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The Mayan Red Queen Skull. Image: INAH

The Mystery of the Mayan Red Queen


An unexpected discovery of a royal burial inside a previously unknown substructure of Temple XIII in Palenque, Mexico, set off a decades-long archaeological mystery. In 1994, a young Mexican archaeologist named Fanny Lopez Jimenez was performing routine stabilization work on the temple stairs, when she noticed a small crack partly covered by weeds and masonry. She directed light into the crack using mirrors and a flashlight, and peered into a narrow passage, six meters long and completely clear of debris. At the end of the passage, she saw another passage at right angles, and a large sealed door where they met. The next day her team chipped away stones making an opening through which they entered the passage, finding two empty chambers on each side of the sealed door which had signs of rituals being performed in front. They sensed that the sealed chamber held something important.

Temple XIII is a smaller pyramid structure adjoining the soaring Temple of the Inscriptions, burial pyramid of famous Mayan ruler K'inich Janaab Pakal I. Pakal's tomb was excavated in 1942 by Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, revealing the first royal Mayan burial found in a pyramid, and compared in its richness of jade, ceramics and jewelry to the tomb of Egypt's King Tut. The team made a small cut above the sealed door, threaded a long-neck lamp through and saw a closed sarcophagus nearly filling the chamber, covered with red cinnabar.

Cinnabar was used as a preservative in ancient burials.

Cinnabar was used as a preservative in ancient burials.(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mercuric oxide (cinnabar) was used by ancient Maya as a preservative in royal burials. Two weeks later, they made a larger entrance into the chamber and found many artifacts, including a spindle whorl used by women to weave, figurine whistles, and ceramic bowls dating the burial to 600-700 AD.

Archaeologists Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz and Fanny Lopez Jimenez in vault of Red Queen's crypt and opening sarcophagus lid.  Image: INAH

Archaeologists Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz and Fanny Lopez Jimenez in vault of Red Queen's crypt and opening sarcophagus lid.  Image: INAH

These findings caused Fanny Lopez to suspect the sarcophagus held the remains of a royal woman who was linked to Pakal. If so, this would be the first Mayan queen's burial discovered. It took another two months for the team to remove the monolithic limestone lid off the sarcophagus, using a custom-built hydraulic lift. They beheld a royal skeleton not seen for fourteen centuries, lying on its back with bones completely permeated with red cinnabar.

It was a rich burial; a diadem of jade beads adorned the skull, hundreds of bright green fragments framed the cranium from a broken mask, and more jade, pearls, shells, obsidian blades, axes and bone needles surrounded and covered the skeleton. It was the biggest discovery inMayan archaeology in forty years.

Skeleton of Mayan Red Queen in sarcophagus, permeated with cinnabar.  Image: INAH

Skeleton of Mayan Red Queen in sarcophagus, permeated with cinnabar.  Image: INAH

Three months later, Mexican physical anthropologist Arturo Romano Pacheco was sent by INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico) to examine the skeleton. He determined from the shape of the pelvic bones and structure of jaw and skull that it was a woman. Fanny Lopez was thrilled; she had found the first burial of a Mayan queen. But who was the woman? The crypt walls and sarcophagus were entirely devoid of hieroglyphs and paintings. This surprised archaeologists, because Pakal's burial had numerous portraits of ancestors and glyphs detailing his entire lineage. There was no information to identify the woman, although several clues pointed to a relationship with Pakal. Her burial pyramid was adjacent to his, and they both had a monolithic lidded sarcophagus, jade masks, diadems and jewelry. Both their skeletons were permeated with cinnabar, and they were buried during the same time period. Though archaeologists searched for a tunnel between the pyramids, one has not yet been found.

Archaeologist Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz, Project Director of the Palenque work for INAH, gave the unknown royal woman the nickname, "The Red Queen." There were four candidates for her identity, drawn from depictions of Pakal's family in his tomb; extensive hieroglyphic panels in the temple on top his burial pyramid, and relief carvings in other structures made by his sons. The candidates were:

  • Yohl Ik'nal, Pakal's grandmother - Heart of Wind Place
  • Sak K'uk, Pakal's mother - Resplendent White Quetzal
  • Tz'aakb'u Ahau (Ajaw), Pakal's wife - Accumulator of Lords
  • K'inuuw Mat, Pakal's daughter-in-law - Sun-Possessed Cormorant

Yohl Ik'nal

Yohl Ik'nal, the grandmother of Pakal, was the first Mayan woman to rule in her own right. She probably inherited rulership from her father Kan Bahlam I. Her birth date is unknown, but glyphs on the Temple of the Inscriptions East Panel record that she ascended to the throne in 583 AD, ruled for nearly twenty-two years, and died in 604 AD. She is portrayed twice on the walls of Pakal's sarcophagus, and her name glyph is included in the dynastic listing running around the edges of the lid. Another set of glyphs on the K'an Tok Tablet, Temple XVI, records that she supervised the accession of a subsidiary lord late in her reign. Her successful rule fended off attacks from Kalakmul, led to new construction and increased Palenque's prosperity. Mayanists disagree about dynastic succession after her rule. The interpretation I use holds that her son Aj Ne Ohl Mat succeeded and ruled from 605-612 AD, then his sister Sak K'uk became ruler from 612-615 AD. Early in the search for the Red Queen's identity, Yohl Ik'nal was eliminated because she died more than seventy years before the tomb was built. Archaeologists had determined it was not a secondary burial, in which the bones of someone who died earlier are entombed in a later crypt.

