♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Buried in the jungles of Central America, the pyramids of the ancient Maya sat abandoned for centuries.
♪ ♪ Now evidence is painting a clearer picture of the sophisticated civilization that produced complex cities, art, and writing.
From above... You can tell the computer, "Get rid of all the jungle."
NARRATOR: From below... JAIME AWE: You can develop a climatic record for thousands and thousands of years.
NARRATOR: From the bones... JULIE HOGGARTH: It tells us when these individuals lived, what people ate.
NARRATOR: And revealing a great Maya metropolis.
The seventh-largest city in the world.
So it's a perfect planned city.
NARRATOR: And yet, over a thousand years ago, the Maya left most of these great cities.
From a civilization governed by divine rulers... IYAXEL REN: Only this dynasty can have contact with Maya deities.
NARRATOR: ...comes a message from the past...
AWE: It is the Maya now relating to us many of the events during one of the most critical periods of their history.
NARRATOR: ...of a world in transition...
AWE: They're upping the ante.
They're really beseeching their gods.
NARRATOR: ...and a story of the resilient people who have survived and thrived.
REN: The Maya are still here.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: "Ancient Maya Metropolis," right now, on "NOVA."
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ NARRATOR: For over a thousand years, hundreds of cities lay covered in the forests of Central America, remnants of the ancient Maya civilization.
AWE: The ancient Maya were one of the most amazing civilizations in the Americas.
They developed this civilization in a jungle environment.
NARRATOR: The Maya built towering pyramids and elaborate temples over the course of 2,000 years.
Cities expanded across Mesoamerica.
Their culture had advanced mathematics, agriculture, and astronomy.
FRANCISCO ESTRADA-BELLI: They had very intimate knowledge of stars, of the movement of the celestial bodies.
They were also great farmers and geo-engineers.
AWE: The Maya built, you know, some amazing structures that still remain today after more than a thousand years of being abandoned.
NARRATOR: The Maya expressed themselves with vibrant, stylized carvings, figures, and brightly colored polychrome pottery.
Their art was reflected in their written language-- hieroglyphs that could be read throughout the Maya world.
♪ ♪ More than a thousand years ago, the majority of the great cities of the Southern Maya were abandoned.
Who were the Maya who lived and ruled in these cities?
How did they build and sustain vast cities with huge populations in a tropical rain forest?
Why did they leave them?
These have remained some of archaeology's most intriguing questions.
♪ ♪ (wildlife chirping, chittering) ESTRADA-BELLI: The Maya were based in parts of Southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras and Belize and El Salvador.
And there were great cities in this region.
Most of them most people know about are located in the Lowland region.
So it's a tropical forest, and that's where a lot of the archaeological work has been going on in the last 120 years.
And that's where I work, as well.
NARRATOR: Francisco Estrada-Belli first started working in the Southern Maya Lowlands in 1987.
ESTRADA-BELLI: In the beginning, we didn't think you could have a civilization with very many people living, you know, in a concentrated area because of the tropical environment.
Today, we know that they had proper cities with thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of residents.
NARRATOR: And their descendants are still here.
There are still millions of Maya people living in this part of Central America.
REN: Contemporary Maya people, we share the same territory, and we know that we share the same culture, but we also need to understand that we are very diverse.
Right now, there are at least 30 Maya ethnolinguistic groups.
I am Iyaxel Cojti Ren.
I am a Kiche Maya woman from Chichicastenango, Guatemala.
Around this town, there are a few archaeological sites.
And I always had question about who live there, what's the relationship between the people who live there and us?
And then I discover that there is actually a career called archaeology.
NARRATOR: For more than a hundred years, archaeologists have uncovered the cities of the Maya, learning about their language, culture, and society, a heritage that was deliberately suppressed-- often violently-- by Europeans.
ESTRADA-BELLI: Since the conquest, the Spanish, the glorious past of Classic Maya civilization was a threat.
And so in order to dispossess the Maya and to better control them, they created this narrative in which they claimed that the current Maya were savage people that had nothing to do with the great, sophisticated people that built the great cities.
And so that attitude has continued throughout the colonial period and up until the present, and has affected early explorers into the Maya Lowlands.
And over the years, we have created a narrative in which, you know, we have constantly and consistently underestimated the achievements of Maya civilization.
