Were These Ancient Mesoamerican Cities Friends Before They Became Foes?

Ruins found in the Maya metropolis of Tikal appear to be an outpost of the distant Teotihuacán

Ruins of Tikal
Decades before Teotihuacán's conquest of Tikal in 378 A.D., the two cities may have enjoyed a friendly relationship. szeke via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Archaeologists conducting research at Tikal, a Maya city in northern Guatemala, have discovered buildings and artifacts that appear to represent an outpost of Teotihuacán, a city located more than 600 miles away, near what is now Mexico City.

As Evelyn De León reports for Guatemalan news outlet Soy502, the abandoned structures were crafted out of earth and stucco—materials that the ancient Maya did not use. Per Lizzie Wade of Science magazine, one building closely resembles a ceremonial complex in Teotihuacán known as the Citadel.

The Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sports announced the find at a press conference last Thursday. According to Spanish news agency EFE, project director Edwin Román told reporters that confirming the existence of “ethnic neighborhoods” in Mesoamerica is difficult, but in this instance, the team was able to “prove that people who were from Teotihuacán or people closely associated with the Teotihuacán culture also lived in Tikal.”

Among the finds made by Román and his colleagues were weapons featuring green obsidian from central Mexico, carvings of the Teotihuacán rain god and a burial performed in the Teotihuacán manner. The discoveries suggest that this area of Tikal may have been home to Teotihuacán dignitaries.

Per National Geographic’s Kelly Hearn, scientists don’t know which culture constructed Teotihuacán. But over the centuries, it became a vibrant, multicultural urban center, home to people of Maya, Mixtec and Zapotec heritage alike. At its peak, between roughly 100 B.C. and 650 A.D., Teotihuacán hosted a population of around 100,000, making it the largest city in ancient Mesoamerica.

The new findings point to a friendly relationship between the two cities that later deteriorated into warfare, reports Science. Based on ceramic styles found in the building, the researchers estimate that the Tikal citadel was built around 300 A.D. Teotihuacán only conquered Tikal decades later, in 378 A.D.

LiDAR Tikal image
In 2018, LiDAR imaging of the Maya city of Tikal revealed that features believed to be natural hills were actually ancient structures. Pacunam LiDAR Initiative / Thomas Garrison

Claudia García-Des Lauriers, an archaeologist at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, who was not involved in the new research, calls the finds “super tantalizing.”

As she tells Science, it suggests that relations between the two cities “were relatively diplomatic and friendly. And all of a sudden, something went wrong.”

Previous research at Tikal found engravings that recorded the entry of a man named Sihyaj K’ahk’, or Fire is Born, into the city on January 16, 378. That same day, the city’s long-reigning king, Chak Tok Ich’aak, or Jaguar Paw, died. As Wade reported for Science last year, the carvings suggest that Sihyaj K’ahk’ and the army he most likely led were sent by a foreign ruler called Spearthrower Owl, whose son subsequently became king of Tikal. Portraits of the newly crowned ruler show him wearing a Teotihuacán headdress and holding a spear used by that culture’s warriors.

Further contributing to the hypothesis that a rift between the two cultures emerged suddenly is the fact that Maya murals in Teotihuacán were destroyed and buried between roughly 350 and 400, per Science. Archaeologists theorize that the murals were part of a compound of Maya nobles or diplomats living in the foreign city.

As Brenda Martínez reports for Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, the new findings at Tikal began with a LiDAR scan in 2018. The survey showed that mounds originally believed to be natural hills were actually remnants of ancient structures, indicating that the city was much larger than previously believed.

Archeologists began excavating and exploring the area between October 2019 and January 2020. They plan to return during the next excavation season to seek more clues about the people who built the Teotihuacán-style structures.

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