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Exploring the lost city of the Mayans

March 5, 2011

Tikal: Standing in the jungle under a towering ceiba tree, we pause in silence, listening for the call of a toucan. Around us, the air hums with bees, the distinctive gurgling song of the black and yellow oropendola bird, the nasal “puk puk” of the splendid oscellated turkey, the squeak of the guan, the dull hammering of a woodpecker and the crashing above us of a troop of spider monkeys.

Swinging spider monkey

Oropendola male (it's Latin name is Gymnostinops) turns summersaults to impress his mate

Cosy guans

This ancient rainforest is home to a huge variety of wildlife. We’ve already spotted coatis (like a racoon), agoutis (large native rodent), heard peccaries and seen howler monkeys, but there are also jaguars, snakes, tapirs, ocelots, deer and more than 300 species of bird. We hear the toucan call once more before it flies off, but the forest canopy here is too high and dense for us to spot it.

An agouti

Ceiba trees were sacred to the Mayans

They tower above the canopy

We continue our walk along dirt paths, stepping over busy trails of leaf-cutter ants and peering behind huge buttress roots for snakes. The path climbs higher and the sun grows stronger and then, above the treetops, we catch sight of the top of a stone pyramid ascending, like the ceiba, out of the jungle.

There was a city here once

Once richly decorated in the heart of the metropolis

Peeking above the greenery

In this Anthropocene, where humans have seemingly unstoppable influence over the globe’s flora, fauna, landscapes and climate – to the extent that our species is capable of deciding the boundaries of other life on this planet – it is rare and sobering to see examples of our frailty. This wild and thriving jungle is one.

There are jaguars in Tikal now

1200 years ago, the only jaguars here were carved in stone

As many as 100,000 people once inhabited a powerful city here of temples and palaces, plazas and reservoirs, broad thoroughfares and productive fields. Around 1200 years ago, there was no jungle here. The city and its outlying agricultural zone would have stretched further than the eye could see, with impressive near-50m-high carved stone buildings in the administrative centre, down to simple timber and thatch homesteads further out.

Temples and palaces litter the jungle

The impressive Central Plaza has been cleared

Temple I is 45 metres high

Tikal was once the city of Mutal, capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Mayan world. It was inhabited from at least 1000 BC, and from 200-900 AD the city became politically and economically key to a civilisation that reached from Mexico to Honduras, whose scientists used a 365-day solar calendar and invented the zero, whose scribes recorded detailed histories, whose artists painted rich scenes and intricate carvings, and who cultivated crops in irrigated fields to support large urban populations. Their empire was so stable, they even had a word for a 400-year time period.

Inscriptions on the back of a temple

The stelae document dynasties and other information

Part of a palace

Thousands of people lived here

Climate change was their undoing. A series of terrible droughts in the 9th century led to mass starvation and the city’s desertion. Deforestation and subsequent erosion and soil nutrient loss, meant that the people had no capacity to cope with drought and to feed the overpopulated city. In just a few decades, the entire area was abandoned. No humans live at Tikal now – the only sounds come from the abundant wildlife of a jungle that has seemingly always been here.

Passageways, rooms, even beds remain

Bees are nesting in the ancient lintels

Cleared portions are being reclaimed again

We stroll around the paths, coming upon ruins in the forest like surprises that we linger over and climb. Some of the once-richly decorated buildings have been cleared, the plazas now open lawns and the structures for ball games revealed.

Enormous buildings must have seemed invincible once

Massive deforestation preceded the many buildings

They stand tall after centuries

Most remains buried by the jungle – it would cost too much to explore the city’s 16-square-kilometres extent, so archaeologists have confined themselves to a few acres around the Central Plaza.

One of the few restored temples

A civilisation defeated by climate change

The ruins were discovered in the 19th century by chewing gum harvesters exploring the jungle for Manilkara chicle, a tree that produces the sweet natural latex chewed by everyone from the ancient Mayans to Wrigley fans. We pass several chicle trees, their tell-tale slashes oozing with stretchy gum.

Oscellated turkey

A group of coatis

Our entry tickets allow us two days’ entrance, so we take our time, trying new routes on different days. Even so, we explore only a tiny fraction of the vast site. Too soon, it’s time to leave: for Rachel to head home and for me and Nick to return to Belize and head east for the open Caribbean.

Me and Rachel

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2011 2:45 pm

    So glad you wrote about this – found it fascinating.

    • Gaia permalink*
      March 7, 2011 7:08 pm

      Thanks Clare, have you been there? Hoping Chichen Itza is as lovely.

  2. Kenny permalink
    March 20, 2011 2:50 am

    Wow, seems like we had a really similar trip. I did this one on December 25th, and was stunned by how amazing it was. Just a side note, the picture you have labeled as “There was a city here once” has a cool name too. That view is known as the “Star Wars” view, because George Lucas visited there before he filmed Star Wars Episode IV, and then returned to film that exact spot to use in the movie as the planet “Endor”, Mayan ruins and all.

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