The Ancient City of Tikal, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

INTRODUCTION

The Maya culture was said to have emerged around 2000 B.C.  It is also said to have reached the highest point of complexity between the years 600 to 800 B.C.   Archeologists have divided the Mayan chronology into different categories based on their cultural succession.  For instance, the Preclassic time is dated from 2000 B.C. to 300 B.C., the Classic is dated 300 B.C. to 900 A.D., and the Postclassic is dated 900 A.D. to 1542 A.D.  The ancient Maya civilization spread across the entire Yucatan area for over 3000 years.  It is said to have suddenly disappeared at around 1000 A.D. without a historical explanation.  The archeology of the central lowlands, where the city of Tikal was located, was part of this disappearance.

In this paper, the focus is on the Preclassic to Classic time periods dating from 2000 B.C. to 900 A.D.  The Maya culture and civilization was spread across what is today Guatemala and El Salvador, Southern Mexico and Northern Honduras.   The region is a drainage basin that is about 60 miles long and 20 miles wide.  It is also covered by a tropical rain forest. The major city, Tikal, which was the principle city in this region, was of great importance during the time period of 800 B.C. to 1000 A.D and is the subject of this paper.

The city of Tikal, is pronounced “teeKhal” with derivatives from the word Ti-akal, meaning “At the Reservoir Differences”.  This suggests that the name came from the several water basins found near the city ruins.  Tikal is also the second largest city of the ancient Maya civilization and is located in what is now El Peten, Guatemala.  Tikal is surrounded by numerous monumental structures and artistry.  There are giant carved masks, steep pyramids at heights over 145 feet, and a complex of multiple buildings referred to as the Central Acropolis.  The city of Tikal was said to have reached its peak of glory at 750 A.D., where it held more than 60, 000 citizens and ruled over the other cities in the surrounding rainforest.  There are ruins of the city of Tikal remaining today, which has led to profound investigation.  (Roberts, 2004)  This ancient Maya city of Tikal has been researched by numerous archeologists in order to determine or theorize on the culture, settlement patterns, nutrition, agricultural practices, hierarchy and government, and the rise and fall of this ancient city.

MAYA CULTURE IN TIKAL

The Maya civilization is credited with several cultural accomplishments, such as a complex culture of rituals linking relationships with humans and supernatural beings, as well as the maize agriculture and human sacrifice.  In addition, there was a mathematical system comprised, recognizing the solar year, and a hieroglyphic writing structure.  The hieroglyphics were elaborated pieces of artwork that documented stories, myths and the history of their kings or rulers.  Most of these pictures are depicted in the Mayan architecture and sculptures.  With the recent excavations at numerous sites with the Mayan civilization, there is now a substantial amount of data left for interpretation of the Mayan civilization.  The inscriptions and the hieroglyphics have lead archeologists to believe that the Mayan architecture once believed to be monumental is now considered to be a place where complex political and economical activity occurred.  (Chase and Chase, 2001)

There are numerous pieces of artwork remaining on fragments of architecture called Stela’s form the city of Tikal.  For instance, there was a logogram found on Stela 39 in Tikal and another piece showing a main character wearing an elaborate headdress that resembles a crown.  On Stela 31 at Tikal, the late ruler Yax Nuun Ahiin is illustrated watching his son from above. (Tokovinine and Fialko, 2007)  This was the Early Classic Maya way to present their ancestors.  In fact, this is how the archeologists and historians are able to gather information on the rulers of Tikal.

The geology in the area of the Maya was also an important part of their culture and contributed to the understanding of the economy and their society.  The stone, Jade, was an important and valuable mineral used for creating art that was found in burials during the Preclassic time period.  Jade being a vibrant green stone was symbolic to life and agriculture for the Mayan people. (Garber, 1993; 215-219)  The Mayans used Jade to create burial masks, necklaces, ear spools, statutes, and containers.   The other stone important to the Mayan culture was Obsidian.  This was used for making blades and points, but was also found at burial sites.  It is theorized that it was possibly used for bloodletting rituals as well. (McKilikop, 2004:249)

There is also some research that has been conducted on Maya people from other major cities near the city of Tikal that sheds some light into the Tikal culture as well.  The site indicated, “Naranjo”, which is located to the West of Tikal and was recognized as one of the most powerful Maya kingdoms, and was in some of the inscriptions on a Temple wall at the city of Tikal.  The inscription on the Temple describes a victorious war over the “Wakanbal”, a place within the city of Naranjo.  It also describes the king of Naranjo as one of the victims of the attack. (Tokovinine and Fialko, 2007) We can infer from this inscription that the cities were individualized societies that battled with each other.  In addition, we can note that the attacks were planned.  Furthermore, we can conclude that they triumphed over their victories and illustrated them through hieroglyphics.

