Ancient Maya king shows his foreign roots

Dynastic founder may have been installed by kingdom to the north

A man’s skeleton found atop a stone slab at Copán, which was the capital of an ancient Maya state, contains clues to a colonial expansion that occurred more than 1,000 years before Spanish explorers reached the Americas.

ROYAL FOREIGNER A tomb excavated at Copán, ancient capital of a Maya state, contains the bones of the site’s first king, researchers say. New evidence suggests that a distant Maya city colonized Copán and installed this dynastic founder. Courtesy of the Early Copán Acropolis Program, U. of Penn. Museum and Instituto Hondureno de Antropologia e Historia

The bones come from K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, or KYKM for short, the researchers report in an upcoming Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. KYKM was the first of 16 kings who ruled Copán and surrounding highlands of what is today northern Honduras for about 400 years, from 426 to 820, say archaeologist T. Douglas Price of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and his colleagues. KYKM’s bone chemistry indicates that he grew up in the central Maya lowlands, which are several hundred kilometers northwest of Copán.

Along with inscriptions at Copán, the new evidence suggests that the site’s first king was born into a ruling family at Caracol, a powerful lowland kingdom in Belize. KYKM probably spent his young adult years as a member of the royal court at Tikal, a Maya kingdom in the central lowlands of Guatemala, before being sent to Copán to found a new dynasty at the settlement there, Price’s team proposes.

“These findings reinforce the notion that the Copán state was founded as part of a colonial expansion,” says archaeologist and study coauthor Robert Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “They also demonstrate the widespread connections maintained by Maya kings.” This line of investigation aims to unravel how Classic era Maya city-states, which dominated parts of Mexico and Central America from about 200 to 900, originated and developed.

Hieroglyphics at Copán that were deciphered more than 20 years ago refer to KYKM as a foreigner who was inaugurated as king in 426 and arrived the next year. But it has been unclear whether the inscriptions referred to an actual historical event or were a form of royal propaganda. In 2007, archaeologist David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin noticed that an inscription carved on a Copán stone monument referred to KYKM by a title indicating that he was originally a Caracol lord.

Archaeologists Arlen Chase and Diane Chase of the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who direct excavations at Caracol, consider it plausible that Copán’s first king was a Caracol lord but doubt that he arrived via Tikal. No signs of a political relationship between Caracol and Tikal appear at the time that KYKM took over at Copán, Arlen Chase notes.

Instead, KYKM probably came directly from Caracol, Arlen Chase says. By the year 150, Caracol hosted numerous royal activities and had extensive ties to settlements near Copán. “It would not be surprising for Copán to have coveted a Caracol individual to become their first ruler,” he says.

Sharer led a team that tunneled beneath the remains of the Copán Acropolis, a private royal complex, about a decade ago. Workers discovered three royal tombs containing skeletons, as well as four individuals buried in pits or beneath platforms outside the tombs.

An impressive vaulted chamber called the Hunal Tomb held the remains of a roughly 55-year-old man’, adorned by several large jade objects. The tomb’s construction style and pottery offerings suggested that the man was powerful, with connections to both Tikal and another Early Classic kingdom, Teotihuacan in central Mexico. Sharer’s team regards the tomb as that of KYKM.

Ratios of strontium and oxygen isotopes in teeth from the Hunal skeleton, along with comparable data for commoners buried at Copán and for animals and people living today in Central America, support that scenario. These measurements reflect local water sources and geology where a person grew up. KYKM spent most of his early years in the Tikal region, the study concludes.

Until researchers gather a more representative sample of isotopic ratios from throughout the Maya area, KYKM’s Caracol origins remain tentative, Stuart remarks.

Three other individuals buried under Copán’s Acropolis came from outside the Copán area, the new study concludes. But a woman in one royal tomb, presumably KYKM’s wife, grew up in Copán.

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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