Posted by: Johan Normark | October 13, 2010

The last Maya kingdom(s)

I am currently writing a review of the book The Kowoj: Identity, Migration, and Geopolitics in Late Postclassic Petén, Guatemala for Cambridge Archaeological Journal (CAJ). The book focuses on the Postclassic- and Contact-period Maya around the eastern lakes in Central Petén in Guatemala. The Central Petén area became a refuge zone for Maya who fled the Spanish encomiendas in the northern lowlands. The area was occupied by people from different lineages and ethnic groups with linguistic differences. At least three political territories existed in the area and they are known as Kowoj, Yalain and Kan Ek’ (“Itza”). Most people have probably heard about the Itza who claimed descent from Chichen Itza in the northern lowlands. Their fate is also best known since it was their kingdom that the Spaniards conquered in 1697.

However, this was not the only kingdom in the area at that time. Their main rivals were the Kowoj who claim to have migrated to the Petén area from Mayapán. They maintained a distinct ethno-political identity as did the Itza.

In 1693 the Spanish crown decided to create a road between Yucatan and the highlands of Guatemala. Spanish troops attempted to “pacify” the area in-between and they advanced toward the Itza territory in 1695. At this time there were rumors about k’atun prophecies that predicted the arrival of a new age at K’atun 8 Ajaw when the Itza should surrender to the Spaniards.

The Franciscan Avendaño y Loyola went to the Itza capital Nojpeten (Flores) in early 1696 and met with the Itza ruler Ajaw Kan Ek’ and his enemy, the principal Kowoj leader. They discussed the timing and meaning of the k’atun prophecies. Ajaw Kan Ek’ argued that they signified surrender whereas Aj Kowoj argued that they signified resistance. Aj Kowoj forced Avendaño to leave.

In February 1697 Martín de Ursúa y Arismendi arrived with his troops from Campeche. They attacked Nojpeten on March 13 with a heavily armed attack boat. Ajaw Kan Ek’, Aj Kowoj and their families were captured. Ursúa returned to Campeche and left a small garrison on Nojpeten. A military rescue mission returned with supplies and reinforcements from Guatemala in 1699. The Guatemalans brought with them a devastating epidemic that killed much of the troops, settlers and the native population. The native population is believed to have dropped from 60,000 persons in 1697 to 6,000 in 1708. The troops left with Ajaw Kan Ek’ and part of his family. The king and his son ended up in Antigua in the Guatemalan highlands for the rest of their lives under house arrest.

This is primarily the history of the end of the last Maya kingdom(s) as we know from historical sources. My book review will focus on the archaeological research done at Zacpetén, which is believed to be a major Kowoj settlement. That review will hopefully be published in this year’s final issue of CAJ.

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