By Joel Skidmore

Text Index

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Go to page: Central Mexicans from Teotihuacan marched into the Maya lowlands in the Early Classic period. Strong evidence to this effect has been presented by hieroglyphics expert David Stuart of Harvard University. The repercussions of this direct intervention in Maya politics were serious indeed for the dynasty of Tikal.

Dr. Stuart's article, "'The Arrival of Strangers': Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History", is published in Mesoamerica's Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, edited by Davíd Carrasco, Lindsay Jones and Scott Sessions, from the University of Colorado. An excerpt from the PARI Newsletter is available online.

Go to page: Previously it had been understood that Teotihuacan had at least influenced the art style of the Maya of Tikal and neighboring Uaxactún. Clemency Coggins and Tatiana Proskouriakoff had even posited a military incursion into the Maya heartland.

Go to page: Coggins suggested that one of the rulers of Tikal had come from the highland Maya site of Kaminaljuyú. Here, even more extensive use of Teotihuacan decorative styles, coupled with architecture characteristic of the Mexican metropolis, had led archaeologists to suggest that warrior merchants from Teotihuacan had conquered Kaminaljuyú and established a Maya outpost in imitation of their homeland.

Go to page: But other scholars debated the conclusions to be drawn about Kaminaljuyú. And as regards the lowlands, it was widely asserted that the Maya, independent and self-sufficient, had merely appropriated symbols of prestige and legitimacy from Teotihuacan.

Go to page: In Forest of Kings, Linda Schele and David Freidel suggested that Tikal had adapted Teotihuacan militaristic ideology (and technology in the form of the spearthrower) in refining their own cult of "Venus-Tlaloc warfare". The evidence from archaeology and stylistic analysis was inconclusive in resolving the historical issue.

Fortunately, the Maya themselves were historians, and David Stuart realized that their texts might hold the key to the mystery. His breakthrough was in large measure made possible by the work of another epigrapher, Barbara MacLeod. A professional airplane pilot as well as hieroglyphics expert, MacLeod had deciphered a glyph meaning "to arrive" as it appeared in calendric contexts. And she had also pointed out that it was used in connection with foreign women "arriving" in a given kingdom to marry into the local nobility, thereby effecting political change. It was David Stuart who realized the implications of a key "arrival" statement on Tikal's Stela 31, and he followed it up with an incisive analysis of this and other texts.

Go to page: Here, from Stela 31, is the date 11 Eb' that the great Mayanist Tatiana Proskouriakoff recognized for its pivotal historical importance. Appearing on two monuments in Uaxactún and two in Tikal, it is followed in all cases by arrival statements, with the verb "he arrived" explicit at least twice. It is fascinating that, long before the glyph was deciphered, Proskouriakoff chose the very word "arrival" to describe this momentous event in Maya history.

Go to page: The inscription from Stela 31 continues with this glyph, which conveys the direction West and the name of an important deity associated with kingship. It is suggestive (though perhaps coincidental) that a party arriving at Tikal from Teotihuacan would have arrived from the west. And in fact, there is evidence from another inscription that the Teotihuacanos stopped at Tikal's western neighbor, El Perú, on the way. (See map.)

Go to page: Here is the name of the warlord from Teotihuacan who led the party of arriving foreigners. The sign on the left depicts an iguana looking upwards. It is a logograph, conveying the meaning of an entire word, in this case the verb "to be born". The element on the right represents flames or smoke and is a logograph for "fire". This person's name was "Fire is Born", or Siyaj K'ak' in Mayan. His title follows in the next glyph block.

Go to page: This title is Kalo'mte'. It is elsewhere carried only by the rulers of the most powerful Maya kingdoms. Simon Martin (as cited by David Stuart in his paper) suggests a rough translation of "emperor", with a sense of being an overlord over conquered territories. Siyaj K'ak' goes on to install a new king in Tikal, and there is evidence that he supervises accessions to rulership elsewhere in the Maya lowlands, quite possibly including Palenque. He seems to act as the representative of Mexican control.

Go to page: And who was this overlord's overlord? His name appears on a number of Tikal monuments. One of these, called the Marcador, was discovered in the Lost World area of Tikal.

Go to page: The name is represented by a spearthrower and an owl. It is quite probable that we are looking at the name of the king of Teotihuacan. He has been dubbed Spearthrower Owl, since the glyphs have not been deciphered.

Go to page: The inscription from Stela 31 continues with this fascinating glyph. It shows a crouching man with something in his lap. Since the next glyph in the inscription is "he died" and the signs in the lap together with the sign on the left can be deemed to spell "pain", it was once suggested that someone accidentally killed himself while drawing sacrificial blood from his private parts (a ceremony known to have been performed by Maya rulers). But if this were the case, we would expect a personal name and not the verb that we find in the next glyph block. Though less sensationalistic, it is likelier that this glyph serves as a sort of conjunction, introducing the verb (as first suggested by Simon Martin).

Go to page: The verb in question is, as previously noted, "he died". The top sign is a logograph for "enter", while the bottom sign means "water". To enter the waters of the cosmic underworld was a metaphor for death. (The watery underworld of death and resurrection is described in Blood of Kings by Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller.)