MAYA WARFARE

Through the acknowledgement of battles and war that were recognized through the inscriptions and hieroglyphics of the architecture excavated, it was indicted that the Mayan people were not a peaceful people, as once thought.  In addition, it is also suggested that the Mayan didn’t actually practice real war, but the battles seen in the inscriptions and hieroglyphics were portrayed more as raids or ritualistic battles. (Friedal 1986: 95, Schele and Mathews 1991;226).  It is also indicated that the Mayan warfare was more of an increased type of drama that the civilization undertook.  In addition, he indicates that the size of the political system and the population of the cities were small and that the warfare was less consequential.  Researchers then investigated the size of the political system in the lowlands of the Mayan civilization where the city of Tikal was.  Different models were proposed by different archeologist in order to determine the size.  One of the models was postulated by Mathews (1985; 10).  It was suggested that the city size was estimated between 1000-3000 km2.  The population density was not indicated in this model.  Another model, known as the super-state model suggested that hierarchy existed in the super capitals that were known as Tikal and Calakmul.  (Martin and Grube, 1995)    Culbert (1990; 140) were able to project the density populations stating the 62,000 people lived in a 90 km2 area based on area that contained over 2000 structures.  Culbert (1991:130) also estimates that the Tikal polities had about 500,000 people at its political height.

Since the suggestion of the polity size and the indication of war through hieroglyphics and inscriptions, the idea of a military can also be implied for the Classic Maya period. Hassig (1992; 85) indicated that due to the inability to carry large amounts of food, the military could not make it very far distances.  They computed that the army probably could only travel for about 8 days before running out of food.  This also suggests that the army only travel for three days to a site if there was no resupply of food.  In addition, it was indicated that there were no formal roads and the army had to travel through the dense rain forests to reach their destination.  This is would therefore slow down the army.  An estimation of 8 km/8 hr day for a total of around 60 km distance was suggested as the travel time for an army of 8000 individuals.

Other research suggests that the capital or major cities were about 60 km apart from each other.  Studies also suggest that there were border centers surround the capital cities and that these areas had different types of relationships with their capital cities. (Culbert, 1991:131)  In addition, it is theorized that these border centers may have functioned as a resupply center for the army. (Chase and Chase, 2001)  Understanding the warfare and the possibility of a military, helps understand the politics of the Mayan civilization.  There are actual documented warfare events that took place by the military of Tikal.  There are 11 known war events that are known that included the city of Tikal during the Classic Mayan periods.  It is also known that the city of Tikal was only successful in five of the battles.  In addition, the types of battles are documented as axe-events, star-wars and hubis.   The axe-events appeared to be further in distance, indicating that there was a limited amount of military and the battle had a set goal.  The star-wars were suggested as battles in order to assert their independence.  The hubi were destruction battles.  These battles involved the destruction of important icons or buildings.  In fact, one of the most historical battles by the Tikal was the destruction of the Jaguar paw at the Site Q.  After this battle, there was a notable rise in the city of Tikal. (Chase and Chase, 2001)

The documented history of the city of Tikal during the Classic period’s warfare illustrates that Tikal was able to build its power up again.  In 672 A.D., the city of Tikal broke away from the ruling of Dos Pilas and a new ruler took over in 682 A.D.  Tikal then destroyed Site Q’s king, Jaguar-Paw in 695 A.D.  In 743 A.D., Tikal defeated Yaxha.  This is when it is noted that Tikal had reached it maximum territory at about five more times its original land. (Chase and Chase, 2001)  In addition, the documented history in the city also provides insights into the kings of Tikal as well.

