Expect the Unexpected: Geology and Maya Warfare

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An unexpected thing happened on the way to publishing a geology research paper recently.

An unexpected thing happened on the way to publishing a geology research paper recently. USGS scientist David Wahl, whose research focuses on reconstructing climate-related and man-made environmental change in North and Central America, was producing late-Holocene (the last 2,000 years) climate and land change reconstructions using data and geologic samples from northern Guatemala, when he and his fellow researchers uncovered the first geologic evidence of pre-Hispanic Maya warfare.

It was an unexpected discovery on two fronts. First, Wahl was looking for evidence of climate extremes in his data, not warfare; and second, the discovery changes the way archeologists look at the Maya warfare timeline.

Wahl, who’s been doing climate reconstruction research for the last 20 years in Central America, worked with archeologists to piece together the history.

While using microfossils and chemical signatures in sediment from Laguna Ek’Naab to reconstruct climate, vegetation and fire history, and human activity through time, Wahl discovered a thick layer of charcoal, indicating a fire.

Was it an agricultural fire, a wildfire or something else? How large was the fire? The data sets from the lake suggested that this fire was not a typical burning of agricultural fields or a wildfire. It was in fact evidence of an enormous fire that burned across the entire ancient Maya city near the lake at the end of the 7th century, followed by a dramatic decrease in local settlement.

But how does this tie back to warfare you ask? What happened next involved piecing together the lines of evidence and some digging--excavation actually--that uncovered an epigraph (an inscription on a coin, stone or building) which showed what is known as an “emblem glyph.” This epigraph allowed the archaeologists to identify the ancient name of the nearby city, Bahlam Jol. The epigrapher on the team recognized the name Bahlam Jol from a monument in the nearby site of Naranjo, where the king of Naranjo boasts that Bahlam Jol was “burned” by their forces in 697 (Common Era). The war statement puluuy (it burned) was used to describe the battle that took place at Bahlam Jol (known today as Witzna, a town in northern Guatemala), on May 21, 697 (CE), which included widespread destruction and the burning of major monuments across the town. Epigraphs indicate that Bahlam Jol was not just burned once, but twice.

The researchers found that puluuy can represent a “widespread burning and destruction of a city with immediate and lasting impacts on the population, tactics akin to total warfare.” In the context of the battles between the towns of Bahlam Jol and Naranjo, the use of puluuy, describes acts of total warfare which was a common Maya war statement. This type of destruction was previously thought to be limited to 800-950 CE. This is the first recorded evidence that the ancient Maya used tactics akin to total warfare in attacking and burning an entire city before that time period, occurring much earlier in the Classic period during the height of Maya socio-political complexity, prosperity and artistic sophistication.

This finding has implications for the theories that link increasingly violent warfare with the socio-economic collapse of the Maya, instead indicating that it was probably common much earlier.

Want to learn more about the evidence of total warfare among the Classic Maya? Go to: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0671-x