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Inscribed stone from a monument at Witzna with scorching dated to 697.      Source: Francisco Estrada-Belli / Nature Magazine

‘Total Maya Warfare’ Happened Much Earlier Than Scientists Believed

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Archaeologists studying the fate of the flame engulfed ancient Maya city of Witzna believe that in AD 697 an army of Naranjo’s, from a kingdom in what is now Guatemala, caused the catastrophic scorching and that this event entirely changed the face of warfare in this region of South America.

Environmental challenges and scarcity of resources led to disputes with neighbors, which caused the Maya to convert their tools of farming into weapons of war and for many years, archaeologists thought the Maya a peaceful people, more than capable of war, but rarely indulging in it until after AD 800. 

But the findings of an August 5 report published in Nature Human Behavior brings all this into question by detailing a “surprisingly early instance of highly destructive Maya warfare.” These new findings came to light after “sediment core data, site excavations and hieroglyphic writing translations” were researched by geologist David Wahl of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif. Wahl says in the report that until now, most archaeological investigators “assumed that intense military conflicts began somewhere between 800 and 950 and that this contributed in part to the Classic Maya demise.” But they were wrong.

What is more, prior to this discovery, archaeologists believed that Maya people probably considered it dishonorable to maim or kill someone from a distance using projectile weapons. In a Science News article about these findings archaeologist Elizabeth Graham of University College London said “Classic Maya culture probably discouraged killing large numbers of opponents in battle with any type of weapon, since no mass burials of war victims have been found.”

Digital reconstruction of two steles from the cities of Naranjo and Witzna, one indicating the torching of Witzna. (Image: Wahl et al/Nature Magazine)

Digital reconstruction of two steles from the cities of Naranjo and Witzna, one indicating the torching of Witzna. (Image: Wahl et al/Nature Magazine)

Core Samples Provide New Evidence

Naranjo was located about 32 kilometers (20 miles) south of Witzna and the first clue that Wahl’s group of researchers noted were “hieroglyphic inscriptions on a stone slab at the Classic Maya city of Naranjo” which when interpreted revealed that the city of Witzna had been “attacked and burned by Naranjo forces for a second time on May 21, 697.” The term “ puluuy” appears on the slab which some scholars suspect represents ‘targeted attacks’ on select temples and sacred caves rather than on entire living settlements.

Archaeologist Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who wasn’t involved in the research project told reporters what “is unique” in this new information is that “the effect of a military conflict appears to be reflected in lake core date.” By this he means that 2016 sedimentary samples taken across lake Witzna, about two kilometers from Witzna’s ceremonial center, revealed evidence of “extensive fire damage to many structures, including the royal palace and the city’s inscribed monuments, that occurred between roughly 650 and 800,” according to the report.

Sediment cores taken from the lake 2 km  form Witzna. (Image: David Wahl/ Nature Magazine)

Sediment cores taken from the lake 2 km  form Witzna. (Image: David Wahl/ Nature Magazine)

Witzna’s Post Fire Destiny

Anthropological archaeologist Andrew Scherer of Brown University in Providence, R.I. said in the report that the “sediment layer shows signs of reduced human activity including low erosion rates in core layers that formed “after” the massive fire.” And this “links a significant burning event at Witzna to abandonment of the site a century or more earlier than has been reported elsewhere in the Maya lowlands.”

Finding such strong correlations between the second ‘fire’ attack on Witzna and the city’s subsequent abandonment, Wahl’s team argue ‘against’ the possibility that “an escalation of slash-and-burn farming in the late 600s caused the Witzna fire.” Slash-and-burn agriculture, or farming, sometimes called fire-fallow cultivation, involves cutting and burning plants in a forested woodland to create a fertile field called a swidden.

Wahl and colleagues’ work shows that Maya society was “a lot more complex than commonly thought” and their report concludes, “These findings have important implications for our view on the functioning of Maya states and the role of warfare at the end of Classic Maya civilization.” Essentially, total warfare happened much earlier than currently believed.

Top image: Inscribed stone from a monument at Witzna with scorching dated to 697.      Source: Francisco Estrada-Belli / Nature Magazine

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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