            The rulers of regional polities held their political power through the concentration of resources and the integration of farmers.  The rulers were in charge and dominated the exchange of the agriculture with other polities.  (Lucero, 2002:527)

TIKAL ECONOMY

Again with the excavations of architecture and the inscriptions, it is shown that the Mayan people of Tikal had a political society.  In addition, it is shown that they were also economical, particularly with agriculture and trade.  The agriculture was comprised of maize or corn. It was found that fields were slashed and burnt in order to prepare soil to plant.   The people also hunted and collected forest products.  It is also suggested that due to the population increase during the Early and Late Classic Periods, due to the Tikal’s overtake of other cities, that irrigation methods were introduced to their culture.  Sanders (1973:358) found that about 130 km2 of their land was most likely used for cultivation after the land containing structures or swamp was stripped out.  Dickson (1980:705) concluded that the people in Tikal cultivated maize and root crops intensively.  In addition,  Dickson (1980: 697) researched the different combinations of intensive farming that the people in Tikal undertook, known as milpa.  His results indicated that they used a mixed sub-sistence strategy using ramon seed aboriculture and root cropping along with kitchen gardening, trade, hunting and gathering.  In addition, Lucero (2003; 527) indicates that there was dense settlement and subsistence technology that resulted in plowed fields, canals, dams, terraces, ponds, and storage facilities.

In order to get a better idea of the Mayan culture in the city of Tikal, there has been extensive research conducted nutrition or diet of the people in Tikal.  Skeletal remains from the Classic period and concluded that there were iron deficiencies in most of the adults.  Iron deficiencies do not only reflect the deficiencies of the types of foods that are consumed, but is possible indicator of parasites.  Research has also shown that the people were game hunters and by the time of the time of the Late Pre-Classic period there was a decrease in the availability of animals, which led to a more dependence on crops.  (Masur, 2009:1-11) The garbage remains of the ancient city were also analyzed in order to obtain more information about the diet of the Maya people.   It has been indicated through these analyses that the Maya were particular about their garbage.  This is understandable considering they lived in a tropical location where food would deteriorate and decompose very quickly.  Upon decomposition, the attraction of other animals and insects would occur, leading to unsanitary conditions.  In addition, knowing that cities had high population densities, the garbage needed to be taken care of.  The Maya people actually constructed a garbage disposal system.  The garbage was removed from the home and town and used for fertilizer or fill.  However, it has been found that in Tikal, there were piles of garbage in some rooms indicating that the collection system failed and that people were living in their trash.  (Harrison, 1999; 150-175; Chase et al., 2004:11).

MAYA RITUALS

The Maya were also ritualistic and believed in the existence of supernatural universe.  They believed that the existed as three layers of a larger universe.  One of the layers was the underworld with darks water that lay beneath the earth and was nourished through the blood of kings during their sacred ritualistic ceremonies.  The above layer was known as the arch of heaven.  The arch of heaven contained a crocodile monster that released its blood as the rain.  The last layer was the Xibalba.  This was an unseen world for the kings. (Schele and Mathews, 1991; 225)  They also believed that trees were a link between the earth and underworld.  This symbolic world is illustrated through the Maya ceremonial centers, plazas and pyramids that exist in the ancient city.

The Maya community was also comprised of organizing themselves into families through blood relations and marriage.  They selected a single individual in the family to be the supreme authority.  This was usually the eldest male child.  The families were very large and contained several generations under in one household.  When the male and female married the extended family combined into larger groups referred to as lineages.  (Schele and Friedel, 1990; 20)

The Maya culture also used inheritance of the line through the male individual for the institution of kingship.  The families, therefore, were ranked by how close in heritage they were to the ranking king.   In addition, they used this lineage as a line to other social statuses.  For instance, an individual’s duty was usually determined from who their ancestors were.  They could be destined to be a laborer or if they were closer in heritage that would serve the emperor.  Somehow they were able to effectively use this classing system with tens of thousands of people in the ancient city.  The Mayans even integrate monuments of the Maya king during the Classic period as not only a political figure, but a family figure.  Sculptures also depict the king with supernatural powers as he performs the ritual of shedding his own blood.  It is said that this ritual was performed in order to illustrate how the king could open up to the supernatural world and was most likely performed to the public.  (Lucera, 2003; 523)