Sak K'uk

Sak K'uk, Pakal's mother, was born around 578 AD and became the second women ruler of Palenque. On the edge of Pakal's sarcophagus lid, she is listed as a legitimate ruler, her reign continuing alongside Pakal's for many years. The Oval Palace Tablet portrays only Sak K'uk and Pakal, depicting her handing the royal headdress to her son. On the Temple of the Inscriptions East Tablet, however, the ruler preceding Pakal is named "Muwaan Mat." Controversy among Mayanists continues about whether she actually was a ruler of Palenque. Initially the Muwaan Mat glyph was thought another name for Sak K'uk, but it also is the name of the Primordial Mother Goddess who gave birth to the Palenque Triad Gods, from whom the ruling dynasty descended. My interpretation, following the work of Gerardo Aldana, is that Sak K'uk invoked the presence of the Goddess to "co-rule" with her during difficult times when she could not perform required ceremonies. In 611, Palenque suffered a devastating defeat by Kalakmul, in which her brother, Aj Ne Ohl Mat, was captured and later killed, and the sacred shrine that served as a spiritual portal to the Gods and ancestors was destroyed. The city was without leadership and in spiritual crisis; Sak K'uk stepped in to guide it through chaos. She held the throne until her son Pakal acceded at twelve, most likely continuing to provide leadership for several more years. She died in 640 AD, within the time frame for the Red Queen's burial.

Tz'aakb'u Ahau

Tz'aakb'u Ahau (Ajaw) was Pakal's wife, coming from a neighboring city to marry him in 626 AD. The Temple of the Inscriptions West Tablet records her marriage and death dates, and she is depicted in carvings on two other tablets. On the Palace Tablet, she and Pakal sit on either side of their second son, K'inich Kan Joy Chitam II, offering him symbols of rulership and divine ancestry. The Dumbarton Oaks Tablet depicts this same son dancing as the rain god, flanked by his mother and father. From the Temple of the Inscriptions tablets, archaeologists have deduced that she bore Pakal three or possibly four sons. Two of these sons became subsequent rulers of Palenque, but left no heirs. The youngest son, who died before attaining the throne, continued the dynasty through his own son. During Pakal's long life, he vastly expanded the city, creating a new central plaza complex and palace that are considered the most elegant of Maya architecture. Over a period of about 60 years, he restored the city's religious charter, built a new sacred shrine, and resurrected the collapsed portal, possibly assisted by his wife. Tz'aakb'u Ahau died in 672 AD, eleven years before Pakal's death in 683. Pakal could have personally overseen her royal burial and the construction of her pyramid adjacent to his own. Many archaeologists believed she was the most likely candidate for The Red Queen.

K'inuuw Mat

K'inuuw Mat was Pakal's daughter-in-law, marrying his youngest son Tiwol Chan Mat who never acceded to the throne. Little is known about this woman, who came from another city, possibly Uxte'kuh on the Tabasco plains. Her husband was born in 647 AD and died in 680 at age thirty-three. The marriage was probably a political alliance. If they married in their twenties, then their union would have occurred around 670. Their son who continued the dynasty, K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nab III, was born in 678 and acceded in 721. K'inuuw Mat is depicted in a carving on the Tablet of the Slaves in Temple XIX. She and her husband are shown offering their son symbols of rulership and divine ancestry, and both are named in the glyphs above them. There is no record of when she died. She is a less likely candidate for The Red Queen, since both Pakal's older sons were living when he died and he had no reason to single her out for special treatment. Pakal had an unusually long life, ruling until he was 80 years of age. His oldest son, K'inich Kan Bahlam II, acceded in 684 AD at age 49, and K'inich Kan Joy Chitam II acceded in 702 AD at age 58. The next ruler was K'inuuw Mat's son, Pakal's grandson. 