Go to page: And, finally, here is the individual who is named as dying. This is none other than Jaguar Paw, the king of Tikal. (You can see the spotted jaguar paw with its claws at the bottom of the glyph block.) To review the sense of the text leading up to this, Siyaj K'ak', the powerful representative of Teotihuacan, "arrived" and then "he died, Jaguar Paw". Particularly when coupled with the fact that the next ruler of Tikal was probably a son of the king of Teotihuacan and clearly not of Jaguar Paw, the inference seems inescapable that the first event led directly to the second. It looks very much like the incoming Mexicans killed the ruler of Tikal.

Go to page: And yet we are left with a paradox. It looks very much like succeeding generations in Tikal venerated Jaguar Paw, whose Mayan name was Chak Tok Ich'aak, "Great Burning Claw".

Go to page: One of the expressions of this veneration is discussed in Code of Kings by Linda Schele and Peter Mathews. This book offers an extensive analysis of the Central Acropolis of Tikal.

Go to page: The Central Acropolis is a complex of royal residences and administrative centers, built by Jaguar Paw and later kings.

Go to page: Over the years these structures were added to and modified extensively, as rulers adapted previous constructions to their personal needs.

Go to page: But Structure 5D-46, the palace of Jaguar Paw, was preserved throughout the occupation of Tikal. Schele and Mathews see this as a sign that Chak Tok Ich'aak continued to be venerated down through the years.

Go to page: We know that Structure 5D-46 was the palace of Chak Tok Ich'aak because he is named in the inscription on a vessel that was cached under the stairs when the building was dedicated.

Go to page: Code of Kings was written before David Stuart's demonstration of the true nature of the Teotihuacan entrada, or "entry" into the territory and the politics of the Maya. So it was easier to imagine that Jaguar Paw's palace had been preserved as a lineage shrine out of veneration. This is somewhat less credible in view of the possibility that the Siyaj K'ak' found it necessary to kill the Tikal ruler. But if indeed this happened, it is quite plain that the Teotihuacan-installed regime was far from antipathetic to the Maya heritage of Tikal.

Go to page: Tikal ruler Siyaj Chan K'awiil II, the grandson of the king of Teotihuacan, took the name of a previous ruler of Tikal. And on the very same monument that shows his father in Mexican garb holding a spearthrower, he had himself depicted in authentic Maya regalia.

Go to page: It is not hard to imagine that, even with the backing of mighty Teotihuacan, it would have been far easier to ensure the loyalty of the populace and nobility by respecting the dynastic heritage.

Go to page: And there is some possibility that the king of Teotihuacan had married a woman of Tikal. At the Palenque Round Table in 1999, Simon Martin presented evidence that a Lady Baby Jaguar, who may have been the grandmother of Siyaj Chan K'awiil, was a noble of Tikal who bore the same name as a previous queen (and also that of one of the city's patron deities).

Go to page: It is possible that Teotihuacan's ability to intervene directly in the affairs of the Maya lowlands was of comparatively short duration. The logistics of maintaining control from the distant Central Mexican highlands must have been formidable. (Map.) And eventually, of course, Teotihuacan was preoccupied with problems of its own. The latest archaeomagnetic dating has set the fall of the city to as early as AD 550.

Go to page: But the symbolism of Teotihuacan was never abandoned by Tikal and other Maya kingdoms. It was employed long after the fall of the great highland city, which continued to be looked upon as a place of political origin and legitimacy.

Go to page: Teotihuacan was invoked in much the same way that the Postclassic Mexica Aztec invoked Tula-Tollan, the aboriginal "Place of Reeds". And there seems to have been a particularly strong association with warfare.

Go to page: And so it was that Tikal continued to honor both its historical connection to Teotihuacan and to the indigenous dynasty that predated the arrival of the exotic strangers. As for the fate of Jaguar Paw, it is significant that a subsequent king of Tikal also ruled under the name of Chak Tok Ich'aak. In so doing, he probably adopted a name that was important at Tikal even before Chak Tok Ich'aak I.

Go to page: Ironically, the second Chak Tok Ich'aak also seems to have died under adverse circumstances. A mere thirteen days after his death, as recorded in an inscription at Toniná, one of his vassals was captured by the upstart kingdom of Yaxchilán. Turmoil at Tikal is indicated by the fact that rulership passed to a six-year-old queen, the so-called Lady of Tikal.

Go to page: Even more evocative of the vicissitudes wrought by the passage of time and the waning of might and glory is the discovery by archaeologist Peter Harrison that this structure within sight of the palace of Chak Tok Ich'aak I served as a jail during the last days of Tikal.

Go to page: It is possible that a better understanding of the inscriptions will reveal more about the ultimate fate of the first Chak Tok Ich'aak of Tikal. But unfortunately the Maya scribes were not disposed to tell us as much as we would like to know. All that is certain is that "strangers" from Teotihuacan arrived one day, and that same day saw the death of Jaguar Paw, the ruler of Tikal.