Mysterious foreigner may have ruled ancient Maya kingdom

Bone chemistry suggests one of Copan’s early rulers came from afar

jade bar

ROYAL SIGN  A jade bar found next to a man’s remains at the Maya site of Copan bears a mat design, which denoted he had governing power. An analysis of the man’s teeth suggests he grew up far from Copan.

T.D. Price

Imported royalty may have sparked the rise of an ancient Maya kingdom.

An early Maya king and his retainers grew up hundreds of kilometers away from the seat of power, a new study suggests. The foreigners’ remains were found at Copan, an ancient Maya site in what’s now western Honduras. These Maya aristocrats may have played central roles in that city’s royal dynasty, probably thanks to local connections, proposes a team led by archaeologist T. Douglas Price of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The new findings, reported in the December Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, are based on chemical analyses of teeth from 32 human skeletons excavated among the remains of a residential compound near Copan’s city center between 1999 and 2002. Of those individuals, 14 displayed signs of having spent their childhoods well outside the Copan vicinity, in the Maya heartland of Guatemala as well as in Belize and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

Tooth enamel contains chemical signatures of the foods and liquids consumed during infancy and childhood. Relative amounts of certain forms of strontium and oxygen in that enamel vary from one region to another, roughly signaling where a person was born and lived early in life.

burial chamber at Copan
RULER’S TOMB A burial chamber at Copan, seen from above, contained a stone bench where an early king’s body had been placed along with jade items and other valuable offerings. New chemical evidence indicates that this unknown ruler was not from Copan. T.D. Price
The body of one of the Copan foreigners was found in a tomb, laying on a stone bench with a jade ruler’s scepter, carved jade bars and other items pointing to royal status. The researchers refer to this individual as “ruler X,” since his name is unknown. Pottery placed near the body indicates the tomb was built between 400 and 525, during the early stages of Copan’s growth.

Carved inscriptions at Copan indicate that the site’s founding king, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, assumed power in 426 or 427. A sequence of 15 Copan rulers followed him and reigned until about 822. One of those kings could have been ruler X. Price’s team reported in 2010 that a chemical analysis of the remains of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, found in a tomb in the city center, showed he had grown up west of Copan in Guatemala. Ancient Maya inscriptions — which mix historical facts with royal propaganda, leaving room for doubt about their accuracy — say that K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ came from a distant land.

Evidence that K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ and ruler X grew up far from where they reigned is consistent with the idea that early states in various parts of the world were able to form because they vested power in prominent foreigners, or “stranger kings,” the researchers say. Such foreigners would have had the authority to organize local extended families into political entities of unprecedented size.

The presence of other individuals with foreign roots buried near ruler X, many accompanied by jade items and pottery, “strongly suggests that stranger kings didn’t arrive alone but came with others to places where they had local connections via trade, family ties and travel,” says anthropologist Charles Golden of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

The Copan finds suggest that ancient Maya kings and princes may have relocated their seats of power over great distances, not only to start new dynasties but also to strengthen preexisting ones, says anthropologist Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

It’s possible, though, that ruler X was driven from another kingdom by war or internal strife and lived in powerless exile at Copan until he died, Martin says.

Maya kings frequently associated themselves with symbols and places of foreign power, notes anthropologist Andrew Scherer of Brown University in Providence, R.I. Copan’s K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, for instance, aligned himself with the ancient central Mexican city of Teotihuacan. And homegrown kings typically claimed to be descendants of foreigners and that they served as liaisons to the gods, essentially making all Maya rulers stranger kings, Scherer says.

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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