The Biggest Mayan Discovery 'in Decades' Has Sparked a Profound Realization: We Know Very Little About Its Civilization

While constructing the "Mayan Train," archaeologists have found an absolute gold mine of information about the Maya.

The biggest Mayan discovery “in decades” reveals something deeper
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The year 2024 is proving to be a good year for fans of ancient civilizations. A few weeks ago, archaeologists found several treasures and mummified remains in a rock-cut tomb in Egypt. Thousands of miles to the west, the Maya are the protagonists. Amid the construction of the ambitious "Tren Maya," or Mayan Train in English, workers have found millions of ancient objects and even palaces belonging to the ancient people.

These findings may be crucial to understanding more about the Mesopotamian civilization, which still has many mysteries to solve.

The Mayan Train. Mexico’s government wants the Mayan Train to be its new backbone. It will cross the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo as a passenger train during the day and a freight train at night.

The Mayan Train will have 15 stations and various sections, totaling about 950 miles (1,525 kilometers). The good news is that 95% of the route will use existing infrastructure. However, the most exciting part here isn't the project itself, but rather that archaeologists are finding authentic Mayan treasures at the new construction sites.

Colossal. The Maya are one of the world's most fascinating cultures. They were one of the most developed ancient peoples, with over 3,500 years of history, when their empire began to decline. The Maya were masters in many fields, especially mathematics, agriculture, writing, and astronomy.

During the construction of the Mayan Train, archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, also known as the INAH, discovered several ancient artifacts, such as a choker from pre-Hispanic times. They also found a canoe, took a sample, and sent it to the Louvre for study. Human and animal skeletal remains are among the finds. The total amount they've found is astounding.

In January, INAH director Diego Prieto Hernández said that they had discovered “more than 1.4 million ceramic fragments, more than 50,000 movable and immovable goods, such as palaces and structures, constituting the largest archaeological treasure found in Mexico over the last decades.” Among the treasures is a jaw-dropping an 82-foot-high pyramid in a 262-foot-long acropolis.

Glimpses of the past. According to Prieto Hernández, this is “the most important research project ever carried out in the Mayan region of Mexico” due to the Mayan Train construction project. The route has several sections and the archaeologists have found valuable Mayan objects in different areas.

One of them is an urn with the image of the god of corn. The raw clay pot contained the mortal remains of a person with several inscriptions on their body, including the Mayan symbol "ik," which alludes to wind and divine breath. In addition, there was the figure of the corn god himself, who was represented as a growing ear of corn.

Corn is a fundamental element of Mayan mythology. The gods made men with mud, wood, and corn dough, but only those made of corn survived. The vessel was next to another, with ornamentation on the sides that simulated the thorns of a ceiba, a sacred tree for the ancient Mayans and some modern-day natives.

All these elements help researchers connect to the past. They theorize that the place where they found the choker was an area of critical political importance because Mayans used such luxury objects in diplomatic exchanges. (A solar disk at Chichén Itzá suggests it was a religious or study center).

Controversy. But all that glitters isn’t gold. The Washington Post published an article called “Destroying Mayan Treasures to Build a Tourist Train” in response to the controversial citizen consultation organized by the federal government among the indigenous people living in the area. The Post's article also aimed to expose the environmental impact of the project. Even Greenpeace protesters tied themselves to bulldozers to stop the deforestation of one of the zones.

The article reflects the project’s contradictions. It's already become a political debate. Although the government works with INAH archaeologists—who marvel at each discovery without considering that they’re only there out of obligation—this project is political. The Mexican government will deploy the train tracks despite what the experts find (President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wants it completed this year).

The governments response. Officials from the INAH claim they're protecting the country’s heritage. Still, the same institution reported in 2020 and 2021 that “an undetermined number of national assets” had been destroyed. Juan Manuel Sandoval, an INAH anthropologist, also blasted his colleagues for mismanagement in a 75-page document in 2022.

INAH insists that it will preserve these treasures, which it will exhibit in museums like the Puuc Archaeological Museum and the soon-to-be inaugurated Yucatán History Museum. Prieto Hernández states that the Institute’s ultimate intention is to “conserve archaeological materials and sites for future generations.”

Image | INAH TV

Related |We Knew That Mexico's Mummies Were Creepy, But Now We Know That They're Also Biohazard Risks

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