By Joel Skidmore

Versión español

An international group of experts has determined that the Maya ruler Pakal lived to the age of eighty, as stated by hieroglyphic inscriptions associated with his tomb at Palenque, and not the far less advanced age insisted upon by the tomb's discoverer and his scientific advisors (Ruz Lhuilller 1977).

This finding was disclosed by Vera Tiesler Blos, Investigative Professor in the Anthropological Sciences Faculty at the Autonomous University of Yucatan, in an interview with the University of Yucatan Press, picked up by the news agency Notimex and published in Tabasco Hoy.

"With the application of new techniques in bioarchaeology we have determined that Pakal, who the inscriptions say was born in AD 603, in reality died at an advanced age, which could well correspond to the age of eighty which epigraphy registers as the age of his demise, AD 683," Tiesler Blos told the interviewer.

The findings were first presented to the interested public at the 68th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, held April 9-13, 2003, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Almost from the time of his magnificent tomb's discovery in 1952, the age of K'inich Janahb' Pakal has been a matter of controvery. Archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, who found the funerary crypt deep beneath the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, contended that the bones of Pakal were those of a man in his forties or fifties. The inscriptions, on the other hand, clearly indicated that Pakal had lived into his eightieth year.
Temple of the Inscriptions

The four-year project in biological archaeology, which concluded earlier this year, was designed to analyze and reinterpret Pakal's remains, which were encountered in an advanced state of deterioration in his stone sarcophagus beneath its elaborately carved lid. The specialists' work, carried out largely in situ, applied modern bioarchaeological techniques with the goal of re-evaluating the bones of the skeleton and the organic remains associated with this most famous of Maya rulers, who acceded to power at the age of twelve.

In addition to Tiesler Blos, the multidisiciplinary team was composed of Haydeé Orea and Arturo Romano of INAH, Carlos Serrano of UNAM, Jane Buikstra of the University of New Mexico, Douglas Price of Madison University, George Milner of Pennsylvania State University, Sam Stout of Ohio State University, Samuel Tejeda of ININ, Andrea Cucina of the Autonomous University of Yucatan, and Iván Oliva and Patricia Quintana of Cinvestav-Mérida, among others.

It should be noted that Pakal's age at death, while uncommon for his era, is not unprecedented for Palenque rulers. The first K'an Joy Chitam lived to be almost 75, and new evidence indicates that Pakal's son K'inich K'an Joy Chitam II survived his captivity at the age of sixty-six by as much as a decade (David Stuart 2003).

"At the beginning of our work on site in 1999, the new age estimate for Pakal was not immediately apparent because the personage did not appear to be very old at first sight," Tiesler Blos told the interviewer. "He must have been very well cared for, as the very reduced dental attrition speaks of a soft, very refined and processed diet."

The forensic investigations not only reaffirm the age of Pakal but confirm that he did not suffer polydactyly or a club foot, as had been suggested (Robertson, Scandizzo and Scandizzo 1976). On the other hand, analysis did reveal degenerative osteoporosis accompanied by arthritis of the spine. (The occupant of the adjacent tomb, the so-called Red Queen, also suffered from osteoporosis. See The Red Queen by Arnoldo González Cruz.) Despite this, Pakal enjoyed good nutrition and a sedentary life without complications. It was also determined by heavy isotope analysis that he was a native of Palenque.

After his death, Pakal's remains were embalmed with alternating baths of red pigment and resin, which have been preserved as a thick coating of red which still covers the skeleton. (The Red Queen was so named owing to her covering of red cinnabar.)

Like most of the population of Palenque, Pakal's skull had been deformed with boards during his first years of life. His teeth were decorated with Ik' symbols (see Head Shaping and Dental Decoration Among the Ancient Maya by Vera Tiesler Blos).

Pakal, on the lid of his sarcophagus. Photo: Merle Greene Roberston.

The discovery of the sarcophagus of a Maya ruler deep within the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque is one of the great stories of archaeology.

Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, director of research at Palenque for Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, had long wrestled with an enigma involving the pyramid. No one had been able to explain why a flagstone in the center of the temple's floor had a number of holes drilled in it. Finally Ruz noticed that the walls of the temple continued beneath the floor level, and he suddenly realized that the ancient Maya had sealed off a chamber below. Lowering the final slab into place with ropes through the drill holes, they had sealed the holes with stone plugs.

