Something of a hidden gem, Caracol is one of the largest Maya sites of Central America, and certainly the largest in Belize, yet it receives far less footfall than other ruins in the region. The reason? It’s just so remote, which is likely just how the ancient Maya wanted it. But if you read on, you’ll soon find out why it’s worth that little extra effort to discover it for yourself.
The extent to which Central America is covered by ancient ruins is hardly comprehensible, with the LiDAR scanning of Guatemala and Belize in recent years bringing this fact home, including the revelation of some 60,000 previously unknown structures hidden beneath the forest. It is quickly becoming very obvious that a highly developed and so far underrated civilization once flourished in the Central America region. Far and wide these impressive constructions which betray the presence of a highly ordered and organized society existed. One of the finest examples of the Maya sophistication is found at Caracol, the largest known Maya site in what is now Belize.
The Hidden Remnants of the Maya
Near the end of the 17th century, a Spanish Monk named Andres de Avendano y Loyola and his men ran barefoot and starving through the forests of Central America. Their faces had been cut by thorns and their feet torn by flint scattered on the swampy ground. These men had been fleeing from the city of Tayasal, the last Maya stronghold, after their missionary work had failed. As they were travelling, they soon came upon an enormous pyramid of stone, that was jutting out of the forest canopy. These were ruins of the great city of Tikal. By the time that Avendano had stumbled upon these ruins, the Maya civilization was a shadow of its former glory. The grand cities had been abandoned for decades before the arrival of the Spanish.
Caana, largest structure at Caracol, Belize, believed to have served many functions ranging from palatial residence to ceremonial. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Among the Maya cities that had been abandoned was the city of Caracol in west-central Belize. Caracol lies just 76 km (47 miles) southeast of the more famous Guatemalan Maya city of Tikal. A unique feature of Caracol is that it is the largest known Maya ruins in Belize. This article will follow the rise and fall of Caracol and the important aspects that made it as important as other Maya strongholds of the past.
Who were the Maya?
Historically speaking, the Maya emerged in Central America 3000 years ago, establishing an empire which stretched from Honduras to Southern Mexico. They were one of the most advanced civilizations that existed in Mesoamerica, taming the jungle, creating dazzling cities and elaborate towns and cities that dotted the landscape. They had trade, and even established partnerships in time of war.
The Maya people have hardly vanished , they number around five or six million souls, and are a strong people who adjusted to the encroachments of the Spanish conquistadores. However, the Maya empire remains a most mysterious civilization, even today. Archaeologists are working to understand the full extent of ancient Maya history and culture. New discoveries and modern research have allowed us to rewrite what we previously knew about the Maya.
Young Maya women in traditional dress, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Archaeological research is now beginning to reveal that the once peaceful people, may have performed human sacrifice and participated in grand-scale wars. The reason why archaeological data is so crucial is because the Spanish missionaries that invaded Mesoamerica burnt many of the written documents of the Maya people.
The early Maya culture blossomed thanks to the natural resources available to the people, but it wasn’t until the pre-Classic period that a societal hierarchy was developed. From 1500 BC to 250 AD, the small tribal villages evolved into tribal chiefdoms and then into early Maya states. The states traded with one another and even formed alliances that helped their economies prosper. Another point to note is that the Maya women played a significant part in society, they participated in government, economy and agriculture. Men and women were thus thought of as equals within the Maya world.
The study of Caracol will help further explain not just about the Maya, but specifically focusing upon the people of Caracol and explaining how it developed into a great superpower.
The Rise of the State at Caracol
The city of Caracol was almost lost to history, swallowed by the jungle, that is until it was rediscovered by archaeologists:
“The epicenter of Caracol was completely engulfed by the Chiquibul forest when it was rediscovered in 1937 by a woodcutter who noted standing stone monuments (stelae) and reported them to A. Hamilton Anderson, the Commissioner of Archaeology in what was then British Honduras.”
Rediscovery of the site in 1937 can be considered relatively late as compared to more well-known sites such as Tikal, Palenque and Copan which were never quite lost to the locals, but only rediscovered by Europeans in the mid-19th century.
Initially Caracol was neither well-known nor well studied, and usually absent from the history of the Maya. In the beginning the excavators of the site believed that the city was of modest size and something of a political backwater. However, by the later part of the 20th century, thanks to extensive work on the site, our view of Caracol has been revolutionized.
Caracol is now one of the largest known ancient Maya sites. It was first occupied in the Middle Preclassical period, at around 600 BC. The Maya significantly transformed Caracol at different points in history, after their initial settlement. Even though the settlement was distant from natural water sources, there is evidence that shows that the people of Caracol were capable of building and maintaining water storage features like cenotes.
“While cenotes were their main water source, they were also considered to be the entrance to the Xibalba, translated to the underworld, and a place where the Mayan gods would visit, especially Chaac, the Mayan god of rain, lightning, and thunder. Cenotes were so important that most temples and villages were built close by, or as recent discoveries prove that the Mayans built on top of cenotes, such as Chichen Itza.”