And so that has been a pervasive misconception, and that is only changing in very recent times.
I think that a lot of archaeologists also helped to create this mysterious environment, but not, not contemporary archaeologists.
Maybe archaeologists of the last generations.
Because I know that currently, archaeologists are very conscious and very critical about what collapse is when they are talking about the Maya.
(people speaking Spanish) NARRATOR: Jaime Awe is the former head of the Institute of Archaeology in his home country of Belize.
He has spent the last three decades studying Maya sites and working with the Maya community.
(speaking Spanish) AWE (voiceover, in English): I've known Jorge Can for 26 years.
I hired him to work with us, and over the years, he's now the chief conservator for the Belize Institute of Archaeology.
NARRATOR: Excavating Maya cities is a monumental job.
(speaking Spanish) NARRATOR: Jorge Can has made it his life's work.
CAN: I love my job, what I'm doing.
I really love it and I got a passion of it, and...
I could say the majority of this archaeological site is my office.
(laughs) (speaking Spanish) NARRATOR: Jorge is a Yucatec Maya conservator.
His work is reclaiming and preserving his own culture.
CAN: I could say we, Maya, built it and then we continue that tradition over here, because we are the ones who are continuing that work over here.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Most major excavations have focused on large structures-- the impressive temples and palaces of the ancient Maya.
These were the homes of the elite.
But most of the cities' population were not elite.
Critical information about their homes, their lives, and why they left is buried under jungle.
You know, today's visitor, when they come to the site, they walk around and they see that section where we have been able to afford to excavate and conserve.
But in reality, you know, hidden under all this jungle are hundreds of other buildings that are practically untouched.
♪ ♪ (wildlife chirping) NARRATOR: Clearing tropical forest is labor-intensive.
It takes a long time to excavate a site.
At the Maya site of Caracol, located in Southern Belize, the challenge of mapping a city covered in jungle spurred a creative solution, one that changed tropical archaeology forever.
Early in their careers, Diane and Arlen Chase had worked on other sites nearby, but in the 1980s, they surveyed Caracol, and have returned every year since.
♪ ♪ DIANE CHASE: We spent more than 20 years trying to document how large Caracol was, how extensive the road system was.
ARLEN CHASE: We started mapping in 1985.
What mapping meant was that when we were mapping here initially, I was carrying a transit over my shoulder and we would literally cut into the jungle.
NARRATOR: Maps were painstakingly drawn by hand over two decades, but recorded only a fraction of the city.
The Chases were convinced there was a vast metropolis buried under the tropical jungle, but the process was so slow, they had no way to prove the actual size of Caracol.
ARLEN CHASE: And so we started looking for another technology to use in 2005.
And eventually we got led to the fact that LiDAR might do this.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: LiDAR-- Light Detection and Ranging-- was initially used for atmospheric measurements.
ARLEN CHASE: This was the first place in the tropics to ever use LiDAR in a broad-scale sense.
They'd done little pockets of it here and there, especially in Europe.
But no one had ever tried to do a broad scale to see if you could lift the trees and see what was underneath the forest.
NARRATOR: LiDAR sends thousands of laser beams of different wavelengths and then measures the time for the reflected beams to return.
The lasers were able to penetrate the jungle canopy and create high-resolution images of the ground below.
The result was a revolution in tropical archaeology.
LiDAR is actually God's gift to the tropical archaeologist, because you can tell the computer, "Get rid of all the forest, get rid of all the jungle."
And what you have left is bare earth.
And you see the courtyards, you see the temples, you see the palaces, the reservoirs.
What some other archaeologists did when they first had access to LiDAR is, they used the LiDAR, and then they did a ground check.
They would go and look and see if they saw a feature, and they would look, say, "Oh, is that on the ground in the place where the LiDAR showed us?"
When we did the LiDAR, we were able to double-check our maps, rather than the other way around.
NARRATOR: The years of mapping Caracol by hand finally paid off.
We had the ground check first, and then we used the LiDAR.
NARRATOR: LiDAR has opened up an incredible window on ancient structures, but also issues around access, to try and keep the data from looters.
In Caracol, the LiDAR and the Chases' maps combined to provide a blueprint for understanding a city-sized bank of LiDAR data.
Archaeologist Adrian Chase has spent years modeling the city of Caracol one hilltop-- called a plazuela-- at a time.
