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Calakmul Story in National Geographic Magazine for September 2016


In the seventh century A.D. the Snake rulers presided over this capital city—in what today is southern Mexico—and its largest structure, a pyramid 180 feet tall. From Calakmul they managed an intricate web of alliances.

A fascinating story on Calakmul and the Maya Snake Kingdom appears in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Here is an excerpt.

"At the end of the fifth century, Tikal was one of the most powerful city-states in the region. Archaeologists suspect that it held its position with the help of a much larger city high in the mountains 650 miles to the west called Teotihuacan, near today’s Mexico City. For centuries these two cities shaped Maya painting, architecture, pottery, weapons, and city planning. But all that changed in the sixth century, when Teotihuacan disengaged from the Maya region, leaving Tikal to fend for itself.

Enter the Snakes. No one’s sure where they came from; there’s no evidence of them ruling Calakmul before 635. Some experts imagine them hundreds of years before the Classic era, moving from place to place, creating one megacity after another. But this is guesswork. The first obvious snake glyphs seem to appear in Dzibanché, a city in southern Mexico, 80 miles northeast of Calakmul.

Wherever the Snakes were based, we know that starting in the early sixth century two successive Snake kings recognized that Tikal was vulnerable and made a bold play for political control. The first, Stone Hand Jaguar, spent decades making courtesy calls throughout the Maya lowlands.

These visits might seem innocuous now—orchestrating a wedding, playing an ancient Maya ball game (a sport involving a ball, several sticks, and stone hoops), perhaps just dropping by to say hello. But this was how conquest often happened in the Maya world—by offering gifts, paying respects, building crucial allies. No one seems to have been better at this than the Snakes.

Soon Tikal’s southeastern ally, Caracol, was siding with the Snakes, as was Waka, a warlike city to the west. The Snakes patiently gathered the loyalty of other cities to the north, east, and west of Tikal, forming a giant pincer to squeeze their foe. Stone Hand Jaguar and his allies were finally ready to make their move on Tikal, but the Snake lord died before his political maneuvers could pay off. It fell to his successor (and perhaps son), Sky Witness, to spring the trap. The young king must have cut an impressive figure. Scientists who’ve examined his remains say he was powerfully built and that his skull was battered from untold battles, with scars on top of previous scars.

According to inscriptions on an altar in Caracol, Sky Witness put an end to Tikal’s reign on April 29, 562. The king put all the pieces in place, then struck. He led the Snake army east from Waka, while forces from Caracol, the nearby city-state of Naranjo, and probably Holmul moved west.

The Snakes and their allies quickly crushed Tikal, sacked it, and likely sacrificed its king with a stone blade on his own altar. It’s probably at this time that the people of Holmul nearly destroyed the mural that Estrada-Belli would find more than 1,400 years later—which honors Tikal and Teotihuacan—as a sign of loyalty to their new Snake lords. The reign of the Snakes had begun."

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