It was shown that during the Classic period, the center of the Mayan life in Tikal was the ritual of bloodletting. Bloodletting was a referred to as a gift from the body, and was used from the birth of children to the burying of the dead.  Bloodletting was comprised of a few drops of blood to the mutilation of different body parts in order for a large flow of blood to occur.  The most body parts used for blood flow were the tongue for both male and females and the male reproductive organ.  These are depicted on pieces of carved art.  (Schele and Friedel, 1990; 21)

As mentioned previously, the Maya thought of trees as a link from the earth to the underground.  They also prized trees as their way of living. Trees were used for food, medicines, paper, fuel and shade. They believed that the kings were like the trees and sustained the human world within a forest.  The king was also known to be in charge of his people.  The king made sure that the basic needs of his people were met through the use of craftsman, farmers, hunters and fisherman.  The interesting thing about the rulers of the Mayan was that there were no indications of wealth in the king.  Although it is believed that the king lived and ate well, there are no depictions of wealth in the excavations of the architecture.  (Schele and Friedel, 1990; 21)

Although the Maya seemed very spiritualistic, there is not much known about their religion.  It is known that they did believe in multiple gods that were in control of the natural world, such as the sun or rain.  In addition, it is also thought that one of the reasons for bloodletting was to please the gods.  (Schele and Friedel, 1990; 22)

THE FALL OF TIKAL

During the 8th and 9th century, there was an abandonment of the Maya civilizations.  Each of the ancient cities in the lowlands, including Tikal, was completely abandoned by 900 A.D.  Any type of inscription on the monuments just suddenly disappeared.  These abandonments are mysterious and the reason is still unknown; however, archeologists and historians have developed several reasons for the fall of the Maya civilization and the fall of the ancient city of Tikal.  It is theorized that warfare, weather conditions and drought, ecological depletion or even a combination of these factors played a role in the lowland abandonment.  (Lucero, 2002:814)

There is some archeological evidence of foreign invasion into the lowlands; however, it is theorized that one military defeat cannot be the cause of the entire Mayan civilization.  There is also evidence that Maya construction of monuments and buildings was at its peak during the 8th century; however, this can theorized that the building was forced on the peasant workers in the city.  The slave-like work put upon the workers could have resulted in a revolt and could explain the archeological evidence of the burning of the monuments.  Peasant revolutions throughout the cities of the Maya could have happened over time and could explain the decline in the Maya civilization and the complete abandonment of the city of Tikal.   (Crist and Paganini, 2006:23)

Another possibility is the weather conditions that led to a drought.  Researchers have recreated changes between precipitation and evaporation using the percentage of sulfur of sediments and the oxygen isotopes in the shells of fossilized gastropods and ostracods found in Lake Chichancanab on the Yucatan Peninsula (Hodell et al. 1995:392).  Water molecules containing the isotope 18O evaporates at a slower rate than water molecules with 16O.  During times of strong evaporation or drought, lake water becomes condensed with 18O.  These oxygen isotopes are contained in the shells of the molluscs (gastropods and ostracods) living in the lake.  In addition, evaporation causes sulfur to accumulate in the sediment.   After scientific evaluation, the variation in the percentage of sulfur of sediments matched the variation in oxygen isotopes of the gastropod shells, further implying that the Maya civilization underwent a drastic and long drought.  The drought, therefore, could have changed the ecology of the environment, which led to the decrease in food, resulting in famine.  The drought can then be considered the primary cause of the fall of the ancient cities, as well as the ancient Maya civilization.  (Hodell et al., 1995; 393)

Disease could have been another cause of the fall of the ancient cities of the Maya.  An intense, rapid and widespread disease could explain the instant decrease in the population in the city of Tikal, which was said to have around 500,000 people.  If we look at known historical facts of disease, we can infer that this is a great possibility.  For instance, the influenza virus of 1918 killed over 100 million people world-wide in less than a year.  The spread of this virus was extremely fast and people all over the world were afraid to be in contact with each other.   If a virus like this was brought to the Maya civilization, and perhaps it was brought from a foreign entity, since we do know that there was a foreign attack, this is a possibility.  In addition, since there were so many people crowded into one city, this could also explain how a virus could spread easily and quickly.  Furthermore, research has shown that the garbage in the city of Tikal was piled up in some of the rooms, leading to unsanitary conditions, another harbor for infectious diseases.

