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One of the two colorful painted pots, which were the only grave goods buried with the El Palmar diplomat.

Untold Suffering of the El Palmar Maya Ambassador Revealed

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Archaeologists in Mexico have unearthed a 1,300-year-old diplomat’s corpse at El Palmar and his bones are telling a mixed story of rags  and riches. While the man had lived a privileged adult life, his childhood was marred with illness. Upon his death, a glaring hole in one tooth symbolized the fall of the royal dynasty that created El Palmar, whom he represented on his final and unsuccessful diplomatic mission.

The El Palmar Diplomat Had The Health Vs Wealth Problem

El Palmar is a Maya plaza-compound in Mexico located near the borders of Belize and Guatemala, which was re-discovered in 1936 by British archaeologist Eric S. Thompson.

In 2011, archaeologists Kenichiro Tsukamoto (University of California, Riverside) and Javier Lopez-Camacho (INAH) discovered, for the first time, a “hieroglyph-adorned stairway” that led to a ceremonial platform next to a temple floor at the El Palmar complex.

Professor Kenichiro Tsukamoto of the University of California, Riverside working at the El Palmar site where the Maya diplomat’s body was found. (Kenichiro Tsukamoto / University of California, Riverside)

Professor Kenichiro Tsukamoto of the University of California, Riverside working at the El Palmar site where the Maya diplomat’s body was found. (Kenichiro Tsukamoto /  University of California, Riverside )

Beneath this ancient platform Professor Tsukamoto discovered the undisturbed corpse of a male skeleton in a small chamber. Unlike other elite Maya burials, this man was not buried with any jewelry or grave goods. In fact, only two colorful clay pots were discovered next to his body, which raised a range of questions.

Archaeologist Kenichiro Tsukamoto  is an assistant professor of anthropology at UC Riverside and  Jessica I. Cerezo-Román  is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. This pair of researchers have recently concluded excavations at El Palmar and their results are presented in a new paper published in the journal  Latin American Antiquity . Their conclusion: this elite Maya diplomat led a life of riches and privileges that was marred with health complaints, showing money couldn’t buy you happiness in the ancient world.

An Important Maya Elite Worthy Of Being Remembered

In the recently published study, Dr Tsukamoto says the  hieroglyphs revealed that Ajpach’ Waal, the Maya name of the deceased, was a “lakam,” or standard-bearer and ambassador.

In June, 726 AD, Ajpach’ Waal ventured 350 miles (563 km) to what is today  Honduras to forge an alliance between the king of  Copán and the king of  Calakmul, near El Palmar. The ancient glyphs tell the story of how Ajpach’ Waal carried a banner as he walked on his important diplomatic mission between El Palmar and Calakmul.

The painted “obituary” glyphs that tell some of the story of the El Palmar Maya diplomat. (Kenichiro Tsukamoto /  University of California, Riverside )

The paintings informed the archaeologists that the Maya diplomat had inherited his noble position through his parent’s elite lineages. Furthermore, he built this sacred burial platform specifically for his own spectacular death ritual soon after his diplomatic mission began to fail in September, 726 AD.

While the  painted glyphs  offered the researchers a highly-detailed story into the life of a 1,300-year-old Maya diplomat, the guts of the new research paper came from a study of the man’s bones. And although one would expect that such a social elite would have enjoyed a life of rich foods and lush surroundings, the story told by the bones “is more complex.”

Cash Is No Defense For Disease

Ajpach’ Waal was between 35 and 50 years old when he died around 726 AD, which was when the staircase was constructed. His skull was slightly flattened as a baby and he had suffered  malnutrition as a child, which was determined when both sides of his skull were found to have “slightly porous, spongy areas known as porotic hyperostosis, caused by childhood nutritional deficiencies or illnesses.”

The scientists also determined that bacterial infections, trauma, scurvy, or rickets had “caused” periostitis in the man’s arm bones. Periostitisis is generally chronic and marked by tenderness and swelling of the bone and pain.

Furthermore, Ajpach’ Waal had a fractured right tibia, or shinbone, indicating that he participated in a  ballgame of some kind, which was also depicted on the decorated stairway. The researchers noted that even though Ajpach’ Waal was of high status, this “couldn’t shield him from malnutrition and disease.”

As a teenager, Ajpach’ Waal had jade and pyrite  dental inlays  installed in all of his upper front teeth. This act either ritually marked his official diplomatic social role or occurred when he inherited his father s titles and privileges. This oral operation caused several problems on his lower left side jaw and gum disease resulted in painful abscesses, which would have caused him to eat a diet of soft mashed foods.

The jade and pyrite inlayed teeth of the El Palmar diplomat, Ajpach’ Waal. (Kenichiro Tsukamoto / University of California, Riverside)

The jade and pyrite inlayed teeth of the El Palmar diplomat, Ajpach’ Waal. (Kenichiro Tsukamoto /  University of California, Riverside )

It was also found that an inlay in Ajpach’ Waal’s right canine tooth had fallen out “and wasn’t replaced before his death,” evident because dental calculus had formed in the open cavity.

The hole that this one missing inlay left would have been visible when the man either spoke or smiled, and the researchers say this would have been akin to a “public admission of hardship” or “El Palmar s reduced significance.”

Top image: One of the two colorful painted pots, which were the only grave goods buried with the El Palmar diplomat.    Source: Kenichiro Tsukamoto /  University of California, Riverside

By Ashley Cowie

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