Ancient Mayan tablet unearthed in Guatemalan jungle dates back 1,600 years

General view of a pyramid at the Becan archeological site at the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Campeche. © Bernardo Montoya
A 1,600 year-old Mayan tablet has been uncovered in the ancient El Achiotal ruins of a temple in Guatemala. It describes a king’s 40-year reign during a period of unrest in Mayan history. The site is said to have been occupied between 400 BC and 550 AD.

“This stela portrays an early king during one of the more poorly understood periods of ancient Maya history,” Marcello Canuto, an anthropologist at Tulane University in Louisiana, says

The discovery was made by complete accident; the dig had been ongoing for years, but the trench containing the tablet contained a previously unseen secret chamber, a shrine of sorts. The researchers had to crouch to explore it. Various objects normally found within ancient tombs were unearthed, along with the tablet.

The ruler appeared to be the fifth vassal of another king, placed in power during a period of military upheaval, from what the Tulane team could discern.

"He's someone under another larger person. He has an overlord of his own," Canuto told LiveScience.

The researchers can’t make up their minds about the exact date the plate comes from due to the worn writing. But four theories exist, the most likely of which is 418 AD, the year the king celebrated his 40th year in power.

It wasn’t a difficult estimate, seeing as the year it is thought the king took up the throne was 378 AD – a very tumultuous period for the Maya, “like a Waterloo… or a July 4, 1776,” as Canuto puts it. It was a time when Teotihuacan – where modern Mexico is today – went to war with the city of Tikal, present-day Guatemala. The king of Teotihuacan removed Tikal’s ruler, placing his own vassal in power, historians believe. It is likely then that El Achiotal was also swept up in the carnage and a sub-ruler was appointed to rule there and answer to Teotihuacan, Canuto’s version suggests.

Evidence found at the scene indicates that the tomb was venerated for about 200 years, until about 500–650 AD, when the place was suddenly abandoned. This corroborated the evidence just 20km (12 miles) away, where another royal residence called La Corona – ruled by another, northern kingdom – suddenly gained prominence around the same time.

This led Canuto to speculate about a pattern, that “the fall of one was at the hands of the rise of the other.” He also believes the fall of Tikal is not an isolated event, but part of a period of larger political unrest and power shift.