Ancient Maya City Cashed In on Trade, Location


Indiana Jones, snake hater that he was, would have loathed Cancuen. Cancuen, in the heart of the Guatemalan rain forest, is overrun with snakes: fer de lance, rattlesnakes, coral snakes, eyelash vipers. “We have everything,” a village chieftain says proudly. The very name means “Place of Serpents.”

But Cancuen now has a new claim to fame as one of the most unusual cities in the Maya empire, according to archeologist Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt University. Recently completed excavations reveal that Cancuen was not the minor outpost it was once thought to be, but rather a wealthy municipality whose control of essential raw resources may have made it one of the most powerful forces in the region from 400 BC to AD 800.

The kings of Cancuen never fought a major war and never were conquered. Instead, Demarest said, they made a series of alliances with whichever city-state was the most powerful, furnishing their allies the jade, obsidian, pyrite, quetzal feathers and other goods necessary for maintaining control over the common people.

“They were not the largest or most powerful dynasty, but they were the cleverest,” Demarest said.


And perhaps the wealthiest. That trade allowed them to build a 170-room, three-story palace that rivals the well-known Guatemalan palace of Tikal. But its walls are made of stone rather than the mud brick so common in the region.

Even the city’s burials were luxurious, which was not the case elsewhere in the Maya empire. The small number of tombs of commoners excavated so far reveal women with jade inlays in their teeth and workmen buried with expensive headdresses.

More remarkable still, the vast bulk of the city has been exceptionally preserved, shielded from tomb robbers and the vagaries of nature by dense forest. The site does not have a pyramid or other traditional signs of Maya power, so both archeologists and looters had assumed there was not much there and left it alone.

“Maya civilization is still, in spite of a century of exploration, so relatively unknown that any [discovery like this] is likely to substantially change our understanding,” said archeologist Norman Hammond of Boston University.


“Now we have two different perspectives on how Maya kings exercised power,” he added. The conventional wisdom adopted by many researchers, including Demarest, is that Maya kings achieved their power through warfare. The new results indicate that power could also be achieved by trade.

“This promises to really illuminate our understanding of trade” in the Maya empire, added archeologist William Fash of Harvard University. “Today, when economics is king, that’s a good topic to latch onto.”

Demarest stumbled onto the palace both figuratively and literally. He had been excavating a series of cities farther to the north on the lower Pasion River when he found “a small but beautiful royal palace with hieroglyphics on the throne and panels,” he said.

The inscriptions said it was a queen’s palace belonging to a lady of Cancuen. Given the lack of power held by Maya women, “it was surprising that a queen would have a palace and throne, and the archeology was not like any other in the region,” he said. “There was fine stonework and masonry, like Egypt rather than Maya.”


Intrigued, he traveled upriver to Cancuen, which had been discovered by German archeologists in 1905 and cursorily mapped by Harvard graduate students in the 1960s. The Germans got within 100 yards of the palace but didn’t see it for the dense vegetation. The Harvard students found it, but greatly underestimated its size.

Demarest and his colleagues also did not recognize its true size for the first two weeks they were there. Then, one day while walking on the ruin’s highest level, Demarest fell up to his armpits in vegetation that filled one of the courtyards.

“That’s when I realized the entire hill was a three-story building and we were walking on top of the roof,” he said.

Staggered by this discovery, the team stepped up its efforts and found that the city covered at least 5.5 square kilometers. One reason it lay undiscovered is that an early Cancuen king had ordered an area of at least 2.5 square kilometers around the palace paved with large stone slabs.


After the city’s demise about AD 900, the stone prevented peasants from using the land for farming and a giant oasis of rain forest grew. Today, the site is marked by 150-foot trees with bases 12 to 20 feet thick.

Designed to Impress Kings, Not Commoners

The palace itself covers an area of 270,000 square feet and is built solidly of limestone, which prevented it from collapsing when it was overrun by jungle. The preliminary survey showed that it contains a densely packed labyrinth of hundreds of small rooms with extravagant, 20-foot, corbel-arched ceilings.

“We knew there was a palace there,” said archeologist David Friedel of Southern Methodist University. “But what they have discovered in the last digging season is that it is an enormous palace.”


The palace is not designed to impress commoners on the outside, but rather kings who would have come in for trade negotiations. Panels and hieroglyphics are all inside where only other kings and nobles could see them.

Surrounding the palace are workshops. In one shop, workers took great nodules of obsidian--volcanic glass--and worked it into tools and blades for trading downriver.

In a jade workshop, Demarest found a 35-pound jade boulder from which workers sliced pieces.

In a pyrite workshop, workers took sheets of fool’s gold, peeling them off and placing them together into mosaics to make mirrors.


“For a society that didn’t have glass, that was very impressive,” Demarest said.

Cancuen’s site was crucial to its control of trade: It sits at the beginning of the navigable waters of the Pasion. From there, goods could be transported by log canoes to other major cities and all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Cancuen kings’ “power was based on controlling resources, trading them to kings in other centers in exchange for goods and other services,” Demarest said.

Further evidence of this was provided by Guatemalan epigraphist Federico Fahsem, who has tracked down a large number of inscribed stone slabs and hieroglyphic panels that were removed from the site in the 1950s by the Guatemalan army. These texts show that the Cancuen kings entered a large number of alliances with powerful rulers who, in effect, freed them from military conflict.


Demarest will return to the site in February, again under the sponsorship of the National Geographic Society. “There’s too much rain before then to do anything,” he said. Until then, he has contracted with the people of the nearest village, El Zapote, to guard the site and protect it from pillagers.

Meanwhile, he is attempting to raise funds to provide the villagers of El Zapote with a few necessities. “We weren’t able to do that in the past because of the war. If we gave them an electrical generator, for example, one side or the other would take it.”

Now that the war is over, “we can do more,” he added. He wants to raise enough money to dig wells, bring in a water pump and provide medical care. And among the medical supplies he plans to provide: snakebite kits.

Thomas H. Maugh II can be reached at