Ruz spent four seasons digging down beneath the floor of the Temple of the Incriptions. It was stultifyingly hot and dangerous work. At last, in the summer of 1952, Ruz shined his flashlight through a peephole that his workers had cut through the limestone. As he later described the sight:

Out of the dim shadows emerged a vision from a fairy tale, a fantastic, ethereal sight from another world. It seemed a huge magic grotto carved out of ice, the walls sparkling and glistening like snow crystals. Delicate festoons of stalactites hung like tassels of a curtain, and the stalagmites on the floor looked like drippings from a great candle. The impression, in fact, was that of an abandoned chapel. Across the walls marched stucco figures in low relief. Then my eyes sought the floor. This was almost entirely filled with a great carved stone slab, in perfect condition (Ruz Lhuillier 1953b).

For the first time in more than a thousand years, human eyes beheld the glorious carved sarcophagus lid of a great ruler of Palenque. That the tomb belonged to an important ruler was beyond doubt, considering its magnificence. The entire pyramid of the Temple of Inscriptions had been built around it. But who that ruler might be was a lingering question.

Then epigraphers Heinrich Berlin (1959) and George Kubler (1969) isolated the ruler's name glyphs, as well as the dates of his birth and death. David Kelley and Floyd Lounsbury analyzed the inscriptions from the Temple of Inscriptions to determine that the occupant of the sarcophagus was named "Shield", or Pakal (originally spelled Pacal; then, as understanding of the glyphs progressed, came the fuller forms Hanab-Pakal and now K'inich Janahb' Pakal).

Pakal the Great ruled Palenque for most of his 80 years, and it was reasonable to conclude that he had built the Temple of Inscriptions as his own burial monument. But Ruz was disturbed by the fact that the bones in the sarcophagus appeared to belong to a man some forty years younger than Pakal at the time of his death. Preliminary analysis indicated a middle-aged male, based primarily on limited wear of the skeleton's teeth.

But the epigraphers had determined definitively the dates of Pakal's birth and death. "Lord Shield Pacal was by all accounts a most remarkable man," wrote Peter Mathews and Linda Schele in a presentation to the First Palenque Round Table in 1974 (see The Lords of Palenque: The Glyphic Evidence by Mathews and Schele). "Apparently in power, at least in name, by the age of 12 1/2, he ruled for almost 70 years. His was a dominant influence at Palenque and he was surely the man responsible for its sudden blossoming c. into a major Classic site." Mathews and Schele had no doubt that the body found deep beneath the Temple of the Incriptions was that of Pakal.

Yet controversy raged over the epigraphical findings. It was at times viewed as a conflict between "scientific" and "non-scientific" research, that is, the methods of anthropologists and forensic scientists versus those of epigraphers.

Schele and Mathews responded as follows in The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs (1998):

For our part, we have always maintained that the arithmetic involved in analyzing the inscriptional dates of Hanab-Pakal is incontrovertible, whether or not our proposed interpretations of specific events are overturned. To prevent ambiguity, Palenque's scribes tied Hanab-Pakal's birth, accession, and death to the Long Count and to named k'atun-endings that recur only once every 375,000 years. And...they also tied his birth and accession dates to the end of the first piktun, which will occur in A.D. 4772. Thus, if his dates are to be changed, they must move at least 375,000 years into the future.

Or as Schele had put it earlier in Ancient Mesoamerica (1992):

The last argument against the chronology is that in some way the epigraphers do not understand what the Maya intended to say — that, for example, two people are being named as one person, that the history is a fabrication, or that some special way of dealing with time was being used. Concerning these possibilities, I can only say that each of these propositions requires that all of the inscriptional data that use the same calendrics or historical glyphs must be thrown out with the Palenque data, including all knowledge about the Maya and the Mesoamerican calendar in precolumbian, colonial, and modern contexts. This includes the entirety of Tatiana Proskouriakoff's 'historical hypothesis' and all of the histories that have been published for all Maya sites.

Schele and Mathews (1998: 342, n. 24) also pointed to a 1996 personal communication from Allen Christenson, a dentist who has worked extensively with the Smithsonian Institution in forensic analysis, that "wear is not a factor in elite dentition as they likely had a diet with more boiled atole which caused little wear."

And archaeologist Norman Hammond and Theya Molleson, a physical anthropologist who had worked on the Spitalfields project in London where Huguenot burials were cross-checked against written records of age at death, were cited to the effect that "people who survive to advanced age in any population naturally have 'young bones' compared to their contemporaries. These survivors do not age as rapidly as other members of the same population, so they might look younger to physical anthropologists assessing their age from skeletal remains" (Hammond and Molleson 1994).

Until the just-concluded study, these arguments seemed to fall on deaf ears. It was even proposed that a younger man had been buried in Pakal's place for some inexplicable reason. It is welcome at last to have a fitting answer to the question of who is buried in Pakal's tomb.

Informed of the bioarchaeologists' preliminary results, this reporter had the privilege of informing the late Linda Schele's husband David that the experts who had supported Ruz's certainty about the estimate of forty to fifty years now accepted the age arrived at by epigraphy.