Somewhere in the deep jungle of Southern Mexico, an ancient Mayan city known as “the white jaguar” has lain undisturbed since it was abandoned hundreds of years ago after the Spanish conquered it. Now, a team of archaeologists are on a quest to find Sac Balam and uncover its secrets.
Science Magazine correspondent Lizzie Wade traveled to the Monte Azules region in Mexico on the border of Guatemala to join archaeologists Brent Woodfill of Winthrop University and Josuhé Lozada Toledo of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History in their search for a potential treasure trove of knowledge about the Mayan people. Specifically, the Lacandon Maya, one of the last Mayan peoples to fall to Spanish colonialism after their settlement had been successfully hidden for over 100 years after first contact.
It might surprise some to know that the Spanish were helped by other Mayans to find the city and conquer it. After all, why would the Mayan turn on their own? Well, it’s not that simple. The Mayans were divided into multiple city-states with different rulers, each of whom would try to gain power and influence by trying to conquer each other. Recent evidence of this has been found by researchers who discovered that the Mayans engaged in total warfare much earlier than previously believed.
“Because the Maya are never centralized, it’s very hard to conquer entire areas,” University of Massachusetts archaeologist Maxine Oland said.
The Spanish would have to take over one area at a time.
The Lacandon had experienced Spanish incursions before in a previous settlement on an island in Lake Miramar, but moved deeper into the dense jungle to found a community that would be much safer.
The new city, Sac Balam, did not have the glorious features we recognize at Mayan sites today, as Wade wrote in an article for Science Magazine recounting the team’s adventure.
It wasn’t the kind of Maya city tourists flock to today. Sac Balam didn’t have majestic stone temples, elaborate tombs, or intricate sculptures. In fact, it was probably so unassuming that its ruins might elude an untrained eye. But hundreds of Lacandon once lived there, hidden from Spanish eyes and free to continue a way of life their ancestors had practiced for centuries: planting corn and beans, raising turkeys, weaving strong thatched roofs to resist the tropical rain, and leaving offerings to their gods in nearby caves. The Lacandon had looked at this impenetrable, remote jungle and had seen safety.
For 109 years, the Lacandon people lived hidden away from the Spanish, but with the help of other Mayans in territories already under their rule, they soon discovered it.
“1000 Spanish and allied Maya forces invaded the city, occupying it in early 1695 without a battle,” Wade wrote. “It continued to exist as Nuestra Señora de los Dolores until 1712, when the remaining Lacandon inhabitants were forcibly moved to the Pacific coast of Guatemala.
And so, Sac Balam “faded off colonial maps and back into the forest,” which means researchers have a good chance to find ruins and artifacts that have remained untouched.
“If found, Sac Balam could offer archaeologists an unparalleled time capsule of Lacandon culture, showing how they preserved their independence as the world changed around them,” Wade wrote.
“Sac Balam preserves the story of a community that was erased from history,” Toledo said, pointing out that unearthing the ruins “would be an act of cultural revindication.”
To find the lost city, the team would follow in the footsteps of other similar expeditions, one of which discovered ruins from the Classical Period of Mayan history, much earlier than what they are looking for because Sac Balam falls within the Colonial era.
More Classical ruins would soon appear, some of which were impressive.
About 20 minutes down the trail, we round a bend and come upon a jumble of large rectangular stones, some with clear Maya glyphs carved into them. They are the remains of a hieroglyphic staircase that once led to the top of the palace where the city’s leader would have received his subjects and performed religious rituals. This type of structure is considered a rare jewel of Maya sites. The staircase shows that “this was a powerful place,” Woodfill says.
“This was the palace,” he adds, pointing to the mound of earth behind the staircase remains. The community members show the researchers other features of the site, such as a large vertical stone carved with a portrait and glyphs standing half-buried at the base of a tree. All suggest it was occupied in the Late Classic period (from 600 to 850 C.E., nearly 1000 years before Sac Balam was founded), when nearby city states like Palenque and Yaxchilán were at their height. “This is what archaeological discovery is usually like—local people showing you things they know about,” Woodfill says as he photographs the glyphs on the staircase stones.
But the ruins were not Sac Balam. To get to that site, the team would have to trek deep into the jungle. After all, this ancient community was built to be hidden from the Spanish, and hundreds of years of jungle growth has made getting there much more difficult.
Of course, the team could use LIDAR technology if they could afford such a luxury.
LIDAR is satellite imagery that employs thermal technology to look for potential archaeological sites. Made more popular by archaeologist Sarah Parcak, the technology has resulted in hundreds, even thousands of sites in Guatemala that are still waiting to be excavated.
Wade writes that such imaging has “revealed more than 60,000 ancient structures, most unknown to researchers.”
“The day that someone does LIDAR [over Montes Azules], they’re going to find hundreds or thousands of sites,” ASU archaeologist Ramón Folch González says.
Alas, the team had to go old-school, which means a backbreaking search on foot and by boat through rough terrain that would deal a physical toll to each member.
And all they have to go on is a description of the city by the Spanish, a description that won’t hold up the same way today after so long.
The ruins of Sac Balam will be far less imposing than the hieroglyphic staircase, and far harder to find…Spanish chronicles describe Sac Balam as being on a flat plain at the base of some mountains. Visitors counted 100 houses and three community buildings in the relatively dense town, where turkeys and skinny dogs ran underfoot and people planted a wide variety of crops, including maize, chiles, and various fruit trees, in nearby plots. Every afternoon, semidomesticated scarlet macaws would fly out of the jungle and perch on the town’s rooftops, amazing the Spanish occupiers.
However, there’s still hope because the villagers built some structures on top of stone that may still be visible if they come upon it, signs of which could also include nearby caves containing artifacts or even Spanish buildings erected after conquest.
The houses, which were relatively small and made of adobe, have probably vanished. But the stone foundations of the community buildings might still be visible. The archaeologists will also be on the lookout for caves with offerings inside, metal artifacts like machete pieces and nails—evidence of the eventual Spanish occupation and possibly earlier trade with Maya communities more connected to the colonial state—and the ruins of a small church and an earthen fort supposedly built after the town was conquered.
Unfortunately, after days of cutting their way through the jungle, braving the winding Tzendales River, losing their GPS locator and enduring the pain of a particularly nasty puncture wound caused by a spiny vine, the team had to turn back.
There’s a reason why it took the Spanish so long to find Sac Balam. They would have had to endure a similar trek, albeit without a GPS altogether. Without a clear location, they could have wandered through jungle for years and not found what they were looking for. Only by enlisting the help of other Mayans were the Spanish finally able to find it. This is a benefit the archaeologists don’t have because there is no one alive today who has been there. It’s been abandoned for 300 years.
That, however, is both a disadvantage and a benefit. While they’ll have to find the city from scratch, when they do find it the ruins and any artifacts will have been untouched by humans since the early 1700s.
It’s the perfect opportunity for eager researchers if they are willing to put in the effort.
“There’s so much that could be learned there, if people would just be willing to endure the discomforts and disappointments of working in these areas,” Southern Illinois University archaeologist Prudence Rice says.
For now, the team is regrouping to resume the journey on another day, hoping that “the white jaguar” will reveal itself and give up the long-held secrets of the last Mayans who resisted Spanish rule.
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