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1,500-Year-Old Maya Altar Reveals Amazing Secrets of the 'Snake Kings'

Maya altar
Marcello Canuto, an archaeologist at Tulane University, sits beside the Maya altar that he and his colleagues discovered in the jungles of northern Guatemala. (Image credit: Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City)

Archaeologists have discovered a nearly 1,500-year-old carved stone altar in the ancient Maya city of La Corona, deep in the jungles of northern Guatemala.

The finding, announced Sept. 12 at the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City, is the oldest monument on record at the La Corona site from the Classic Maya period, which lasted from A.D. 250 to 900, the archaeologists said.  

An analysis of the carvings on the altar revealed how the powerful Kaanul dynasty started its 200-year rule over much of the Maya lowlands, the archaeologists said. [In Photos: Ancient Maya Carvings Exposed in Guatemala]

"The discovery of this altar allows us to identify an entirely new king of La Corona who apparently had close political ties with the capital of the Kaanul kingdom, Dzibanche, and with the nearby city of El Peru-Waka," Marcello Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University and co-director of the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project (PRALC), said in a statement.

The altar, carved out of a large slab of limestone, depicts the previously unknown king — Chak Took Ich'aak — carrying a double-headed serpent. The site's patron gods are emerging out of the conjoined snakes, Canuto said. This animal isn't a coincidence, as the rulers of the Kaanul dynasty were also known as the "snake kings," according to National Geographic.

Next to this carving is a column of hieroglyphs that show the end of the half-katun period in the long count Maya calendar, where a katun is a unit of time, giving a date that corresponds to May 12, 544.

"For several centuries during the Classic period, the Kaanul kings dominated much of the Maya lowlands," Tomas Barrientos, co-director of the project and director of the Center for Archaeological and Anthropological Research at the University of the Valley of Guatemala, said in the statement. "This altar contains information about their early strategies of expansion, demonstrating that La Coronaplayed an important role in the process from the beginning."

Canuto and Barrientos have studied La Corona since 2008, directing excavations, translating hieroglyphs and surveying the area with lidar (which stands for "light detection and ranging"), a technology that uses billions of light beams to map the topography of terrain. They've also taken part in chemical and material analyses.

With PRALC, their team will investigate the altar to see if it contains additional secrets about how the Kaanul kingdom came to exercise so much power over the Maya lowlands.

Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel
As an associate editor for Live Science, Laura Geggel covers general science, including the environment, archaeology and amazing animals. She has written for The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site covering autism research. Laura grew up in Seattle and studied English literature and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis before completing her graduate degree in science writing at NYU. When not writing, you'll find Laura playing Ultimate Frisbee.