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Built at the turn of the 7th century, the white plaster-coated Maya road began in Cobá ended at Yaxuná. Source: Traci Ardren and Dominique Meyer / University of Miami.

1,300-Year-Old Maya Road Reveals Insights Into Warrior Queen’s Reign

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Researchers using breakthrough technology have been studying a 1,300 year-old Maya road in Mexico. This ancient highway once connected two important Maya cities . The find is allowing researchers to better understand the history of these key cities and the reign of a powerful warrior queen .

Traci Ardren, an Anthropology Professor at the University of Miami, has long been intrigued by a Maya road, built by the queen of Cobá, Lady K’awiil Ajaw, in the Yucatan Peninsula. It connected the city of Cobá and the smaller urban settlement of Yaxuná. Archaeologists from the Carnegie Institute of Washington “mapped its entire length in the 1930s, with little more than a measuring tape and a compass” according to Heritage Daily .

A drawing of a carving found on a stone monument in Cobá depicts the warrior queen who may have built the Maya road to expand her domain. (Traci Ardren and Dominique Meyer / University of Miami)

A drawing of a carving found on a stone monument in Cobá depicts the warrior queen who may have built the Maya road to expand her domain. (Traci Ardren and Dominique Meyer / University of Miami )

Technology Maps Jungle and Finds Maya Road

However, for a long time, she did not have the chance to search for the road, because of its location in dense jungle. However, the development of a new technology known as LIDAR meant that she and her colleagues, Proyecto de Interaccion del Centro de Yucatan (PIPCY), were able to look for the road. LIDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, allowed experts to digitally recreate an area, even in difficult terrain.

LIDAR is transforming archaeology and is allowing researchers to investigate in jungles. It has been able to map many important archaeological sites in regions with dense vegetation.

According to Heritage Daily , LIDAR is “Often deployed from low-flying aircraft, LIDAR instruments fire rapid pulses of laser light at a surface, and then measure the amount of time it takes for each pulse to bounce back”. The pulses are measured and they are then used to created 3D images of areas that are hidden under dense vegetation.

Maya Geopolitics

The LIDAR technology was used to map a large area of the Yucatan, between 2017 and 2019. The technology found up to 8,000 structures beneath the trees. It also identified the road and its course.

This thoroughfare was known as the white road to the Maya because it was built of limestone and coated with white plaster. According to Heritage Daily , the images “confirmed that the road, which measures about 26 feet (8 meters) across, is not a straight line,” which was the theory of the team who surveyed the road in the 1930s.

The Heritage Daily quotes Arden as saying that “The LIDAR really allowed us to understand the road in much greater detail. It helped us identify many new towns and cities along the road–new to us but preexisting the road”.

This LIDAR map of downtown Yaxuna reveals many ancient houses, platforms, palaces, and pyramids that are hidden by vegetation. (Traci Ardren and Dominique Meyer / University of Miami)

This LIDAR map of downtown Yaxuna reveals many ancient houses, platforms, palaces, and pyramids that are hidden by vegetation. (Traci Ardren and Dominique Meyer / University of Miami )

This was not expected and it has important implications for the political history of the Yucatan. The road was connecting many thousands of people in the region which means that they could be more easily controlled by Lady K’awiil Ajaw.

Warrior Queen Built the Maya Road

Cobá was a very militarily powerful state and is famous for its many “carved monuments depicting bellicose rulers standing over bound captives” reports Science Daily . It is thought that the “white road” was built to control the neighboring settlement of Yaxuná. Researchers assume this was done to protect Cobá from the expansionary Chichen Itza Empire.

Presentation of captives to a Maya ruler. (FA2010 / Public Domain)

Presentation of captives to a Maya ruler. (FA2010 / Public Domain )

It is believed that the warrior queen Lady K'awiil Ajaw, built the road in the 600 or 700s AD. She was a fearsome warrior who is portrayed in Cobá as standing triumphant over bound war-captives. There are records that show she was a very successful military leader and greatly expanded her state.

The monarch had the road built as part of her campaign to conquer Yaxuná, a smaller but rich city . Heritage Daily quotes Arden as saying that “I personally think the rise of Chichén Itzá and its allies motivated the road”. The warrior queen built the road to halt the rise of this empire. However, the warrior queen’s efforts were to no avail and her state eventually fell to the new empire.

The Impact of the Maya Road

The researchers are trying to identify the impact of the Maya road on the region. The road, which was a miracle of engineering, ran through a region that had been cleared of jungle. It is believed to have once been once the longest road in the Mayan world.

Arden is quoted by Science Daily as saying that “It would have been a beacon through the dense green of cornfields and fruit trees”. The road spurred trade and cultural exchanges, which is apparent in the fact that after the road was built there was a great deal of similarity in the wares made in both Cobá and Yaxuná.

Miles and miles of jungle, as seen from the top of the Mayan Nohoch Mul pyramid on the northern edge of the Cobá archeological site. (Ken Thomas / Public Domain)

Miles and miles of jungle, as seen from the top of the Mayan Nohoch Mul pyramid on the northern edge of the Cobá archeological site. (Ken Thomas / Public Domain )

The latest study on the Maya road is helping researchers to understand the Yucatan in the Classic Maya Period. It shows that rulers’ constructed roads to extend their control and for geopolitical reasons. Moreover, these thoroughfares helped to integrate various urban centers in the Classical Period , and this had immense implications for the culture and economy of the period.

Top image: Built at the turn of the 7th century, the white plaster-coated Maya road began in Cobá ended at Yaxuná. Source: Traci Ardren and Dominique Meyer / University of Miami .

By Ed Whelan

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