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Maya myth revealed

Moises Castillo / AP
Idaho State University anthropologist Richard Hansen shows a 2,300-year-old
stucco frieze found at the El Mirador archaeological site in northern Guatemala.

Archaeologists have unearthed a pair of monumental stucco panels in Guatemala that appear to depict one of the New World's oldest-known creation stories, going back thousands of years to what experts call "the cradle of Maya civilization." The discovery suggests that the saga, known as the Popol Vuh, was a centerpiece of Maya beliefs for well more than a millennium and stands as one of the world's enduring religious stories.

The Popol Vuh chronicles how the Maya gods created the world and made several attempts to fashion people to live in it, including "mud people" and "wooden people" that didn't quite meet the grade. Finally, the gods got it right, creating the people who inhabited the urban site now known as El Mirador - where the panels were found - and the hundreds of thousands of acres comprising the Serpent Kingdom.

A Quiche Maya text of the Popol Vuh was found in the highland town of Chichicastenango in 1700 and transcribed by a Dominican monk named Francisco Ximenez. The saga's two main characters are the Hero Twins, named Hunahpu and Xbanlanque, who are sort of like a double dose of Hercules.

The 26-foot-long (8-meter-long) El Mirador panels were made of carved and modeled lime plaster, and lined a water collection system in a part of the city known as the Central Acropolis. They date back to the Late Preclassic period of Maya culture, which goes from about 300 B.C. to the early 1st century A.D., according to an account of the find from Idaho State University.

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Msnbc.com's Dara Brown
reports on the mythic
Maya panels.


The amazing thing about the panels is that they show a pair of swimmers, framed by cosmic monsters including an undulating serpent and an old-man deity with outstretched wings. Idaho State University's Richard Hansen, president of the Idaho-based FARES Foundation, said the swimmers appear to represent the fabled Hero Twins.

"One of the swimmers has a decapitated head on his flanks, which is likely the decapitated head of his father, who was known in Maya mythology as Hun Hunahpu," Hansen is quoted as saying in the university's account. The other swimmer wears a jaguar headdress, which would typically be associated with Xbalanque ("Young Jaguar Sun.").

"All in all, the scene is a complex blend of early Maya mythology and cosmology," Hansen said.

Hector Escobedo, Guatemala's vice minister of culture, said the find "suggests that the antiquity of the Popol Vuh as an authentic creation story extends far into the Preclassic eras." The find also adds to the importance attached to the Mirador Basin as a center of ancient Maya culture.

Hansen has been doing research for years in the remote Mirador Basin, which is at the center of a major forest conservation program established by the Guatemalan government. The Idaho researcher served as a consultant to actor/director Mel Gibson on the controversial movie "Apocalypto." And although that film is now far back on the DVD shelves, Gibson is still taking an interest in Mirador. Recently, he called the site "arguably the greatest archaeological find in the Western Hemisphere."

For more about Mirador, check out the Mirador Basin Web site.

Update for 10 p.m. ET: There's a lot of discussion in the comments below about the use of the word "myth" - in this context, I meant it in the same sense that one would talk about Greek or Roman myths. I've also reworded some references in this item just to avoid using the word "myth" over and over again.

Update for 11:55 a.m. ET March 13: I've added in the video about the find.

Update for 5 p.m. ET March 18: Here are some thoughtful observations from anthropologist/archaeologist James Q. Jacobs:

"I do not know who chose the title ['Maya Myth Revealed'], but I find it deceptive.  What is revealed is a physical object.  The 'myth' aspect is an interpretation based on writing from about 2,000 years later, and from a different location.  We do not even know if the same culture group was extant when the Popol Vuh was written.

"The huge distinction between evidence and interpretation is often overlooked in archaeology in favor of our myths about the past. Science writers can aid in elucidating this chasm, especially when the temporal gap is this immense."

I admit that I wrote the title. Although the archaeologists involved with the dig emphasized the Popol Vuh connection, Jacobs makes a good point that one (or two) stucco panels may not be enough to nail down that connection. Here's an article in which Jacobs discusses the bugaboos involved in intepreting ancient art.