Researchers unearthed a millennia-old ball court in the middle of the Mexican jungle, part of their excavation of the former Maya capital of Sak Tz'i'.

Date March 23, 2020
Media Contact

Research team uncovers ancient Maya capital in a Mexican backyard

Researchers have been searching for Sak Tz’i’, an important city from the ancient Maya civilization, since 1994; thanks in part to Brown anthropologists, they now have physical evidence that it existed.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For days, a man selling carnitas on the side of the road in rural Mexico tried to get Whittaker Schroder’s attention as he drove past.

At first, Schroder — a University of Florida archaeologist and a Class of 2010 Brown University graduate — thought the man was simply trying to sell him food. Schroder doesn’t eat meat, so he ignored the vendor.

Eventually, he wondered if the man had something else to share. One day, he pulled over, and the man began to describe a stone tablet that his friend had discovered in his backyard. The man’s friend, a cattle rancher, thought the tablet might be thousands of years old, left behind by the Maya.

He was right — and the tablet wasn’t the only extraordinary artifact to be found. As Schroder, Brown Associate Professor of Anthropology Andrew Scherer, Brandeis University anthropologist Charles Golden and other colleagues continued to explore and excavate the rancher’s backyard in June 2018, they realized it was the site of the long-lost Maya capital of Sak Tz’i’ — Mayan for “white dog.”

“We have known about the existence of Sak Tz'i' for decades now, as it is referenced in texts from all of the major kingdoms of the western Maya area,” Scherer said. “Finally locating the polity capital allows us to better understand how this kingdom fit into the geopolitics of the western Maya area, which included a series of kingdoms entangled in a complex web of enmities and alliances.”

Scholars have been looking for physical evidence of Sak Tz'i' since 1994, when they identified references to it in inscriptions found at other Maya excavation sites. The realm is also mentioned in sculptures housed in museums around the world. The kingdom was likely first settled in about 750 BCE and is believed to have been occupied for more than 1,000 years.

Now, at long last, Sak Tz’i’ has been found. In that cattle rancher’s backyard, located in the tiny modern-day town of Lacanja Tzeltal within the Mexican state of Chiapas, Scherer and his fellow researchers found a trove of Maya monumental constructions, including remnants of pyramids, a royal palace and a ball court. Perhaps the most important object, Scherer said, was the stone tablet that kickstarted the whole discovery: A translation of the tablet’s inscription by Brown Professor of Anthropology Stephen Houston revealed stories of rituals, battles, a mythical water serpent and the dance of a rain god.

“Although we have mythic accounts of creation from other sites, such as Palenque, the story inscribed on the Lacanja Tzeltal monument is unique to the site,” Scherer said, and it “may be an allegory for the construction of the site itself” — in other words, the stories hint at the community’s relationship with the surrounding natural environment, which is dense with streams and waterfalls and which often experiences flooding.

“ Just as we celebrate the great feats of Rome or Greece, we should also acknowledge the many great accomplishments of the Maya and other indigenous peoples of the Americas. ”

Andrew Scherer Associate Professor of Anthropology

Scherer said that in many ways, the ruins of Sak Tz’i’ are exactly what he had been expecting, based on the historical descriptions he has read. But there were a few unexpected surprises — including the city’s relatively small size and its heavy fortifications, both of which suggest that the capital was the site of longstanding warfare, tension and change. The researchers have hypothesized that the city is smaller than neighboring capitals because it was moved from an earlier location, and much of the populace did not follow.

“Why was Sak Tz'i' of such concern for its neighbors that its defeats were regularly celebrated in inscriptions from the region?” Scherer said. “One clue comes from remote sensing research: Sak Tz'i' is located within the Santo Domingo Valley of Chiapas, which affords one of the few easy routes of travel through the region... this area was likely a key route of travel.”

Golden, from Brandeis, said that finding Sak Tz'i' is a major advance in modern understanding of ancient Maya politics and culture. He likened it to trying to put together a map of medieval Europe from historical documents and reading about someplace called France.

Essentially, the research team has located France: “It's that big a piece of the puzzle,” Golden said.

Following their discovery, the researchers shared initial findings in the Journal of Field Archaeology. Now, Scherer said the team has begun taking aerial surveys of the ancient city to assess its size and scope using light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology. They recently discovered large earthen platforms that could date as far back as 1,000 B.C, potential evidence of an even earlier settlement.

Scherer hopes that the team’s research helps shine a spotlight on a civilization whose society was just as sophisticated and influential as the ancient societies of the Mediterranean — and that it helps the region’s indigenous peoples forge ever more meaningful connections with their ancestors. 

“Just as we celebrate the great feats of Rome or Greece, we should also acknowledge the many great accomplishments of the Maya and other indigenous peoples of the Americas,” he said. “Descendants of the Maya still live here in Lacanja Tzeltal, and in fact, Tzeltal is the variety of Mayan language that is spoken there. Every facet of our research is done with an eye toward collaboration with indigenous communities here.”