From atop Tikal’s Temple IV, a structure that soars 65 meters into the air, it is possible to view one of the largest pre-Columbian Maya sites and its surrounding environs. Today, the jungle has reclaimed ownership of the city’s buildings, which were so carefully constructed by Tikal’s ancient inhabitants. Throughout the Classic period, however, Tikal was an important political regional capital with a reach that extended throughout the Maya world and beyond its borders.
Tikal’s earliest known occupation dates to 800 BC, after which the site grew in size and population. The urban core includes the Great Plaza, ringed by the North Acropolis, Central Acropolis, and Temples I and II. To the west are Temples III and IV; additional structures include Temples V and VI, the South Acropolis, and the East Plaza. Excavations at the North Acropolis have revealed a long history of building renovations and information about the trajectory of the dynastic line, both of which commenced in the Late Preclassic period (ca. 250 BC-AD 250). The North Acropolis became the focus of long-standing royal interment and ancestor veneration as indicated by rich funerary remains, portraiture, and hieroglyphs.
During the Late Preclassic period, Tikal’s rulers sustained contact with Teotihuacan in central Mexico. Architectural style, artistic motifs, dress, and mortuary practices at Tikal attest to Teotihuacan’s influence. The Mundo Perdido (Lost World) Complex at Tikal, for instance, included a pyramid (Structure 5C-54) initiated in the Late Preclassic period and constructed in the talud-tablero architectural style. The sloping wall and flat top style is ubiquitous at Teotihuacan. Interaction with Teotihuacan continued into the Early Classic period (ca. AD 250-600) and may have legitimated Tikal’s position of prominence in the Maya lowlands.
After Teotihuacan’s Early Classic demise, Tikal’s rulers continued to assert power over, and forge links with, many neighboring rivals. However, competing Maya polities’ militaristic maneuvers and political intrigues began to significantly undermine Tikal’s dominance during much of the center’s later history. Specifically, in the mid-6th century, Lord Water at the Belizean site of Caracol led a successful military campaign against Tikal, capturing and killing the ruler Double Bird. In the aftermath, known as the “hiatus,” Tikal’s monuments were defaced and dismantled, population growth halted, sociopolitical structures fragmented, and economic stability wavered.
Erection of new temples and twin pyramid groups in the 7th and early 8th centuries indicates renewed fortunes at Tikal. The twenty-sixth ruler, Jasaw Chan K’awiil (also Ruler A or Ah Cacau), who was entombed beneath Temple I, was responsible for this turn of events. For example, the defeat of Calakmul’s ruler Jaguar Paw by Jasaw Chan K’awiil reaffirmed Tikal’s reemergence as a power with which to be reckoned. Despite these gains, archaeologists believe that by the mid-9th century Tikal’s central authority had waned and residences were abandoned. Collapse was not the result of a single event but most likely caused by combined phenomena like environmental degradation, social unrest, warfare, and political instability. Gradually, the jungle reasserted its status as Tikal’s primary tenant. This important site, however, continues to yield new information. Combined archaeological efforts and decipherment of glyphic texts enrich understanding of Tikal’s history, its dynamic role in political events of the Classic period, and the cultural legacy it imparted upon pre-Columbian and contemporary Maya peoples.
- Coe, W. R., & Haviland, W. A. (1982). Introduction to the archaeology of Tikal, Guatemala. Tikal Reports, 12. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.
- Sabloff, J. A., (Ed.). (2003). Tikal: Dynasties, foreigners, and affairs of state. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
- Sharer, R. J. (1994). The ancient Maya. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.