Posted by: Johan Normark | September 17, 2009

The last stand at El Mirador?

As mentioned in an earlier post, the origin and development of the Kaan kingdom is of major interest in Mayanist studies. Excavations at Ichkabal attempts to prove that the original capital of the kingdom lay in the east, and not at Calakmul in the west where the capital lay during the Late Classic period. A rivaling hypothesis is that the enormous site of El Mirador in northern Guatemala once was the capital of the Kaan kingdom. One important piece of evidence is that El Mirador and Calakmul appears to have been connected by a causeway. The causeway would then have been constructed during the Late Formative. After the Late Formative “collapse” of El Mirador and other major sites in its vicinity, around AD 150, Tikal to the south rose to prominence. We know from later history that Tikal and Calakmul (or more precisely the Kaan kingdom) were enemies and it is likely that the hostility began earlier.

Exactly what happened around AD 150 is not known. There may have been a drought according to Dahlin, Gill and other proponents for climate causes. Other environmental problem caused by anthropogenic processes like deforestation for the production of lavish stucco decoration is another hypothesis. Political causes are also possible. Tikal is well known for its Early Classic connections to the Central Mexican metropolis Teotihuacán. In AD 378, it is believed that Teotihuacán intervened in Tikal’s political affairs and installed a new ruler in the following year. However, the Teotihuacán involvement in the lowland affairs existed earlier than this.

A few years ago Stanley Guenter told me about the existence of obsidian and chert spear tips and arrow heads on the summit of the 50 m high El Tigre pyramid at El Mirador. Richard Hansen has recently excavated this area and found obsidian and chert spear tips along with bones and smashed ceramics. There are over 200 obsidian tips and these come from the Central Mexican highlands. These are believed to have been brought there by warriors from Teotihuacán. The chert points are local or at least from the Maya area and believed to have been used by warriors from El Mirador. DNA tests on blood samples from the spear tips and arrow heads are to be carried out. The hope is to find DNA from different ethnic groups on the obsidian and chert objects.

However, the article says nothing about the date of this battle. It appears not to have occurred in AD 150, but quite some time after this. Hansen believes that maybe roughly 200 people continued to live among the ruins of the site that once held 100,000 or more people. The hypothesis seems to be that people from Teotihuacán/Tikal, after the entrada in 378, decided to finish off El Mirador once and for all. Perhaps El Mirador, as a possible ancestral site for the Kaan kingdom, had become more of a symbol that needed to be demolished in the struggle for control of the central lowlands? Its real economic importance must surely have disappeared by then (unless the battle occurred in AD 150).

There is graffiti on the stelae at El Mirador that Hansen believes were left by the warriors from Teotihuacán since the graffiti appears to depict crude versions of Tlaloc, the Central Mexican warrior and rain god.

In any case, whether or not the battle took place around AD 150 or around AD 378, is perhaps not the major issue here. It is the fact that Teotihuacanos found it important to take over or finish off this site. It has been a long standing issue of the nature of the influence that Teotihuacán exerted on the Maya lowlands during the Classic period. However, it appears that the major expansion of the Teotihuacán Empire occurred around AD 150, that is, after the demise of the Mirador basin sites. More research is definitely needed in order to sort out the role of El Mirador in the wider Mesoamerican area. Too little is known of this area and time.



  1. This is a comment to a comment posted in the wrong post (by Morgan). Here is the original comment:

    “We are what we are, and it is what it is. I’m a latecomer to the illustrious Mayans and all that they were, and all that is coming into focus lately, that they were’nt. I had been looking, probably in the wrong places, for more connections acknowle-dging EL Mirador as the central player in the development, if not birth, of the Kaan kingdom. I am still searching, any leads for my curiosity? Thank-you for your insights. Stick to your instincts. The mayans, olmecs and their kin,lived their instincts!”

    Personally I think that El Mirador is connected to the development of the Kaan kingdom (if we now necessarily must have a direct line of descent between the Late Formative and the Classic period sites, I am sceptical to that approach in the first place). The problem is that the king list of the Kaan kings does not really go back that far. However, it seems that Calakmul was part of El Mirador’s central areas of control (like Nakbe and Tintal). A complete break with El Mirador is not likely, but if the kingdom originated in the east (Ichkabal and Dzibanche), the rulers of El Mirador may have been of another kingdom. Why the Kaan kings decided to move the capital to Calakmul from Dzibanche we simply do not know (or why the capital was moved to Dzibanche in the first place if the kingdom originated around Calakmul/Mirador). Anyhow, the discussion primarily concerns the upper social stratum and probably not the majority of the population at Calakmul, they were more likely descendents of the people that once lived at El Mirador and of course at Late Formative Calakmul as well (but then, there is the problem of migrations)…

  2. Johan,

    I actually gave a presentation on this very topic of El Mirador and the Snake Kingdom in the Early Classic period (ca. A.D. 200-400) at this year’s Maya Meetings in Austin. I can send you a pdf version of my powerpoint if you like. In it I show the two earliest versions of the Snake Emblem Glyph yet found, one coming from the El Mirador barrio of La Muerta and the other from Tintal. These examples can be paleographically dated earlier than the examples from Dzibanche, which is why I don’t consider southern Quintana Roo to be the origin of the Snake Kingdom. On present evidence, at least, El Mirador and its environs are definitely the best candidate for the fons et origo of the Snake Kingdom.