Narrowing the Candidates for the Mysterious Red Skeleton

Using archaeological evidence, epigraphic data for dates, and a process of deduction, the candidates for The Red Queen can be narrowed down to Sak K'uk, the mother of Pakal, and Tz'aakb'u Ahau, the wife of Pakal. Both women played important roles in his life, and he acknowledged them in portraits and glyphic histories. But, such records were absent from the walls of her crypt and sarcophagus, so scientific studies were conducted on the Red Queen's and Pakal's bones. Cinnabar, mercuric oxide used for preservation, had penetrated into the bone matrix and colored the bones bright red throughout. For the Mayas, red symbolized sacred energies of blood, called itz,and was the color of the east, the rising sun, the renewal of life eternal. Between the red coloration of the bone and deterioration of bone matrix over time, it was very difficult to perform microscopic examinations.        


The first studies were of strontium isotopes, found in bedrock and varying with age and type of rock. Isotopes move from rock into soil and groundwater, are absorbed into plants and through the food chain. In humans, strontium isotopes in skeletal bones indicate diet during later years of life, while those in tooth enamel indicate diet during childhood. Geologically different regions have varying isotope ratios. Between 1999 and 2003, an INAH project extracted samples of bone and teeth from both Pakal and The Red Queen. Analyses were conducted by Dr. Vera Tiesler and Dr. Andrea Cucina, of the Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan. The strontium isotopes profile of Pakal's bones and teeth showed he was born and resided in later life in the Palenque region. The Red Queen's tooth enamel had isotope ratios for a different geographic region, typical for the western part of Veracruz. This indicated that she grew up in a different city, most likely Tortuguero or Pomona. The strontium isotopes studies indicated that the Red Queen probably was not Pakal's mother, who was born and lived her life in Palenque.

Questions remained about confirming The Red Queen's relationship to Pakal, since experts considered the strontium isotopes analysis to be circumstantial evidence. Something more definitive was needed. Further bone studies had to wait another decade, however, for techniques of DNA analysis to advance. Initial attempts to extract DNA from bones of Pakal and The Red Queen had been unsuccessful, due to the cinnabar and deteriorated matrix. A group of scientists had been working on techniques to analyze ancient biological remains. Dr. Carney Matheson at Lakehead University in Canada and his group specialized in studying the ancient biomolecules and processes of degradation, and developed new techniques for DNA extraction and recovery. They analyzed several bone samples taken from Pakal, The Red Queen, and three other skeletons from Palenque. Their sampling and DNA analysis techniques were successful.

In June 2012, INAH released a statement about the DNA analysis results of Dr. Matheson's group. The results "confirmed that there was no relationship between The Red Queen and Pakal." Since Pakal and The Red Queen did not share common DNA, she could not be a blood relative. This eliminates his mother, Sak K'uk, as the queen in the mysterious red-permeated burial. Most Mayanists now accept that The Red Queen is Tz'aakb'u Ahau, Pakal's wife.

But the mystery is not completely and definitively solved. There is some chance that the skeleton may be that of his daughter-in-law K'inuuw Mat, or another unrelated royal woman as yet undiscovered. Archaeologists hope that a future excavation will discover the tomb of one of Pakal's sons. Specialists would then study the son's DNA and compare it with that of The Red Queen. If they shared common DNA this would confirm that she was Pakal's wife.

Temple of the Inscriptions (Pakal's burial pyramid, left), with Temple XIII adjacent (The Red Queen's burial pyramid). Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico.  Image: INAH

Temple of the Inscriptions (Pakal's burial pyramid, left), with Temple XIII adjacent (The Red Queen's burial pyramid).Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico.  Image: INAH

Top image:The Mayan Red Queen Skull. Image: INAH

By Leonide Martin


Gerardo Aldana.  The Apotheosis of Janaab' Pakal: Science, History, and Religion at Classic Maya Palenque.University Press of Colorado, Boulder. (2007)

Cultura, Secretaría de Cultura.  Nuevos Estudios a la Reina Roja. INAH - Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City. (2012)

Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz.  The Red Queen.  Report for INAH. (1999)

Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz.  La Reina Roja: Una Tumba Real en Palenque. Turner, Madrid. (2011)

Stanley Guenter.  The Tomb of K'inich Janaab Pakal: The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. Mesoweb (2007)

Adriana Malvido.  La Reina Roja: El Secreto de los Mayas en Palenque. Conaculta - INAH, Random House, Mexico City. (2006)

Carney Matheson.  Palenque Research Report. Unpublished manuscript on file, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Canada. (2005)              

Joel Skidmore.  The Rulers of Palenque. Fifth Edition. Mesoweb (2010)

David Stuart & George Stuart.  Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames & Hudson, London. (2008)

Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina. (Eds) Janaab' Pakal of Palenque: Reconstructing the Life and Death of a Maya Ruler. Chapter 7. Geographic Origin of Janaab' Pakal and the "Red Queen": Evidence from Strontium Isotopes. University of Arizona Press, Tucson. (2006)

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Retired California State University professor, former Family Nurse Practitioner, currently author and Maya researcher.  My books bring ancient Maya culture and civilization to life in stories about both real historical Mayans and fictional characters.  I’ve studied Maya archeology, anthropology and... Read More

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