There is no one concrete reason for the fall of the city of Tikal.  It can be assumed that a combination of factors occurring at that time with the archeological and scientific evidence of warfare, revolt and drought were the main cause.  In addition, the possibility of a lethal and fast spreading virus could have wiped out the cities as well.  Overall, the Maya civilization and the monuments that were created in the great ancient city of Tikal have left historians and archeologists, as well as tourist from all over the world, fascinated with learning about their culture and fascinated with analyzing and interpreting the art left on their numerous architectural structures.

 

REFERENCES CITED

Chase, A. and Chase, D.

  1. Late Classic Maya Political Structure, Polity Size and Warfare Arenas.<www.dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/fichero_articulo?codigo=2775171. Chase, A., Chase, D., Teeter, W.
  1. Archaeology, Faunal Analysis and Interpretation: Lessons from Maya Studies Archaeofauna 13 : 11-18. Crist, R.E. and Paganini, L.A.
  1. The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology. 39(1):23-31. Culbert, Patrick T.

1991 Polities in the Northeast Peten, Guatemala. In P. Culbert, ed., Classic Maya Political History: Hieroglyphic and Archaeological Evidence, pp. 128-146. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Dickson, B.

  1. Ancient Agriculture and Population at Tikal, Guatemala: An Application of LinearProgramming to the Simulation of an Archaeological. Amercian Antiquity. Society for American Archaeology. 45(4):697-712. Friedal, D.A.
  1. Maya Warfare: An Example of Peer Polity Interaction. In Peer Polity and Interaction and the Development of the Socio-Political Change. Eds. C. Refnew and J.F. Cherry pgs. 93-108. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Garber, James F., et al.
  1. Jade Use in Portions of Mexico and Central America: Olmec, Maya, Costa Rica, and Honduras. In Precolumbian Jade: New Geological and Cultural Interpretations, Frederick W. Lange, ed., Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.  215-219 Harrison, P. D.

1999: The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City. Thames and Hudson, London. 208 pgs. Hassig, R.

  1. Aztec and Spanish Conquest in Mesoamerica. In War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warefare. Eds. R.B. Ferguson and N.L. Whitehead, pp. 83-102. School of American Research Press. Santa Fe. Hodell, D.A., Curtis, J.H., Brenner, M.
  1. Possible role of climate in the collapse of the Classic Maya Civilization. Nature 375: 391-394. Lucero, L.
  1. The Politics of Ritual. The Emergence of Ancient Maya Rulers. Current Anthropology 44(4):523-557. Lucero,  L.
  1. Collapse of the Classic Maya: A Case for the Role of Water Control. American Anthropologist, New Series, 104(3):814-826. McKillop , Heather
  1. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO: 249 . Masur, L.J.
  1. Stature Trends in Ancient Maya Populations: Re-Examining Studies from Tikal and Altar de Sacrificios. Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology. 17(1). Article 10: 11pgs. Mathews, P.
  1. Maya Early Classic Monuments and Inscriptions. In A Consideration of the Early Classic Period in the Maya Lowlands. Eds. G.R. Wiley and P. Mathews. Pgs.5-54. Institute for Mesoamerican Studies Publication. Albany, NY. Martin, S. and Grub, N.
  1. Maya Superstates. Archeology. 48(6):41-46. Roberts, D.
  1. Secrets of the Maya: Deciphering Tikal. Smithsoian.com. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history archaeology/tikal.html Schele, L. and Freidel, D.
  1. A Forest of King. NewYork, William Morrow. Pp. 85–92 Schele, L. and Mathews, P.
  1. Royal Visits and Other Intersite Relationships Among the Classic Maya. In Classic Maya Political History: Hieroglyphic and Archeological Evidence. E.D. T. P. Culbert, pg. 226-252. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Tokovinine, A. and  Fialko, V.
  1. Stela 45 of Naranjo and the Early Classic Lords of Sa’aal. The PARI Journal. Volume VII(4): 1-14.
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