ADRIAN CHASE: I started working on the LiDAR at the start of 2010.
Using different LiDAR visualizations, I went through the data set systematically to try and identify and digitize as many of the plazuela household groups as I could.
Each one of these little squares is an extended family household.
But all the ridge tops are covered in them.
NARRATOR: The computer modeling of the Caracol LiDAR allows us to see an amazing Maya city in precise detail, a city of great size and sophistication.
ADRIAN CHASE: The initial map had 78 structures.
And then with the LiDAR, we now have over 7,000 household structures that are raised households.
NARRATOR: While Europe was in the Dark Ages, the world of the Maya was thriving.
The population estimate of about 100,000 people at 700 A.D. Based on sort of the rough data that you can get for that time period, it would have made Caracol the seventh-largest city in the world.
It's a big city.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: LiDAR exposed a vast metropolis under the jungle.
DIANE CHASE: LiDAR absolutely changed our whole view of the Maya.
And it helped us show the world what we knew because we'd walked Caracol, how big the place really was and how much of a human-changed landscape this place was.
One has to imagine a completely different-looking landscape than this.
What we'd be seeing is terraces, agriculture, road systems, causeways, and households, and not jungle.
NARRATOR: The city of Caracol was a feat of urban engineering.
Reshaping the hillsides to bare rock, the Maya built networks of terraces for their crops.
So, these individuals that are living out here have agricultural fields right around them.
They've got corn, they've got beans, they've got squash.
It's a sustainable community.
NARRATOR: In Caracol, Maya homes were grouped together on the plazuela hilltops.
DIANE CHASE: We're inside a plazuela group.
The Maya houses were built usually inside a plaza, with a series of structures facing each other.
So, this is a Maya household, a typical Maya household.
There would have been stairways made of stone and then foundation walls made of stone.
But the rest would have been pole and thatch.
The eastern structure is usually the mortuary structure, and that's what's behind me, is the structure where the Maya would have, would have buried their dead and conducted some of their ritual offerings.
What we found in this particular building is a mortuary shrine.
It has caches, things that are specially deposited, hidden ritual caches.
So I'm gonna just put both hands around it.
NARRATOR: The quality of the objects left in the caches show that even non-elite Maya were able to own fine goods.
This is a heavy boy.
You got it?
You got it.
You got it.
All right, looks good-- it's whole.
But it is whole.
♪ ♪ ARLEN CHASE: One of the things that we found that's really interesting is a work of art in the form of a cylinder vase.
And the cylinder vase is clearly carved by a master artist.
You would probably think, "Oh, it should come from an elite tomb."
And it came out of a minor crypt in a residential group.
REN: Sometimes we can focus only about the, the function of an artifact, how it was produced.
But I think we need to keep in mind that there are human beings behind those artifacts.
There is a culture that we want to know better.
(simmering) NARRATOR: Some objects are still used today.
The traditional foods prepared with them tie the modern Maya to the past.
Like the grinding stone and tray, the mano and metate.
REN: The contemporary Maya people still practice, not only Maya traditions, but Mesoamerican traditions.
It's one of the traits that distinguish Maya culture, the consumption of specific food-- and the metate is always present-- the tortilla, the tamalitos.
TIMOTEA MESH: This is what the ancient Mayas would have made before.
The grinding stone is the most ancient way of, of grinding the corn.
As long as we have the dough, from there, we can prepare different types of meal with the corn dough.
The corn tortillas are basically like the bread of our meals.
JOSEFA CANTO: So the grill doesn't need no oil, no nothing.
Just lie your tortilla there.
MESH: I grew up seeing all this kind of food, making tortillas, grinding corn, harvesting beans and squashes, preserving.
♪ ♪ REN: These ingredients were present in Maya diet.
You still have these Maya inscription, Maya hieroglyphic, text that mention these, these words, and oral tradition talks about the importance of this food for Maya.
Because it's so connected with identity, I think people continue producing these traditional dishes.
NARRATOR: Also used to grind cacao beans into cocoa, manos and metates were produced in Caracol.
Many other goods were imported.
♪ ♪ DIANE CHASE: It may seem like Caracol is in the middle of nowhere today.
It was actually, you know, a very key place.
It was located on a trade route.
There was the ability to get access to goods in a way that might not necessarily be the case in other places.