View from the Caana pyramid at Caracol. ( ivanka84 / Adobe Stock)
Sacrifices Made in Caracol
Generally, when one thinks of sacrifice in Mesoamerica, the first thing that comes to mind are the Aztecs, rather than the Maya. But now, archaeologists working at the Maya sites, including Caracol have discovered human remains in the cenotes, along with jade, pottery, gold and incense. In the ancient world as now, there were elements out of the people’s control, like rain, storms, etc. Therefore, in order to prevent these disasters, the Maya may have felt the need to provide offerings including the ultimate sacrifice – that of slaughtering a chosen few in order to appease their gods.
One of the places where the sacrifices took place were in the cenotes, because of its connection with the underworld . This occurred especially during the drought years , when water became so scarce that that the Maya had to abandon their glorious cities. Caracol was not immune to this, it also suffered during this time. However, the absence of mass graves, indicates that they did not conduct ritual sacrifice of human life.
The Maya would usually conduct bloodletting rituals where a few drops of blood were shed and collected on paper and burnt. For the Maya, blood meant life and they believed that the gods had made humans with their own blood , therefore, it was their duty to make blood sacrifices for the gods.
The southern acropolis of Caracol. (David Germain / CC BY-SA 2.5 )
The Elite of Caracol
Within Maya culture, the kings or rulers of the cities were also considered to be gods. Caracol’s official royal dynasty was founded in 331 AD, the establishment of the dynasty was the result of incorporating smaller cities into Caracol. Although much were destroyed, there are still historical records available covering over 450 years of Caracol’s rule. Although uneven, it is an essential part to understanding the people.
“The first royal name recorded at Caracol, Te’ K’ab Chaak (‘Tree Branch Rain God’), appears in two late Classic texts, one placing him in 331, the other 349. The first is poorly understood, the second largely illegible, but their antiquity and importance to later kings could well point to Te’ K’ab Chaak as Caracol’s dynastic progenitor.”
Te’ K’ab Chaak may have founded the dynasty, but it would be his descendants that would make Caracol a superpower. Information regarding the immediate successors is sparse, among the later kings the most important and best-known rulers include Yajaw Te’ K’inich II and his son, K’an II.
Yajaw Te’ K’inchi II’s ascended the throne in 553 AD, and the stelae from his time give us a much clearer picture of Caracol’s political influence.
“A period of diplomatic and military tumult in the first few years of his reign would see Caracol move from the orbit of one great power, Tikal, to that of its rival, the Snake kingdom (Calakmul). The success of Yajaw Te’ K’inich’s stewardship can be measured in the century-long era of prosperity that followed, setting Caracol on the road from the minor capital he inherited to the metropolis it would ultimately become.”
In April 556 AD, Tikal-Caracol relations broke down and erupted into violence, when Tikal inflicted a ch’ak or ‘axe’ event against its erstwhile client. The information that we are gathering from the stelae is beginning to change the way archaeologists believed Maya warfare was conducted. Originally, it was thought that Maya wars were highly ritualized, involving the capture and sacrifice of only kings. But new evidence from Caracol and other Maya sites is changing that view. It seems war was being waged on a colossal scale; Maya cities would make alliances with other strong cities forming a strong group.
Basically, that is what happened when Caracol became an adversary of Tikal. Caracol’s king had formed an alliance with Calakmul, in what is now Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. The outcome was that a new hierarchy was created, with Caracol emerging as a growing power. The second major event took place during the reign of K’an II, when the Naranjo wars took place.
One thing that must be understood is that war was not the only important thing at Caracol, although it was necessary to expand their power and control. The Maya would also participate in a special ball game . This wasn’t simply a game, it also held a deep religious meaning. The game may have been invented 3500 years back by the Olmecs, making it the first organized game known in the history of sports. The team that won would often be sacrificed to the gods.
By the Late Classic period (AD 550-900), Caracol was at its height, and covered an area of approximately 177km 2. There were construction projects that completely transformed the ancient landscape, they created monumental architecture, and a causeway system that expanded their trade network and hundreds of kilometers of agricultural terracing. Unfortunately, all that came to an abrupt end.
In the year 1050 AD. like all other Maya cities, Caracol was abandoned by its inhabitants. The full reasons are still being discovered , but droughts and famine likely caused the people to make the difficult decision of leaving their homes to find food and water.
The legacy that the Maya left behind is unparalleled, despite all the obstacles – wars, famine, drought and the arrival of the Spanish. The Maya continue to survive, maintaining their inherited culture, although no longer in its pure form. Archaeologists continue to research the Maya sites, with the latest technology and new information continues to pour out. Perhaps soon we will know more about the once great ancient Maya and the city of Caracol.
Top image: Caracol site in Belize. Sources: ivanka84 / Adobe Stock
By Khadija Tauseef
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