While construction crews were hard at work building a new industrial park near Mérida in 2015, they stumbled upon the remnants of a historic city. Now, archaeologists in Mexico say the site was once a bustling Maya community with more than 4,000 residents.
The pre-Hispanic city on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsulaikely dates to 600 to 900 C.E., making it between 1,100 and 1,400 years old. Since its original name is unknown, archaeologists named it Xiol, meaning "spirit of man” in the Mayan language.
Filled with palaces, plazas, pyramids and a cenote (a natural sinkhole), Xiol was likely home to a wide variety of Maya people, including dignitaries, scribes, priests and other residents who farmed and fished along the nearby coast, researchers say.
The find is significant because many other archaeological remains have been destroyed as the Kanasín municipality—located on the outskirts of Mérida, Yucatán’s capital city—has expanded. Xiol will open to the public later this year, reports Yucatán Magazine’s Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.
“Even we as archaeologists are surprised, because we did not expect to find a site so well preserved,” Carlos Peraza Lope, an archaeologist who led the excavation at Xiol for Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), tells Reuters’ Lorenzo Hernandez and Kylie Madry.
Many of the structures found were built in the Puuc style of Maya architecture, which features highly decorative buildings. Chichén Itzá, home to some of the most recognizable remains of Maya culture, was built in the Puuc style as well. The newly uncovered city is unusual because Puuc-style buildings were typically built farther south and were less common near Mérida, reports Milenio’s Alexander Ruvalcaba, per Google Translate.
Maya people first migrated to what is now the Mexican state of Yucatán around 2,500 B.C.E., building elaborate ceremonial centers and cities. Though many endure, not all are as well-preserved as the new discovery.
As the Maya population grew to more than 19 million people, the Indigenous Mesoamerican people also built thriving cities in the southern lowlands of Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras, as Smithsonian magazine’s Brigit Katz reported in 2019. When they abandoned those areas for unknown reasons around 900 C.E., cities in Yucatán and other northern lowland regions began to thrive. It’s not clear why major Maya cities collapsed, but experts have put forward theories ranging from extreme drought to changing trade patterns to warfare to explain the mystery.
When archaeologists began the process of carefully unearthing the pre-Hispanic structures found at Xiol, they discovered a large central plaza and at least 12 buildings spread across roughly 51 acres, some containing workshops and small living areas, per Milenio. They also found an altar they believe the city’s Maya residents used for ritual activities, as well as burial sites for 15 adults and children containing “vessels, necklaces, earrings and other belongings that they used in daily life,” EFE news agency reports, per Google Translate.
A speleologist, or cave expert, will investigate the cenote the researchers discovered at the site in the coming days.
“We don't know how much we will find, because to access the body of water we have to go down about five meters [16.4 feet],” Peraza Lope tells EFE, per Google Translate.
Construction of the industrial complex will continue, but the property’s owners plan to preserve the site to make way for future discoveries. Though modern development continues, as Mauricio Montalvo, one of the property’s owners, tells EFE, “it is more important to preserve the Maya legacy.”