Nowhere on site did you have to walk more than maybe 20 minutes to get to a market.
Some of the pottery that is on site would have been in the market.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Murals uncovered in 2004 in the ancient city of Calakmul offer an intimate glimpse of a Maya market.
♪ ♪ At the end of the network of paved limestone roads was the core of the city and a huge central pyramid.
DIANE CHASE: The way we see Caracol today is nothing like the Maya would have seen it.
The downtown itself, the, the buildings would have been painted largely white and red, the floors all completely plastered.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: At the heart of every Maya city was the divine ruler, the head of power and religion.
ESTRADA-BELLI: So for all intents and purposes, we can say that from the very beginning, Maya kings had this divine essence to them, or were perceived as, as gods.
NARRATOR: Christophe Helmke, an archaeologist and epigrapher, reads Maya glyphs, which often tell of ancient rulers.
HELMKE: The titles that these people bear is usually the title "ajaw."
As time goes on, not all kings are equal.
There are some that are stronger than others, and those kings start to distinguish themselves as being so-called k'uhul ajaw.
Literally, that means something along the lines of godly.
ESTRADA-BELLI: So the kings were the supreme priests, as well as the political leaders of the state.
So the divine king is technically in charge, but what he's really in charge of is the religion.
REN: The k'uhul ajaw is like a divine lord.
They are the intermediaries between the Maya deities and the local population.
Well, ceremony had, had a huge role in the Maya society.
In fact, almost everything Maya people did and still do today begins with a large or small ceremony, from birth, to accession to the throne, to war, and every action was celebrated by a religious ceremony and we see that in the carvings, on stone monuments.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Stelae were monuments carved with hieroglyphs, recording the glory of the ruler and his legitimacy to rule.
REN: The ideology of that time is that only this dynasty can have contact with Maya deities.
It's a combination of ideology and politics.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Although every Maya city had its own divine ruler, they were all interconnected by trade and alliances.
DIANE CHASE: Each of these Maya sites is a little tiny city-state.
What we're starting to realize is, throughout Maya history, the sites were more in connection with each other.
They're largely peaceful and they engage in trade.
And so over time, these different states become dependent on each other for specific goods.
One of the things that we see in the Maya world is the rise of some very large supercenters, big cities, places like Caracol in Belize, Tikal in Guatemala, Calakmul in Mexico.
NARRATOR: Through the Maya Classic period, from 250 to 700, the Maya cities and populations grew to a peak.
Yet by the year 900, almost all the great cities of the Southern Maya were abandoned, even Caracol.
DIANE CHASE: We're at the top of Canaa, and this is the royal palace.
We know, when they left Canaa at the end of the Classic period, that they left pretty quickly.
And one of the places that gives us those clues is, is, right here in that doorway, there was a very young child who was left on the floor unburied, which is not a typical Maya way of doing things.
There was violence.
There are evidences of weaponry, mace heads, and other kinds of things that are on the floor.
The downtown of Caracol was burnt around A.D. 895, and then the downtown is completely abandoned.
The site itself is, is abandoned shortly thereafter.
The site is completely abandoned for a thousand years.
♪ ♪ Once they're gone, they're gone, and the forest comes back and takes over the site.
NARRATOR: The beginning of decline for Classic Maya cities began around 750, when people started to leave.
What would cause the Maya to leave their farms, homes, and spectacular cities?
Archaeologist Julie Hoggarth is studying factors that disrupted the ancient Maya way of life.
HOGGARTH: Around 750, we start to see the beginnings of decline in Classic Maya society.
We start to see the cities being abandoned, the end of monumental construction, the end of carved monuments.
NARRATOR: In the ninth century, cities across the Southern Maya world were following the same pattern: the last recorded dates appeared on their monuments, and then abandonment.
AWE: With this progression, we also see the decline of the whole economic system, not just the political system.
So, trade networks start to fall apart.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: What changed for the ancient Maya?
One of the clues was found deep in the caves of Belize.
AWE: Some years ago, some colleagues of mine from the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as the University of New Mexico, collected a speleothem in Yok Balam cave in Toledo District.
That study was really a major breakthrough for us.
NARRATOR: Speleothems, better known as stalactites or stalagmites, can take centuries to form.
Acidic rainwater dissolves the rock, and drips down into the cave, forming annual layers like tree rings.
