Maya warfare takes 10 steps forward

Hieroglyphics carved into recently discovered stairs on the side of an ancient Maya pyramid recount a tale of betrayal and warfare spearheaded by two dominant city-states.

STAIR WARS. Investigators sit on hieroglyphic stairs bearing war stories at the Maya site of Dos Pilas. K. Garrett/National Geographic Society

A hurricane that hit the Guatemalan site of Dos Pilas last summer exposed a section of the staircase. Researchers led by Federico Fahsen of Vanderbilt University in Nashville excavated the area and deciphered inscriptions blanketing 10 newly uncovered steps. The finds, described in the October National Geographic, add to eight previously investigated steps in the same staircase that had been discovered nearby.

Writing on the new steps describes events from nearly 1,500 years ago, during the reign of a Dos Pilas king named Balaj Chan K’awiil. Inscriptions tell of his installation at age 4 by order of his older brother, who ruled the nearby kingdom of Tikal.

Balaj Chan K’awiil maintained good relations with Tikal until his early 20s, when hieroglyphics note that another Maya kingdom, Calakmul, conquered Dos Pilas.

Aligning himself with Calakmul, the young ruler then defeated Tikal in battle and executed his brother.

Researchers had known that Dos Pilas became a regional power around that time. The new information shows that the settlement was a pawn in a battle between Maya superpowers, says Fahsen. In contrast, some anthropologists regard Dos Pilas as having been one of many comparably powerful city-states.

Fahsen presents the first evidence for an attack on Dos Pilas by Calakmul, comments Harvard University’s David Stuart, a specialist in Maya writing. However, other Dos Pilas hieroglyphics deciphered over the past decade had already outlined a fierce rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul, with Dos Pilas caught in the middle, Stuart says.


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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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