This ancient Maya city may have helped the Snake King dynasty spread

Lidar maps and hieroglyphics suggest La Corona wasn’t so isolated after all

La Corona

MAYA HUB  An ancient Maya site called La Corona (shown in this artist’s illustration with a ceremonial center in the foreground) was a remote but key part of a large Classic Maya state, new research suggests.


WASHINGTON — New insights into an ancient Maya kingdom are coming from a remote outpost in the Guatemalan jungle.

Aerial laser maps, excavations and stone-slab hieroglyphics indicate that La Corona, a largely rural settlement, became a key part of a far-ranging Classic-era Maya kingdom that incorporated sites from southern Mexico to Central America, researchers reported on April 15 at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. Classic Maya civilization lasted from around 250 to 900.

A dynasty of Kaanul rulers, also called Snake Kings, expanded their domain from their home city of Calakmul in Mexico by using La Corona as a relay center for precious stones and other goods from Kaanul-controlled sites farther south, said archaeologist Marcello Canuto.

“Our work supports the idea that the ancient Maya formed interconnected political systems, not largely separate city-states as traditionally thought,” said Canuto, of Tulane University in New Orleans, who codirects the La Corona excavation.

Laser mapping in 2016 covered more than 2,100 square kilometers of the Guatemalan lowlands containing many ancient Maya sites. A small plane equipped with light detection and ranging equipment, or lidar, used laser pulses to gather data on the shape of the ground covered by trees and vegetation (SN: 7/23/16, p. 9). Lidar findings often guide investigators to previously unrecognized remains of past settlements.

Lidar evidence showed that a small, heavily populated core area at La Corona had existed within a large, sparsely populated rural expanse. Canuto estimates that between 5,000 and 8,000 people crowded into La Corona during its Classic-era heyday.

Lidar map
SPRAWL SCENE A lidar map portrays population densities at La Corona and nearby Classic Maya sites. Red denotes areas with the greatest number of inhabitants. La Corona and sites such as El Peru-Waka’ and Holmul were incorporated into a kingdom that conquered powerful Tikal in 562. Marcello Canuto, Luke Auld-Thomas, PACUNAM

That population bulge at La Corona corresponded to a period from 520 to 740 when Kaanul kings transformed a series of Guatemalan sites into satellites of a state with Calakmul as the capital, said archaeologist Tomás Barrientos of the University of the Valley of Guatemala in Guatemala City. Barrientos codirects La Corona excavations with Canuto.

Although subordinate to Calakmul, La Corona’s remote location may have enabled it to maintain some political independence, Canuto proposed. But little is known about how Kaanul kings ran their state.

Key clues to Calakmul’s rule over La Corona come from stone monuments covered with hieroglyphics at the latter site (SN: 10/8/05, p. 227). Stone inscriptions at La Corona dating to 314, about two centuries before Kaanul rule, describe the arrival of specific Maya gods. La Corona’s local rulers associated themselves closely with those deities. Mention of these same gods appears on a carved monument from 546 describing La Corona as being under the control of a large capital city. Local leaders installed by rulers from the capital city, likely Calakmul, must have wanted to associate themselves publicly with revered La Corona gods, Barrientos said.

 “To create a new state, Kaanul rulers manipulated traditional mythology at La Corona and celebrated their connections to deities that had preceded their arrival,” Barrientos proposed. These celebrations included ritual feasts, he said. Remains of feasts from the Kaanul era, including bones from butchered animals, have been excavated in stone pits situated in a La Corona ceremonial plaza.

Specific references to the northern capital appear more than a century later at La Corona in written records of Calakmul royal ceremonies and a local nobleman’s transformation into a ruler under the supervision of Calakmul’s king.

Considering its small area, La Corona’s population center contains a surprising amount of writing on carved stones, said epigrapher Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. Martin, who studies Maya hieroglyphics, is not a member of the La Corona excavation team. That extensive writing and record keeping indicates that La Corona played an important role in the Kaanul state, Martin said. “So much text at such a small site suggests La Corona served as a conduit for sending goods north to Calakmul.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated April 20, 2018, to correct the Classic-era population estimate for La Corona. While an estimated 2 million to 3 million people lived in the region, several thousand lived in the settlement itself.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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