Variations in the record of oxygen molecules-- or isotopes-- from one layer to the next reflect the temperature and moisture outside the cave.
To pinpoint the age of each ring, the amounts of two elements, uranium and thorium, are compared.
They reveal a thousand-year-old weather report.
AWE: What you're looking at is the oxygen isotopes in each ring.
Today we can also date each of these rings, so you can develop a climatic record for thousands and thousands of years.
The results indicated that during the early Classic period, weather conditions were really, really good.
It's also at this time that, you know, Maya populations are expanding.
But then you start to get into the second half of the late Classic period, and that's when things really start to change.
NARRATOR: The analysis showed that starting around the year 750, the weather fluctuated between very dry and very wet conditions.
HOGGARTH: So what we see in the eighth century, towards the end of the eighth century... (thunder rumbling) ...is the climate going back and forth between high precipitation and low precipitation for about 50 years.
So you can imagine the impacts that would have had if you're trying to plant your crops, and every year is something different.
♪ ♪ And as we transition into the ninth century, what we see is this period of almost a century where you have prolonged drought, severe drought.
The ancient Maya were very resilient.
They'd persisted through droughts in the past.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: What was different about the droughts at the turn of the ninth century that contributed to widespread social disruption?
♪ ♪ One answer is in the bones of the ancient Maya.
♪ ♪ HOGGARTH: Hey, guys.
NARRATOR: Julie Hoggarth is using a new technique to analyze more than a thousand years of Maya population to understand their diet, lifestyle, what changed, and when.
HOGGARTH (voiceover): Another major revolution in radiocarbon dating is the development of high-precision radiocarbon.
So in the past, you might have plus or minus 100 years.
With high-precision dates, you get plus or minus 15 to 20, uncalibrated.
So what that does is, it brings in your error pretty significantly.
NARRATOR: In the laboratory at Baylor University, a tiny sample of bone tells a very detailed story.
So we have a bone sample here.
And we just need a small piece of bone.
(voiceover): What you need to do is to purify the bone collagen before you date it in order to get a reliable date.
Now, the radiocarbon dating tells us when these individuals lived, and the stable isotopes tell us what people ate.
NARRATOR: A study published in 2019 showed the diet of the ancient Maya in the Belize Valley changed over time.
HOGGARTH: A drought that occurred in the early Classic period, around 250, 300 A.D., what we see is that the diet was much more varied during that time for the ancient Maya.
And it appears that the effects of the drought were not as harsh.
But what we see in the late Classic is, that's really not the case.
They didn't have as much diversity in their diet.
NARRATOR: With more than a century of wet weather, the Maya cities grew rapidly, shifting the Maya diet from a mix of wild foods and agriculture to rely more on corn.
AWE: Over time, it becomes very clear that the Maya began to extend their production of corn.
There are some great things about corn, because you can produce lots of it and you can store it.
But there are also some problems with corn, and that is that it requires a lot of land, and then it relies on precipitation.
NARRATOR: The reliance on corn, combined with extended droughts, might have fueled a crisis, especially for those in power.
HOGGARTH: So you can imagine how, when things do start to go south, and you have no rain, as things get worse and worse, ancient Maya rulers would have been increasingly appealing to the gods for rain to come, because they are meant to be the rain-bringers-- they are deities themselves.
And so, without rain, part of their rulership falls apart.
HELMKE: When things go bad, you pretend that everything is going fine.
You stick to the status quo as long as you possibly can.
And when that doesn't work, then you have to find alternatives.
One of the ways that political leaders would try to address the situation is by, you know, increased ritual activity.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: To ensure fertility, prosperity, and life-giving rain, the k'uhul ajaw divine lords would offer a sacrifice to the gods of their own sacred blood.
ESTRADA-BELLI: Bloodletting was a big component of Maya religion.
It was an effort to reestablish the balance in, in the universe.
And you would make an offering so that, you know, you, you'll be able to be rewarded.
(birds chirping, fire crackling) NARRATOR: Divine rulers didn't just offer sacrifices at temples.
Sometimes they went to where the gods lived.
♪ ♪ In 1989, Jaime Awe was the first archaeologist to visit what is now, in consultation with local Maya communities, a national archaeological reserve.
AWE: The Maya believed that caves was the location where many of their gods lived.