    Incidentally, as far as I know there has never been any archaeological confirmation of the purported causeway between El Mirador and Calakmul. There are some indications of a causeway heading north from El Mirador, and one heading south from Calakmul, but no one has found evidence of a causeway that spans the entire distance between the two sites. There may well be one, but I am unaware of anyone who has actually managed to actually find it on the ground.

    • Hi Stanley. I’d like a copy of your presentation if it’s not too much trouble.
      Hope all is well,

      • I forward this message to him in case he does not read the comment.

    • Hello Stanley. I would also very much appreciate having a copy of your presentation if it’s not too much trouble sending it to me. Thanking you in advance, Beth Chambers

  3. That seems to be compelling evidence for a connection between El Mirador and the Kaan kingdom. Do you think the king list from codex-style ceramics relate to these earlier kings or do you think they are mythological kings? Any idea of why Dzibanche became the center for the Kaan kingdom in EC (or was it not)? And yes, I would like to see that pdf version.

    I believe it is Folan who has entertained the idea of the possible causeway. As far as I know, no one has checked out if they are connected. That would definitely be something I’d like to do. Slightly difficult logistics though.

  4. […] The last stand at El Mirador? « Archaeological Haecceities Sep 16, 2009 A few years ago Stanley Guenter told me about the existence of obsidian and chert spear tips and arrow heads on the summit of the 50 m high El Tigre pyramid at El Mirador. Richard Hansen has recently excavated this area and found … Apocalypto — 150 AD | BEYONDbones Sep 21, 2009 El Mirador can best be described with superlatives. Two of its platform-pyramid complexes are among the largest by volume in the world. Known as La Danta (or tapir) and El Tigre, these pyramids are 72 and 55 meters tall respectively. … In Small Things Found: El Mirador – Destroyed by Teotihuacanos? Sep 21, 2009 Press reports coming from the El Mirador project are intriguing, to say the least. This will complicate the arguments over the relationships between Teotihuacan and Tikal, and El Mirador and Calakmul. … "We've found over 200 of the obsidian tips alone, as well as flint ones, indicating there was a tremendous battle," said excavation leader Richard Hansen, a senior scientist in Idaho State University's anthropology department who is pushing the pyramid battle theory." … More blog results » 2 Blog discussions:More Google Blog Resultstemadee – bruce wasserstein, popthatzit., pop that zit, …by temadeemirador pyramid meatloaf recipe kennedy expressway carla hughes sentencing nfl week 6 picks cake wrecks cheap halloween costumes for adults amazing grace baptist church canton nc cheri oteri zhu zhu pet hamsters …miradorby wClick this icon to see all public photos and videos tagged with Mirador Ensenada Mirador Ensenada · Click this icon to see all public photos and videos tagged with Flickr Tour Ensenada Flickr Tour Ensenada mirador pyramid, el mirador, … Related ArticlesBookmarksTags There are no related articles. Digg it Stumble reddit Yahoo Google Leave a Comment […]

  5. I have attended presentations by Mirador BAsin staff members where it was speculated that El Mirador was abandoned following an event of violence around AD 150 or a little later. A defensive wall and artifacts found crushed under the burned debris of Structure 34 are evidence of what is thought of as the fall of the Mirador kingdom, which predates the Teotihuacan battle by several hundred years.

    The next site that the Kaan glyph shows up at is Dzibanche, hosted the Kaan kingdom during the beginnings of its spectular rise to dominance of the lowlands during the fifth century. It was not until late in the sixth century that definitive evidence shows the Kaans firmly established at Calakmul.

  6. Yes, the abandonment of Mirador predates the Teotihuacan related battle. Dahlin and others believe that Mirador also experienced a severe drought around AD 150 that may have triggered the violent event.

    As for Dzibanche, Nalda is currently excavating nearby Ichkabal which he believes may be the original capital of the Kan kingdom. Guenters interpretation, however, sounds more convincing to me.

  7. I am familiar with the data collected my David Wahl and Tom Schreiner in the Mirador Basin concerning environmental change over the past five thousand years and it is quite interesting. The soil studies from bajos and small lakes in the region indicate that the region experienced sigificant climate variation aound AD 150 which culminated in a climate event that stripped much of the soil from the uplands, depositing them in thick layers in the bajos around the Mirador Basin and burying their bajo-based agricultural works. Rather than drought, the effects of several of these rain events (super hurricanes) undermined the subsistence systems of the Kaan kingdom at El Mirador. It is not so much of a stretch to imagine that after such a series of disasters, the Kaan kingdom might have been significantly weakened to fall prey to their enemies.

    The evidence for the Mirador Basin being the original seat of Kaan power is fairly convincing to me. I do not know what evidence is coming out of Ichkabal to support the claim that it is the original seat of power for the Kaans.

  8. Dahlin’s study, which was done twenty years before Wahl and Schreiner’s study, along with climate data from Lake Chichancanab near my own area of research in Quintana Roo/Yucatan have been used to propose severe droughts as explanations for various “collapses” (but hurricanes would also do the trick of destroying the agricultural systems).

    Explanations for settlement abandonment and warfare based on climate change are popping up like mushrooms on the forest floor. It is not that I do not see climate change as important, it is just so revealing that these studies follow trends in our own society. See my earlier comment on Tainter’s review of Gill, Webster and Diamond:

    I wrote a comment on the explorations of Ichkabal in an earlier post:

    Apparently I did not link to INAH, but the original report is somewhere on their website.


%d bloggers like this: