WASHINGTON (April 12, 2004)—Deep in the jungles of Guatemala, archaeologists are uncovering astounding evidence of an early Maya civilization — one that was flourishing before the time of Christ. Clues to a lost dynasty of kings, a breathtaking mural, a monumental mask, what may be the biggest pyramid ever built…these discoveries are pushing back the clock by more than two millennia, revealing the origins of Maya civilization.
This new understanding of the ancient Maya is explored in “DAWN OF THE MAYA,” a National Geographic Special premiering Wednesday, May 12, on PBS (check local listings). The program features revolutionary finds by experts in the field, several not documented on television until now.
With magnificent cities like Tikal and Chichén Itzá, the Maya of the New World rivaled ancient Egypt and Rome in their splendor and intellectual advancement. But the early years of Maya history had long been dismissed as a primitive era, lost in myth, before the Maya’s rise to greatness. Now a new generation of archaeologists is turning that idea on its head. Their excavations reveal a sophisticated Preclassic Maya world thriving up to 2,000 years before Spanish conquistadores landed on American shores.
At the Preclassic city of Cival, Guatemalan archaeologist and National Geographic grantee Francisco Estrada-Belli, of Vanderbilt University, has uncovered a major find: a massive face mask of a sun god carved on the wall of the main temple pyramid. “It’s almost as if someone made this yesterday. It’s incredible to imagine that we’re touching this and we’re looking at this just as people did over 2,000 years ago,” he says. Estrada-Belli believes two pairs of these masks flanked the temple stairway and provided the backdrop for elaborate rituals in which the king impersonated the gods of creation. Footage from this site appears for the first time on “DAWN OF THE MAYA.”
With their god-like powers, the early Maya rulers could commission vast construction projects. The sprawling Preclassic city of El Mirador contains the massive pyramid of Danta and is estimated to have been home to approximately 100,000 people.
Richard Hansen, UCLA archaeologist and National Geographic grantee, has worked in the Mirador Basin for more than 20 years to uncover the enigma of the early Maya. He dreams of finding kings from the dawn of Maya time and hopes that locating their tombs will provide a window to their lives. “They’re lost to history. Other than seeing the physical evidence of their prowess, we’ve never had a chance to know them personally,” he says.
Hansen focuses on a small pyramid at El Mirador, which bears a magnificent engraving of a large jaguar paw. A king who Hansen believes governed from 152 B.C. to 145 B.C. was called Great Fiery Jaguar Paw, and Hansen thinks the pyramid may be his burial place. A ground-penetrating electrical imaging system reveals an 8-meter-by-2-meter cavity inside the pyramid. Could this be the site of a royal tomb?
Some 60 miles from El Mirador, at the city of San Bartolo, William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire has made one of the most important Maya finds in a century. He stumbled on the site while resting in a looters’ trench at the entrance to a ruin. Shining his flashlight on a wall, he saw a vibrantly colored mural — one of only two great Maya murals ever found and by far the earliest in such exquisite condition.
“I just burst out laughing, to be honest. The improbability of finding a mural…it had been more than 50 years since a mural in this type of preservation had been found,” he says. “l felt incredibly privileged to sit here in this room that hadn’t been occupied for 2,000 years and uncover this incredible work of art.”
The expansive mural, whose secrets are still being uncovered, depicts a scene from the great Maya myth of creation, with details never before seen. David Stuart, a hieroglyphics expert from Harvard University, is helping to decipher the symbols on the mural, which include some of the earliest painted Maya glyphs ever found. According to Karl Taube, of the University of California at Riverside and an expert on Maya iconography, “In terms of Preclassic Maya, this is basically a Sistine Chapel, a painting of origin and creation.”
By the year A.D. 250, the Maya Preclassic period had come to an end. Richard Hansen suspects that in constructing their great buildings, the early Maya exhausted the environment on which their farming depended and contributed to their own downfall.
“Once the early Maya went into decline, they were all but forgotten,” says Senior Executive Producer Michael Rosenfeld. “Now we know that their achievements were every bit as dazzling as the Classic Maya who came centuries later. This is the new frontier in Maya archaeology, and it’s very exciting to bring it back to life.”
“DAWN OF THE MAYA” is produced, written and directed by Graham Townsley. Michael Rosenfeld is senior executive producer; Laura Weinstein is co-producer.
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NOTE: A preview screening of “DAWN OF THE MAYA” will be held at National Geographic on April 29 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the National Geographic Live! lecture series. Archaeologist Richard Hansen will then offer a behind-the-scenes look at his work at El Mirador and his quest to understand the rise and fall of the Preclassic Maya.
“DAWN OF THE MAYA” will be released on video (VHS format) on May 12, for $19.95. It will be available by direct order only by calling 800-627-5162 or by ordering online at www.nationalgeographic.com.
An article on one of the earliest royal Maya graves ever found — recently discovered at Takalik Abaj in Guatemala — will appear in the May 2004 issue of National Geographic magazine.