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Limestone Altar Reveals Secret of Mayan Rule

Guatemalan engraving may reveal how rival dynasty defeated Tikal
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 15, 2018 12:45 PM CDT
A nearly 1,500-year-old carved altar from the Maya site "La Corona," located in the northern Guatemalan department of Peten, is displayed at the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala...   (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)
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(Newser) – How do you conquer a powerful Mayan city-state? Forge a political dynasty, ally with smaller surrounding cities, and slowly envelop until you become leader of the Serpent Kingdom—at least according to one take on a newly unveiled Mayan altar, the AP reports. Discovered in 2017 at the Guatemalan site of La Corona, the nearly 1,500-year-old engraving depicts a king named Chak Took Ich'aak conjuring gods from a shaft shaped like a snake. Ich'aak later governed the nearby city of El Peru-Waka, suggesting that the so-called Serpent Kingdom or Kaanul dynasty forged a movement that grew until it defeated the towering city-state of Tikal in 562 A.D. "... In this case, around 1,500 years ago, I would call this the historical Mayan version of Game of Thrones," excavation co-director Tomas Barrientos tells Phys.org.

Archaeologists already knew that Kaanul kings dominated the Maya lowlands for decades, but the altar—which likely dates to 544 A.D.—shows that La Corona "was the place where the most important historical Mayan political movement began to take shape," says Barrientos. Team leader Marcello Canuto sees the dynasty rising up with a mix of cultural appropriation, like conjuring old gods on the tablet to gain legitimacy; marriage, with a princess from neighboring Mexico; and other alliances with powerful forces. Otherwise, beating Tikal "would be the equivalent to Cuba defeating the United States in a war," says Canuto. "They could only have done that ... if they had had the backing of the Soviet Union." Announced Wednesday, the altar is on display at the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City, per the Times-Picayune. (Read more archaeology stories.)

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