Stunning Stone Disk Shows Ancient Maya Enemies Worshipped Same Corn God
In the year 687, a terrible war broke out between the ancient Maya kingdoms of Lakamha’ and Po’p. From their capital cities of Palenque and Tonina respectively, they fought each other for an astonishing 24 years before the destruction finally overwhelmed them both.
Given how fiercely they battled, it would be reasonable to assume that the two societies had diametrically opposed belief systems that brought them into inevitable conflict. But in fact this was not the case. New archaeological discoveries have revealed hidden spiritual and metaphysical links that bound the two warring kingdoms closely together.
Stone pyramid at Tonina. ( INAH)
A Stone Disk and a Statue: In Praise of the Corn God
The most recent of these discoveries is a stone disk that features an intricately carved image of the Maya god of corn, or maize. It was recovered by archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in 2021, and is just now being presented to the public.
The large limestone disk is approximately 17 inches (43 centimeters) in diameter and 3.5 inches (nine centimeters) thick. It was spotted during excavations at the Temple of the Sun at the Tonina site in the state of Chiapas. It is in nearly pristine condition, despite having been made more than 1,000 years ago.
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Stone disk found at the Temple of the Sun, Tonina. ( INAH)
Careful analysis by specialists has revealed that the disk was created to commemorate an event that occurred in 505 AD, several months after the death of a ruler of the Maya kingdom of Po’p.
In the engraved scene featured on the disk’s face, the Maya corn god is portrayed as sitting on a throne. He is dressed in a beaded jade skirt and is wearing a serpent mask headdress.
It seems the god in this case actually represents the departed Po’p leader, who was reincarnated in the land of the dead in that exalted form. While temporarily marooned in an underground kingdom controlled by a jaguar god , his time in the underworld was about to finish, say the specialists who translated the message and imagery on the disk. He was about to be reborn on Earth again, this time in the form of a corn plant that would produce food for his people.
This imagery and the tale it relates reveals important details about the cosmology of the Po’p people. But even more significantly, the stone disk is closely linked to another archaeological discovery made in May of this year in the archaeological zone at Palenque, which had once been the capital city of the rival Lakamha’ empire.
The artifact recovered there was a stucco sculpture of the very same god of corn, which represented this revered deity as a severed head. The statue was undoubtedly created by the people of the kingdom of Lakamha’, and its existence shows both sides in that horrific seventh century civil war actually shared the same metaphysical beliefs.
The Lakamha’ people would have recognized the meaning of the iconography on the stone disk, just as the Po’p people would have worshipped the corn god statue sculpted by the Lakamha’.
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View of the Tonina archaeological zone, Chiapas. ( INAH)
A Shared Religious Tradition
The stunning limestone disk was found during excavations of a crypt located on the north side of the Temple of the Sun, stated Juan Yadeun Angulo, the INAH archaeologist in charge of the investigation at the site. It is believed that the bodies of the rulers of the kingdom of Po’p were taken to this crypt after death, where they would be cremated and their ashes then used for ritual purposes. Specifically, their burned remains would be incorporated into balls used during sacred games .
Archaeologist Juan Yadeun Angulo at the Tonina site. ( INAH)
"After exploring the crypt, we began to investigate the south side looking for some symmetry in the architecture, which allowed us to find this disk, which had been embedded in the building, already decontextualized from its original site, probably an altar," Angulo explained in a press release issued by INAH .
The hieroglyphics on the front of the heavy disk were largely readable, but there had been some deterioration in some places. This made it impossible for the experts to decipher the name of the actual ruler portrayed on the disk’s face. But they were able to decode enough of the writing to interpret the disk imagery’s overall meaning.
The hieroglyphics on the front of the heavy disk were mainly readable, but the actual rulers name was impossible to decipher. ( INAH)
Explicitly referencing the connection with the associated statue found at Palenque , Yadeun Angulo emphasized that the Tonina stone disk “reveals a shared religious tradition around the god of corn, the most important of the classical world.” Regardless of their political differences, the kingdoms of Lakamha’ and Po’p relied equally on corn as a staple crop, and thus developed an equally powerful interest in gaining the corn god’s favor.
United to the End
The histories of Tonina and Palenque were closely intertwined. Each competed for access to resources throughout the seventh century, which put them on an inevitable collision course.
War finally broke out in 687, after the Po’p ruler Yuhkno'm Wahywal was kidnapped and sacrificed by Lakamha’ leader K'inich Kan Bahlam II , the eldest son and successor of Pakal the Great . It seems K'inich Kan Bahlam II took this action to provoke war with the Po’p, who he saw as a potential source of slaves and as an impediment to his desire to gain control over more resources in the area. To prove his greatness, the Lakamha’ leader wanted to erect monuments even more glorious than those built by his illustrious father, and he needed more labor and building materials to achieve that ambition.
Both sides in the war were also seeking increased access to agricultural land and water resources in the Usumacinta basin. This would give them the upper hand as they each sought to become the dominant economic power in the region.
The war continued for more than two decades. It finally ended when the Po’p ruler, an highly decorated warrior known as K'inich B'aaknal Chaak, overran the Lakamha' kingdom and took Pakal's second son, K'inich K'an Joy Chitam II, as his prisoner.
In the aftermath of the devastation, the two capital cities of Tonina and Palenque and their kingdoms experienced a significant decline in wealth, power, and influence. There really was no winner of the war, as the incredible physical, social, cultural, and economic damage it caused proved catastrophic for all.
"Those 24 years of war were the last straw that ended the Classic Maya world, characterized by the enhancement of the great lords, to give way to an Epiclassic era, in which small and numerous estates divided power," Juan Yadeun Angulo explained.
The mutual destruction the two Maya kingdoms brought to each other was an ironic final result, since they’d shared the same religious beliefs and traditions all along. Instead of relying on their common ground to form a lasting alliance, they turned on each other and fought until there was nothing left to fight for, making both kingdoms the war’s ultimate victims. If they hadn’t left behind artifacts like the stucco statue and the stone disk signaling their devotion to their corn god, historians and archaeologists might never have realized how closely aligned the Lakamha’ and Po’p kingdoms actually were in their cosmological views.
Top image: Stone disc alluding to the young maize god corroborates the common religious base of Toniná and Palenque. Source: INAH
By Nathan Falde