One of the most important gods that lives inside of caves is the rain god.
Cave rituals began probably as early as the Maya settled this region, going back to about 1200 B.C.
And the Maya, it appears, as, you know, as time went by and cave use intensified, started going deeper and deeper into the cave.
♪ ♪ We're just over a kilometer from the main entrance to Actun Tunichil Muknal, or Cave of the Stone Sepulcher.
I was the first archaeologist to come into this cave, and I realized that it provided a unique opportunity to study a cave that had been unlooted.
I was also struck by the sheer quantity of archaeological remains inside the cave.
The ancient Maya would often come into the caves and bring offerings to their gods.
Many of the ceramic vessels in which they would bring food in as offerings would sometimes be smashed or terminated.
The termination sometimes included just taking a little piece off the rim, sometimes cutting a hole, which we call a kill hole, or sometimes even smashing the vessel completely.
NARRATOR: The offerings to the gods are just as they were when the ancient Maya left more than a thousand years ago.
We have a pot back here that you can see, it looks like it was made yesterday, but it's actually almost a thousand years old.
And it had three legs, and the Maya knocked them off, and then they smashed the vessel.
So right here, you can see the two legs that came off the bottom of that one vessel.
If you lift them up, there are three little rattles that would've been inside of the leg.
And then we look at the charcoal dates or the radiocarbon dates that we get, and that helps us to fine-tune when many of these activities were taking place.
And what we find is that it coincides with increased cave ritual during the time of the decline of the large cities.
And we also start to see an increase or a ramping-up of human sacrifice in this cave.
And so they're upping the ante.
They're really, you know, beseeching their gods to come out and make rain to, you know, ensure that there's balance in their universe.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: These were not the only offerings made to the gods in a desperate time.
ESTRADA-BELLI: When the Maya king had a captive, there was a royal status that was very significant not only for political importance, but also for its religious value.
The blood of kings was the ultimate gift.
Maya sacrifice is, is not something that was terribly common.
And that was part of the cycle of warfare and part of the religious system, but of course, every civilization of the ancient world killed their enemies.
Now, warfare has been going on from the, you know, early establishment of Maya society, but from around 750 A.D., it's accelerating as time goes by.
HELMKE: All of this is creating a whole crescendo of reactions.
It's building more warfare, more social antagonisms, et cetera, et cetera.
NARRATOR: In the small Maya city of Baking Pot in Belize, an excavation in 2015 uncovered an intriguing object, opening a new window into this turbulent time in Maya history.
AWE: Julie Hoggarth and I decided, "Well, let's come here "in the palace complex and excavate the northeastern corner of this area."
This is pretty atypical for Baking Pot.
NARRATOR: One of the enigmas of many ancient Maya cities is the termination or abandonment deposits found outside the palace.
♪ ♪ This area of the site is in the ceremonial part of Baking Pot, but more importantly, where we are in this corner is at the entrance into the royal palace complex.
As soon as we hit maybe, you know, a meter, half a meter below surface, we started to come across these huge deposits.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Inside the deposit were high-quality goods, mostly smashed.
HOGGARTH: We're finding musical instruments, we're finding figurines.
AWE: We're finding large deposits of artifacts.
And it's in the middle of this deposit where we found the Komkom vase.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Scattered in the deposit were pieces of an elaborate vase, decorated with the symbol of the lord of Komkom, a city whose location is still a mystery.
AWE: Whenever we discover any object that has hieroglyphic inscriptions, the first thing I tend to do is, I take a photograph of it, and we send it off to Christophe in Copenhagen.
I first heard about the Komkom vase when Julie sent me a message on my mobile phone with a little photograph of four conjoining shards of the Komkom vase.
Then I immediately saw that this was a very important find.
And so, I just wrote back to Julie right away and said, "Find more!
", with an exclamation point.
And so they did.
♪ ♪ (camera clicking) I immediately saw that this was going to be a lot of work, because there's 86 shards that we had to put back together.
By the end of the second day, it had dawned on me that, wait a minute, this is all glyphs, and it just keeps going and going and going.
♪ ♪ And I realized this is the longest hieroglyphic text on a vase ever found in the Maya area.
NARRATOR: Archaeologists believe the Komkom text is the only story of its kind ever found, written by the ancient Maya at a time of instability and disruption.
