Archaeologists Uncover a 1,300-Year-Old Skeleton of a Maya Diplomat

The remains revealed that the government official was wealthy as an adult, but he had a difficult childhood

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Teeth with dental inlays from a nonroyal elite Mayan tomb. Courtesy of Kenichiro Tsukamoto

In 2011, archaeologists Kenichiro Tsukamoto and Javier Lopez-Camacho discovered a “hieroglyph-adorned stairway” at the El Palmar complex, a Maya ruin near the borders of Belize and Guatemala. When researchers ascended the staircase, they found a ritual platform, which housed the 1,300-year-old remains of a former Maya diplomat named Ajpach' Waal. Now, experts have finally finished excavations at the ancient archaeological site.

As Ashley Cowie reports for Ancient Origins, skeletal fragments and on-site hieroglyphics show that the Maya ambassador suffered from a number of health problems, such as childhood illness and dental issues, and facilitated a pact between two rivaling dynasties, though his efforts ultimately failed. Tsukamoto, who is a professor of anthropology at University of California, Riverside, and Jessica I. Cerezo-Román, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, published their findings in the journal Latin American Antiquity last month.

“His life is not like we expected based on the hieroglyphics,” says Tsukamoto in a statement. “Many people say that the elite enjoyed their lives, but the story is usually more complex.”

The remains reveal that Waal was between 35 and 50 years old when he died. Researchers used techniques including radiocarbon dating, stratigraphy and ceramic typology to determine that people buried him in around 726 A.D., the same year workers built the hieroglyphic staircase, notes Notimerica.

Prior to his death, Waal suffered from a variety of medical ailments. His skull was mildly flattened, and he was malnourished as a child, as evidenced by the “slightly porous, spongy areas known as porotic hyperostosis, caused by childhood nutritional deficiencies or illnesses” on the sides of his head, per the statement.

Scientists also found that infections, trauma, scurvy or rickets had triggered periostitis—chronic swelling and pain—to form in Waal’s arm bones.

When he was a teenager, a medical technician had installed jade and pyrite in the diplomat’s upper front teeth. According to the statement, such adornments signified that Waal was a government official and that he had inherited his father’s title and resources. However, Waal’s flashy new incisors came at a cost: The procedure caused Waal to contract a gum disease and agonizing abscesses, which forced the ambassador to consume a strict diet of soft mashed foods.

Scholars also evaluated nearby paintings and hieroglyphics to determine that Waal inherited his role as an ambassador from his father’s side and that his mother also came from a noble family. These inscriptions indicated that the diplomat attempted to create an alliance between two influential royals—the king of Copán, who ruled over an area in Honduras about 311 miles away from El Palmar, and the king of Calakmul, who reigned over a region closer to El Palmar—but he was ultimately unsuccessful. The resulting political volatility impacted Waal’s economic condition, and he most likely died in relative obscurity.

“The ruler of a subordinate dynasty decapitated Copán's king ten years after his alliance with Calakmul, which was also defeated by a rival dynasty around the same time," Tsukamoto said. "We see the political and economic instability that followed both these events in the sparse burial and in one of the inlaid teeth."

Hieroglyphic stairways, like the one found in El Palmar, often relay important information about Maya society to archaeologists. For example, one staircase in Copán contains one of the longest single texts in the world; the 30-foot-high stairwell contains around 2,000 glyphs chronicling the history of the surrounding area and the culture of its inhabitants.

As National Geographic pointed out in a 2011 article, hieroglyphic stairways are usually located in the center of Maya funerary monuments, but the one at El Palmar was placed on the outskirts of the site. The unique position of the staircase indicated that the El Palmar monument was special. When scholars initially discovered the El Palmar structure, archaeologists had just found a few other hieroglyphic staircases at Maya archaeological sites.

“While over 5,000 Maya archaeological sites have been reported, only about 20 hieroglyphic stairways have been uncovered until now,” Tsukamoto told National Geographic. “Furthermore, few of them have survived from looting or natural transformations.”