Posted by: Johan Normark | August 27, 2010

Stairway to Heaven

In 2003 the Kiuic project hosted the traditional 4th of July party for gringo archaeologists working in the northern Yucatan peninsula. This was my first season with the CRAS project and instead of joining the party and visit the site I spent the weekend in Merida with my wife. Anyway, in USA TODAY there is an article on the interesting finds at this Puuc site.

In short, the site had roughly 4,000 inhabitants when it was rapidly abandoned around 880. The evidence for the abandonment being rapid consists of walls lying flat on the ground waiting to be erected on top of a palace, a half-finished plaza and pots and metates (grinding stones) left in some buildings. One of the elite compounds with metates in the buildings is located on top of a hill overseeing the site. It is called Stairway to Heaven.

Why was the site abandoned then? There are no traces of hastily created fortifications like at Aguateca, Dos Pilas or Chunchucmil. Some spear points have been found in the central plaza but it is not enough to support warfare as direct cause. A mega-drought à la Richardson Gill then? Could chultuns (subterranean water cisterns) have dried up? It is always a possibility but it does not explain why people did not return to the site once the drought was over (Gill would say that everyone or almost everyone died). A crucial aspect here is that settlement in the area existed before the chultuns were excavated. Population increase cannot explain the increase in chultuns since the area lacks any “natural” water sources to compete over in the first place (cenotes do not exist here).

If I understand the article correctly, it appears that the buildings at the Stairway to Heaven underwent ritual termination where old buildings were destroyed to make way for new ones (that never were constructed or were left half-finished in the case of the plaza). Could this be a termination ritual for the whole site like that suggested by Prudence Rice for may-cycle seats (or perhaps katun seats in the case of the smaller size of Kiuic)? I am not a strong believer in her model for periods earlier than the Postclassic from where it is derived. However, the article hints that people had plans to continue the constructions after the termination ritual. Something made them change their minds.



  1. The USA today article indicates that ritual termination did not take place, though that might have been considered normal. The article does suggest that people may have expected to return but this is simply speculation. Later construction of Chulturns could indicate that the population was growing, agriculture had to be expanded so water management was needed, OR that the climate/rainfall was deteriorating and water needed to be managed.

    There is an indication that Mayan culture was gradually declining at the time, less writing or hieroglyphics. This could be evidence of economic decline, coupled with pressure on agriculture this could be a justification for abandonement – Consolidation of population and resources in more productive areas. Could have been an instruction to abandon from higher authorities?

    What seems so significant is that, neither was this location reinhabited by those who left, nor was it re-occupied by other groups or civilisations, hence it is still quite intact. It became land not required by anybody and returned to jungle.

    Perhaps it should be seen in context of general economic decline?

    • There is a decline in hieroglyphic writing on preserved monuments during this time. However, they were still creating codices. At Chichen Itza they ceased with writing on their monuments during the Modified florescent period but they still created large scale monuments. I would suggest a change in emphasis on what to include on monuments rather than reflecting a general economical decline as an explanation.

      Why was not the Puuc area densely populated later? One answer could be that the Postclassic population was lower than before and this population did not need to settle in areas without water. They preferred living closer to permanent water sources.


%d bloggers like this: