubá. Based in part on similarities between ceramic materials found at both sites, archaeologists believe that Kulubá was under the control of Chichén Itzá, the INAH explains.

Kulubá was first discovered in 1939, El Universal reported earlier this year, but it was only recently acquired by the INAH. Archaeologists are now working to restore the site’s ancient buildings, which include pyramid-shaped structures and additional palaces. Parts of Kulubá, which is located near the tourist hub of Cancún, are already open to the public, and the INAH hopes the newly discovered palace will become accessible “in the medium term.”

For now, experts are busy contemplating how best to preserve Kulubá. The forest site was cleared during previous excavations, reports Graham-Harrison, and conservationists may bring back some of the forest cover to shield delicate ancient buildings from the wind and sun. Archaeologists also believe that as work continues at the palace, more revelations about the ancient settlement will come to light.

“This work is the beginning,” archeologist Alfredo Barrera said in a video shared by INAH, according to Sharay Angulo of Reuters. “[W]e’ve barely [begun] uncovering one of the most voluminous structures on the site.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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