March 12, 2009

Researchers Uncover Ancient Mayan Panels In Guatemala

Archeologists in Guatemala's northern jungle have uncovered carved stucco panels from the Mayan civilization that depict cosmic monsters, gods and serpents that are the oldest known depictions of a famous Mayan creation myth, Reuters reported.

Experts believe the panels were created around 300 BC and show scenes from the core Mayan mythology, the Popol Vuh.  Both panels are 26 feet long and stacked on top of each other.

The site's head researcher, Richard Hansen, said on Wednesday that it took investigators three months to uncover the carvings while excavating El Mirador, the biggest ancient Mayan city in the world.

The Mayan's dominated Central America and southern Mexico for some 2,000 years, before mysteriously abandoning their cities around 900 AD.

Historians say the El Mirador basin, however, was deserted much earlier with the large urban population leaving a complex network of roads and waterways and a massive pyramid now covered under thick vegetation.

Hansen said a Spanish colonial priest discovered the earliest written version of the Popol Vuh in the early 1700s and the panels are the first known sculptural depictions of the "two hero twins," known as the main characters in the myth.

Hansen, an Idaho State University archeologist who has worked at El Mirador for over a decade, said the discovery was pre-Christian.

"It has tremendous antiquity and shows again the remarkable resilience of an ideology that's existed for thousands of years," he said.

Hansen also worked as a consultant on "Apocalypto," Mel Gibson's 2006 movie about the Mayan civilization.

The twins are depicted on one panel, surrounded by cosmic monsters and a bird deity with outstretched wings flying above them. The other shows a Mayan corn god framed by an undulating serpent.

El Mirador is three times the size of Guatemala's famous Tikal ruins, a popular tourist destination.

However, a host of problems threaten El Mirador's conservation, including drug traffickers who use the area to ship cocaine and heroin across the porous border with Mexico, deforestation by locals, looters who steal ancient artifacts to sell on the black market and wild animal poachers.

President Alvaro Colom announced last year the creation of a massive park in the jungle of northern Guatemala's Peten region, which would encompass both El Mirador and the already excavated Tikal.

By 2020, the park will have developed a silent, propane-powered train to carry thousands of tourists to the ruins, which are currently only accessible by helicopter or a two-day hike.


Image 1: ISU's Richard Hansen, left, with Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom Caballeros at the Mirador Basin site.

Image 2: ISU graduate student Joseph Argyle next to one of the ancient Mayan panels he excavated.


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