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Sediment cores provide evidence of total warfare among the Classic Maya

This article is part of the Spring 2020 issue of the Earth Science Matters Newsletter.

In 2013 researchers from USGS took a sediment core from Laguna Ek’Naab in northern Guatemala with the aim of using material trapped in the mud to reconstruct changes in climate over the last 2000 years.  Climate of this region is controlled by dynamics of the tropical North Atlantic, which also plays an important role in driving climate of the central and eastern United States.  Therefore, understanding past variability of this part of the climate system is important for accurately modeling future climate across much of the United States.  The climate reconstruction from Laguna Ek’Naab is also particularly relevant to the Maya region. Evidence from other sites in the region shows multi-decadal droughts occurred around 1100 years ago, which has led scholars to propose drought as a cause of the collapse of Maya civilization.  Other theories for the collapse include increasingly violent warfare, disease, and environmental degradation.  

Sediment cores collected in Guatemala
Fourteen meters of sediment cores collected from Laguna Ek'Naab, Peten, Guatemala.

Laguna Ek’Naab is situated at the base of an escarpment, above which sit the ruins of an ancient Maya city known as Witzna. The proximity to prehistoric settlement provides an opportunity to compare data of environmental change from the sediment core with the archaeological record.  The most striking find was a large deposition of charcoal indicating a massive fire happened sometime around AD 700.  Evidence from the core used as a proxy of human activity (land use and erosion) shows near complete abandonment occurred immediately following the fire. The timing of these events was too early to be associated with either the broader collapse of Maya civilization or the droughts believed to have caused it.

section of Laguna Ek'Naab sediment core showing charcoal
Image showing section of Laguna Ek'Naab sediment core containing 3 cm thick charcoal horizon (dashed black box) and charcoal accumulation rates (red bars). Based on statistical age modeling techniques, the highest probability age for the charcoal deposition is 692 CE. (adapted from Figure 4 in Wahl et al., 2019)

While excavating the main plaza at Witzna in 2016, archaeologists found ancient inscriptions, including a special type of inscription called an “emblem glyph.”  These very rare glyphs tell us the ancient names of Maya cities.  Knowing the ancient name of Witzna (Bahlam Jol), they were able to link it to a stone monument from a rival city that recounted “burning” Bahlam Jol on May 21, 697. Archaeologists subsequently found that all the major structures at Witzna had been burned and its monuments intentionally destroyed.  The researchers concluded that the catastrophic fire event recorded in the lake’s sediment was caused by the attack described on the rival’s monument.

This was the first time a pre-European written record had been directly linked to data from a sediment core in the Western Hemisphere.  The data also provides the first evidence of what an attack described with the verb “burned” (puluuy in Maya script) meant in terms of societal impacts.  The findings suggest that puluuy can indicate total destruction of a city. While it is impossible to know whether the people of Witzna were killed, taken captive, or fled, the record clearly shows the attack had devastating impacts on the population.

Prior to this study, very little was known about Classic Period (AD 250-950) Maya warfare.  Many scholars believed that warfare was limited to elite classes and was largely ritualistic, with puluuy likely describing small scale burning of targeted monuments. The only evidence of violent warfare was limited to the Terminal Classic period (AD 800-950), which led to the theory that increasingly violent warfare in the Terminal Classic period was symptomatic of conditions that led to the collapse of the civilization.  The data from Laguna Ek’Naab and Witzna show that violent warfare was likely common throughout the Classic period and challenge the theory that violent warfare was an important factor contributing to the collapse of Maya state institutions.

The paper, “Palaeoenvironmental, epigraphic and archaeological evidence of total warfare among the Classic Maya” was published in Nature Human Behavior. It is available at:

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