Latin America

Mystical city


The city of Tikal was a crucial economic hub for the Mayan civilisation, but mystery surrounds its demise.

Why Mayans fled Tikal, academics still don’t know. The city, located in northern Guatemala, enjoyed great economic prosperity from 800 A.D. until 950 A.D. That is when its long and illustrious history ceased. Experts have cited droughts and political instability. But like with much else on the site, nothing can be said for sure.

Tikal’s archaeological heritage is less doubtful. The settlement, situated in the Petén region in a complex habitat of wetlands and forests, became a national monument in 1931 and a national park in 1955. UNESCO listed it in 1979. The city’s postcard factor is inescapable, with the two rising temples characterising its revered architecture. Many archaeologists cite it as the largest excavated site on the American continent.

The Mayan civilisation never used a capital city but spread out across individual settlements that ruled their respective regions. The Mayans were industrious: good farmers, experts at trading and masters of a complex written language. Of all this Tikal, one of the largest and most important Mayan cities, was a good example. “It probably drew in what we would call wealth and tax,” says Elizabeth Graham, professor of Mesoamerican archaeology at University College London. “It had access to labour and had a very large commercial element. It was wealthy.”

Some historians say the first settlements of Tikal arrived around 800 B.C. Central to the city’s evolvement was the plaza; a large area of surfaced floor laid in the second century A.D. Large and important structures were later erected round it, such as the Great Temples I and II, and the North- and Central Acropolis.


The plaza became the core of an expanding settlement. By the end, more than 3,000 separate buildings decorated Tikal. They were temples, residences, public squares, religious monuments decorated with hieroglyphic inscriptions. Their construction reflected the Mayans’ cultural emphasis on hunting, farming, trading, and rituals of scientific and religious importance.

Casting a look at Tikal today, the ramp-like Temple I and II stand out the most. “They are funeral monuments, and kings and queens were buried there,” says Graham. “The Mayans kept them right in the middle of the city.” Nearby lie the acropolises, which were also used as burial places. They might have had other uses too, such as residential space and religious meetings.

In the 150 years before its decline in 950 A.D., Tikal flourished. At its height, according to UNESCO, it supported a population of tens of thousands of people. So why did the Mayans leave? “If you ask any Mayanist you’ll get a different answer,” says Graham.

One common theory centres on climate change. Some academics believe decreasing rainfall hampered Tikal’s agricultural activity and forced people to flee. One study published last year said annual rainfall decreased by between 25 and 40 per cent from Tikal’s age of prosperity until its demise. The main reason was a fall in summer storm activity.


“Summer was the main season for cultivation and replenishment of Mayan freshwater storage systems and there are no rivers in the Yucatan lowlands,” said Eelco Rohling, of the University of Southampton, who worked on the study. “Societal disruptions and abandonment of cities are likely consequences of critical water shortages, especially because there seems to have been a rapid repetition of multi-year droughts.” She added: “What seems like a minor reduction in water availability may lead to important, long-lasting problems.”

Others disagree, including Graham. “I think that’s rubbish,” she says. “If you look at the climatic record, it’s highly variable. If the Mayans couldn’t handle it by then, they would be in deep trouble.” Instead she puts it down to a political collapse. “There was something weird going on with these dynasties. Some families just lost it. It gets complicated because through time there were more and more nobles who wanted tribute. With the nobility increasing we think there was a lot more fighting. A lot of the symbolism that goes with the Tikal dynasty also disappeared.”

Academic disputes also exist over what happened to the city next. Eventually a team from Pennsylvania University started excavating the site in the 1950s. But large parts of the site remain covered to this day. “There are huge areas yet to be excavated,” says Graham. “But it’s very expensive and I wonder if I’ll ever see it in my lifetime.”

Photos: Jolanda, kschrei, Zai Aragon [all via].

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