Thousands of Pre-Hispanic Structures Found Along Route of Controversial Railway in Mexico

Critics of the planned high-speed railroad point to its potential damage to archaeological sites and the environment

skeleton in burial chamber
Surveys yielded numerous burial sites along the planned train route. National Institute of Anthropology and History

Archaeologists conducting excavations ahead of construction of a high-speed railway in southern Mexico have discovered thousands of pre-Hispanic structures, burial grounds and artifacts dated to as early as 700 B.C.E. The team, from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), used laser scans and satellite imaging to survey the area, reports Radina Gigova for CNN.

Finds include earth mounds, complex stone architecture and ceramic artifacts that “expand ... knowledge about daily life, and trade and cultural exchange relations that existed centuries ago in the Maya area,” say the researchers in a statement, per a translation by CNN.

So far, the team has only surveyed the first 140-mile stretch of the planned 950-mile Maya Train project, which is slated to loop around the Yucatan Peninsula. Archaeologists made the discoveries in a section of the route that runs from the ruins of the Maya city of Palenque in the state of Chiapas to a highway crossing in Escárcega, Campeche. INAH did not specify whether any of the ruins were “disturbed or destroyed” by the work, reports the Associated Press (AP).

One particular area of interest along the controversial railway is Boca del Cerro in Tenosique, Tabasco. At the height of the Maya civilization, the spot served as a commercial hub connecting communities along the Usumacinta River with other parts of Mesoamerica. Some of the people buried at the site had cranial deformations, suggesting they held high religious or political status in Maya society, writes Gabriella Angeleti for the Art Newspaper. (The Maya and other Mesoamerican societies sometimes used molding techniques to change the shape of infants’ heads, resulting in broader foreheads.)

Thousands of Pre-Hispanic Structures Found Along Route of Controversial Railway in Mexico
The train route connects tourist attractions such as the Palenque ruins. Carlos Adampol Galindo via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

Another find of significance is a pair of ceramic vessels found north of Tenosique near the village of Mactún. The objects—a bowl and a vessel with a spout—date to the start of the Classic Period in Maya history, around 250 C.E. Both objects feature supports representing breasts and were probably used in elite ritual contexts. The pouring vessel may have held chocolate, perfume or other valuable liquids. Ceramics from a later period found in the same area feature a diversity of materials, showing interactions between local people and other communities, including Palenque.

The Maya civilization spanned a large part of southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas. The Maya developed villages and agriculture as early as 1500 B.C.E., according to Encyclopedia Britannica. During the Classic Period, which spanned roughly 250 to 900 C.E., Maya people wrote books on paper with hieroglyphic writing and developed calendars and mathematical and astronomical systems. The culture’s 40-plus cities featured grand stone buildings and pyramid temples; some of these urban centers boasted populations of up to 50,000 people.

After the Classic Period, the Maya largely abandoned their cities for the countryside. But Maya people remain a large part of the population of the region today, with more than five million people speaking one or more of 30 Mayan languages.

The Maya Train project, first announced in 2018, is designed to support tourist visits to attractions such as beaches and Maya ruins in southeastern Mexican states. But Maya communities along the railroad route have challenged its construction in court, arguing that it will cause environmental damage and saying that Indigenous people will not benefit from it. A lawyer for human rights organization Indignación has filed multiple injunctions aimed at stopping the project and protecting the region’s archaeological sites, reports Micaela Varela for El País.

“It would be paradoxical if a project like the Maya Train, which is designed to aid tourism development in the region, brought about the destruction of the very heritage that could be of great touristic potential,” archaeologist Ivan Šprajc, who has previously led excavations in the Yucatan Peninsula, tells El País.