AWE: The Komkom vase starts to tell us about events that took place in February of 799 A.D.
This is a critical period in Maya history.
I mean, this is the time when many of the large cities start to decline, and many of them start to be abandoned, depopulated.
And then, bam, you know, we have this Komkom vase that fills in sort of this void around this specific time period.
It is the Maya now relating to us many of the events that unfold during one of the most critical periods of their history.
It's difficult not to use superlatives when you're describing it.
It is a completely, completely unique vase.
There's nothing like it.
AWE: You had to have had a scribe who, one, knew to read Maya script, and then to be able to exactly gauge the size of these glyphs to be able to fit all this narrative.
♪ ♪ REN: These are prestige items produced by very skillful artisans who not only are artists, but also have the knowledge to write.
NARRATOR: The art of writing the hieroglyphs was something the Maya had lost, the result of a deliberate campaign to destroy their culture.
ESTRADA-BELLI: Well, the hieroglyphs, you know, their literature is what is also a very important component of the civilization that was lost during the Spanish conquest.
And that happened as a deliberate consequence of the religious imposition that the Spanish brought.
And within a couple of generations, that knowledge was lost, because nobody could read the hieroglyphs.
So the decipherment of the hieroglyphs has been extremely important to the modern Maya, the contemporary Maya, because there's been a great interest in, on their part in trying to regain, you know, their, that knowledge, and try to reconnect with their past.
NARRATOR: Iyaxel Cojti Ren is an epigrapher, an archaeologist who studies ancient writing.
She can read the Mayan glyphs.
REN: But right now, we only have a few artifacts that tell us about the huge knowledge they had in the past, and it would be good that through the learning of Maya epigraphy, we can recover that knowledge, at least a portion of that.
♪ ♪ Since 2010, we starting organize workshops to teach Maya epigraphy, but Maya culture in general-- about our own culture, our own history.
And it's not only about, "This is how you should read," but, "This is how we are sharing knowledge."
♪ ♪ FRANK TZIB: My name is Frank Tzib.
I am from the beautiful village of Oxmul Kah in Belize.
I am a Yucatec Maya.
Speaking Maya, I grew up learning about our culture.
I grew up practicing many of the traditions that our culture has.
That is why I learn how to read glyphs.
It's something very special to us, the Maya.
I started painting on pottery.
(chuckles): This is what I do now.
NARRATOR: Now modern Maya are reading the glyphs and their ancestors' stories, like this one, made by an elite artisan for the lord of Komkom.
(Tzib speaking Yucatec Maya) (translated): This vase is made for the powerful one.
He is the first of the land, the young lord of Komkom.
(speaking Yucatec Maya) HELMKE: Most historical monuments that we have, there are a few years between each sentence.
What we have here are days between sentences.
It seems to be a copy of somebody's historical annal or diary that's being recorded, and here there's a copy of it.
NARRATOR: Most inscriptions on Maya stelae are public records of conquests or royal ascensions.
Unlike any other known Maya writing found, the Komkom vase contains a personal record from inside major battles in a war between two powerful rulers.
HELMKE: Komkom vase relates a series of fast-paced historical events from the end of February 799.
NARRATOR: The Komkom story tells of a power struggle between two Maya cities.
K'inich Lakamtuun ruled Yax-ha.
Kanot Awhil was the lord of Naranjo.
The two rulers had close family ties.
The king of Naranjo at this time, his mother was actually from Yax-ha.
So there's a huge amount of family relations between the Naranjo dynasty and the Yax-ha dynasty.
NARRATOR: Their cities were also very close to each other.
HELMKE: Naranjo and Yax-ha are less than a day's walk from one another.
NARRATOR: The story begins in Naranjo, with the blessing of the gods.
(Tzib speaking Yucatec Maya) (translated): On the 19th day of February 799, the fire was drilled.
The priest of Naranjo made the ceremonial fire.
HELMKE: With the start of the text of the Komkom vase, is, they relate the drilling of a fire.
A lot of these fires are so-called ritual fires.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: The first battle recorded on the vase is the destruction of a small city by the ruler of Naranjo.
TZIB (translated): Two days later, on the 21st, the city of Sak Suutz' was burned.
This is the will of the gods.
NARRATOR: The lord of Naranjo prepares for a larger conquest, the city of Yax-ha.
