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Tikal History

Tikal's Founding
Around 700 BC, the first settlers arrived in the vicinity of Tikal, drawn by the abundance of flint and water in the area. Tikal was built on a series of low hills surrounded by bajos (low swampy areas) and several water holes. Flint was used to make spearheads and knives for hunting and was also a valuable trade resource. The first village was small and the early Mayans built timber-framed houses with thatched roofs and earthen floors. During this formative period, there was little class distinction and the society remained fairly homogeneous.

Tikal in the Early Classic Period
During the next five hundred years, the Mayan communities gradually expanded, forming social classes and building ceremonial structures. Little archaeological remains were found to shed light on this pre-Classic period. By around 200 BC, the first temples at the North Acropolis had been built. Around 100 BC, the Gran Plaza was as impressive as any in the Late Classic era. Tikal was by then a major ceremonial and commercial hub.

Tikal in the Classic Period
The Classic period saw Tikal reaching its zenith, as it grew into a significant and populous religious center. Society was stratified into distinct classes, with castes like priests, nobles, slaves and farmers. Architecture advanced in aesthetic intricacy and sophistication, enhancing the majesty of the ceremonial grounds. This vital era also saw the development of an advanced system of hieroglyphics writing, the Mayan calendar, and monumental art. At a time when Europeans insisted that the Earth was flat, the Mayans had built their temples with foundations tangential to the Earth, proving their awareness of the planet’s spherical curvature.

In many respects, the Mayans had become extremely advanced for their time. Around AD 230, King Yax Moch Xoc founded the ruling dynasty and became the first ruler of the kingdom. Tikal was the first metropolitan area to adopt an Emblem Glyph, a Mayan coat-of-arms representation. The ruler exercised control over the people and forced them to worship him as a deity. Human sacrifices and ritualized bloodletting became common and more elaborated.

By AD 350, during the ruling of King Great Jaguar Paw, warring and conflict between Tikal and neighboring states had intensified. By forming alliance with Teotihuacán, Tikal emulated the Central Mexican city-state's method of warfare by attacking its enemies with spears from above. This allowed Tikal to conquer its military and political rival, Uaxactún, thereby becoming the dominant kingdom.

Tikal in the Late Classic Period
The Late Classic era, around AD 550, saw Tikal’s population swell to its height of 100,000 people. Tikal’s military was powerful and won many battles with neighboring Mayan states. Its only defeat was to Caracol (present-day southwestern Belize) in AD 562. Adopting Tikal’s brutal warfare method, Caracol sacrificed Tikal’s ruler, and continued to control Tikal for another century. Around AD 700, King Ah-Cacau (Lord Chocolate) reclaimed Tikal from Caracol. Tikal once again thrived as the most influential Mayan city-state.

It was during Lord Chocolate's reign that most of the surviving temples took shape. His successors completed his ambitious construction projects. The ceremonial buildings then were gloriously painted in rich colors (especially red), and finished with shiny smooth stucco.

Tikal’s second shot at revival only lasted two centuries. By AD 900, Tikal’s power had declined. The pressure of overpopulation, and the environmental deterioration resulting from the constant warring, had caused a great strain on Tikal’s society. Experts have concluded that such strain led to its gradual downfall.

Abandonment and Discovery
When Tikal was abandoned, however, the process was not gradual, but quite abrupt. After that, the only evidence shows that between 1200 and 1530, the Itzáes who occupied Tayasal (modern-day Flores) were aware of Tikal. The Guatemalan government ordered the first expedition to the site in 1848, headed by Modesto Méndez and Ambrosio Tut. Previous discoveries of Tikal dated back to the Spanish colonization period, when missionary friars stumbled upon the ruins. English archeologist Alfred Maudslay made many pioneering discoveries at the site after his arrival in 1881. His studies were continued by other important scientists like Teobert Maler and Alfred Tozzers; the causeways within the national park are named after these men. Tikal National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

By Nellie Huang
24 Nov 2009

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