From the dizzying top of Temple IV, dense jungle canopy spreads
to the horizon in every direction, rolling in the wind like the
surface of the ocean.
Some 215 feet below lies Tikal, the greatest of the Mayan cities,
much of it still buried by trees and vines that have swallowed
Temple IV up to the base of its crowning platform. The ruined roof
combs of Tikal's huge temples and palaces rise islandlike above the
undulating canopy, mute monuments of a long-lost civilization.
Generations of archaeologists have worked to excavate this vast
city since a Spanish governor rediscovered it in 1848. They're
still at work today, clearing trees and vines from nearby temples,
searching for clues to how the ancient Maya lived and what caused
them to abandon their great cities six centuries before the Spanish
conquest. New inscriptions, villages, even entire cities are being
discovered every year, creating great excitement among
The latest and most stirring find was announced Sept. 8: the
discovery of a nearly intact 170-room palace buried at Cancuen, a
remote site 70 miles south of Tikal. The palace - a three-story
complex built around 11 courtyards - is the largest Mayan palace
ever discovered. It's so large, in fact, that previous expeditions
to Cancuen mistook it for a great jungle-covered hill.
"It's a very exciting time in Maya archaeology," says Arthur
Demarest of Vanderbilt University, who discovered the Cancuen
palace. "If you're working in Egypt, it's a big deal to find the
tomb of Ramses' second cousin or something like that. But in the
Yucatan, we can still find whole cities, kingdoms, and dynasties."
Over the past decade, archaeologists have discovered numerous new
sites, transforming our understanding of classic Mayan civilization.
But their expeditions are becoming a race against time, as
increasingly sophisticated looting operations raid Mayan ruins for
valuable artifacts, stealing important clues before they can be
Last year, Guatemalan archaeologist Salvador Lopez found the
ruins of the small city of El Parajal smoldering in a clearing
where peasants had burned the forest to make pasture land. While El
Parajal's ceremonial plazas weren't damaged by the fire, all of the
carved limestone tablets (or stelae) had been smashed or stolen by
Looting more profitable than farming
A large proportion of the stolen artifacts are believed to make
their way to the United States and Europe via Cancun, Mexico,
according to George Thompson, head of the government Department of
Archaeology in neighboring Belize. "It's a huge market and very
well developed," he says. "Because of television and the Internet,
more people are realizing the true value of these artifacts. And
looting is a lot more profitable than subsistence farming."
Despite this, scholarly understanding of ancient Maya has been
growing rapidly over the past 20 years. Scientists have deciphered
Mayan inscriptions, revealing records of many royal dynasties and
the wars they fought with one another.
Researchers have also learned that the Maya developed an advanced
civilization as early as 400 BC, seven centuries earlier than had
been previously thought. At their peak, between AD 600 and 800, the
Maya built enormous monumental cities like Tikal and may have
numbered in the millions. Most of the great cities were abandoned
between 800 and 900. For the past century and a half,
archaeologists have been trying to figure out why.
"There are as many theories about the Maya collapse as there are
Maya archaeologists," says Norman Hammond of Boston University. …