TZIB (translated): Seven months and 14 days have passed since the striking of the sacred fire.
The order was given for the destruction of Yax-ha.
The middle of the city of Yax-ha was axed.
The lord of Naranjo ascended to control Yax-ha.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Then the Komkom vase makes fun of the defeated ruler of Yax-ha.
TZIB (translated): And the powerless Yax-ha lord, K'inich Lakamtuun, fled.
(mosquitoes buzzing) HELMKE: K'inich Lakamtuun flees to a place infested with mosquitoes.
TZIB (translated): He ascended to the place of many mosquitoes, the Yax-ha lord.
HELMKE: The way they're poking fun at him is, is extremely clear.
There's no other example of a historical narrative like that.
TZIB (translated): On the third day of September 799, it is the victory dance of the Kek'(e) Ahk.
The very end of the narrative, the whole narrative almost builds up to this, is a dance.
So the name of the dance would be the frog-like turtle dance.
♪ ♪ K'inich Lakamtuun is one of the, the last known kings of Yax-ha.
After the year 800, there are no more records to K'inich Lakamtuun of Yax-ha, and in fact, no more court monuments are raised after.
AWE: In many ways, the Komkom vase truly cycles this period of decline and of conflict in the Maya world.
It casts a look back at a time of turmoil that in many ways marked the beginning of the terminal Classic, the beginning of the, the end process.
(crowd yelling) It's created and made and dedicated in 812, at a time when most Maya cities have already collapsed or are undergoing abandonment.
And it's found in a deposit that marks the very end of the institution of royal kingship at the site of Baking Pot.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Yax-ha was only the beginning.
Over the next 100 years, the ancient Maya inhabitants left almost all the cities of the Lowland Maya.
ESTRADA-BELLI: The timing of the abandonment of Maya city varies.
It wasn't an instantaneous process in any shape or form.
It was very prolonged process.
First, we have the interruption of carving of stone monuments.
And so that seems to go away first.
And then the elites start disappearing.
NARRATOR: At some point, the combination of factors changed life in the cities of the ancient Maya enough that one by one, they were abandoned.
DIANE CHASE: For me, one of the, the greatest factors had to do what, with what the people of Caracol themselves did.
♪ ♪ Caracol's heyday was in what we call the late Classic.
So about 650, 700 A.D., Caracol was at it, its peak in terms of population.
At that point in time, everyone on site had access to the same things.
If the Maya had the same kind of economy as us, in the late Classic, we would say there was a big middle class.
At the end of the Classic period, we see a shift, and access to goods is cut off to a larger degree.
We have the haves and the have-nots.
This political system around the k'uhul ajaw, or the divine ruler, this political system demands a lot from the population of lower social stratus.
It's important to focus on how the commoners react or think about this political system, and for how long they accept it, and they started to question it.
♪ ♪ (birds chirping) NARRATOR: The final abandonment of the Southern Maya cities ended a unique form of civilization in that region, but the Maya adapted.
ESTRADA-BELLI: So the concept of collapse has been very popular in our literature.
You know, it has many negative connotations.
So to me, it's not so much a question of the collapse as to the, you know, what caused these people to, to move?
REN: I agree with several archaeologists who say that Maya collapse has to be understood as a transition.
People don't stay to wait until something better happen.
They, they take their belongings and try to find a better place to live.
ESTRADA-BELLI: There is no doubt that very many cities, in the South, primarily, were abandoned.
At the same time, there were several cities in the North that were booming.
They actually probably received some of that population that left the South right around the year 1000, when, you know, the South was being depopulated.
And the focus of civilization really shift to the North, where it would remain until the arrival of the Spanish, for another 400 years.
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: When Europeans arrived, they devastated the Maya with disease and violent religious conversion, followed by centuries of colonial exploitation.
In spite of that, the modern Maya continue to live and thrive throughout Mesoamerica.
The Maya are still here, are still in Guatemala, in Mexico, in Belize, in Honduras, in El Salvador.
♪ ♪ Definitely, I think Maya culture is alive through Maya languages and through Maya history.
ESTRADA-BELLI: The Maya are extremely resilient people.
They were able to survive the epidemics and the slaughter of the early colonial period.
They were able to maintain their traditions and their knowledge.
It's really a success story in that sense.
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