Archaeologists unravel mysteries of the Mayans in Honduras

From the print edition

COPÁN, Honduras – Under awnings that protect them from the rain, archeologists excavated rocks from a muddy hill at a new site found in Copán, in northwestern Honduras. The archeologists are determined to decipher a riddle about the disappearance of the Mayans. 

About 25 kilometers west of the main group of ruins, in the Río Amarillo Archeological Park, the site was discovered gradually in recent years, thanks to the work of nine experts from Honduras, Guatemala, France and the United States. 

“Here it shows that the fall [of the civilization] was abrupt; they left the buildings unfinished, and tools were strewn around, but the question is where did they go to never return?” said French researcher René Viel, during a tour organized by the Tourism Ministry for the international press. The tour is one of the activities put on by the Honduran government to celebrate the end of the Mayan calendar on Dec. 21. 

When the Río Amarillo was discovered, “we saw missing pieces but no evidence of looting; but [the Mayans] started [the works] and did not finish them. They are the last works of Copán, demonstrating that the end was immediate,” said Viel, while showing a small plaza and a 12-meter staircase that formed the complex.

“Where did they go? Were there demographic problems? We fear that there was a high mortality rate among children under 5 and that ended everything,” Viel added. 

The rich Mayan civilization, which spread through southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, flourished between the years of A.D. 426-822 in Copán, with a succession of 16 kings in its political system. 

“Although the city of Copán was abandoned, here in Río Amarillo there were people until A.D. 1,000, which is to say after the collapse of the political system, people continued living on the new site,” Guatemalan archeologist Edy Barrios told AFP. 

Research in Río Amarillo, directed by the Honduran Institute for Integral Development, determined that the Mayan population was distributed among 26 settlements on 35 hectares, Barrios said.

At its center, Copán still maintains the remnants of a large square, an acropolis of 1,000 monuments and other structures. 

In the Copán Valley, archeologists have discovered 3,450 structures. Experts estimate that during the busiest period, more than 28,000 inhabitants lived there. 

Excavations also continue at the main set of ruins. Another group of archeologists work in an underground temple, discovered decades ago. 

Constructed by the first king of the dynasty, Kinich Yax Kuk Mo or Quetzal Guacamaya (A.D. 426-437), the temple has two figureheads of a parrot and a quetzal bound by the neck, and a face of the Mayan sun god, with red, green and yellow colors still intact. 

A third excavation is taking place on a hill that experts believe was a site for warriors called Rastrojom. Archeologist Jorge Ramos said it’s the first site of this kind found in Copán. 

Researchers found spearheads made of flint and traces of houses and other buildings. From one of the buildings, a human face measuring 5.5 meters wide and 3.5 meters tall protrudes.

– Noé Leiva, AFP