When Archaeologists Dug Up A Mexican Cattle Ranch, They Unearthed A Long-Forgotten Kingdom

Archaeologists in Chiapas, Mexico, have received a tip – and it’s one that they’ve sought for decades. It’s not a glamorous dig, as cattle graze around them while they gently mine for ancient artifacts. However, when they strike something, it’s huge. They’ve discovered the remains of a long-forgotten world in a rancher’s backyard.

It hasn’t been easy for the archaeologists to continue the dig since they started in 2018. Their surroundings alone posed them with big problems. Namely, they had to keep cattle at bay so they wouldn’t fall into their excavation pits. The animals’ waste could damage the precious remnants on-site, too.

But a few cows couldn’t stop the archaeological efforts happening in Chiapas. Experts targeted the Mexican state on the Guatemalan border because of a tip they uncovered in 1994. It had to do with the famed Mayan civilization, which potentially had its start about 4,600 years before the modern-day dig began.

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The thing that the archaeologists found was something special. In fact, it had the potential to fill in some major gaps in the historical understanding of ancient Mayan civilization at large. Experts already knew much about these people and their strongholds. But a cattle rancher’s backyard held the secret that they had sought for years.

Whittaker Schroder was in pursuit of a graduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Anthropology with a scheduled graduation date of 2019. Before turning his tassel, though, his studies took him from the East Coast to Chiapas, Mexico. This is a state that sits on the border to Guatemala.

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Namely, Schroder needed an idea for the dissertation he had to write, a capstone to his studies. Chiapas could be a great place to find inspiration for someone studying archaeology. After all, the state has one of the country’s largest indigenous populations, as well as Mayan ruins including Palenque. This has been described by the Financial Times’ Jude Webber as “spectacular.”

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As Schroder sought his academic inspiration, though, he got to know the Chiapas locals – at least, some of them. One man in particular made an effort to nab the archaeology student’s attention at any opportunity. He was the local carnitas vendor, doling out servings of pork to his customers.

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Schroder ignored the carnitas vendor at first, and for good reason. The graduate student was a vegetarian, so pulled pork had no place in his diet. But the man would not relent, trying to flag down Schroder each time he passed. The effort got him wondering – did the chef have something else to share?

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So, one day, Schroder heeded the carnitas man’s signal. He stopped to see what the Chiapas vendor had to say to him – and it had nothing to do with the menu. Instead, the man wanted the student to know a little secret, and it was one that could possibly help him with his dissertation.

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The carnitas vendor told Schroder that his friend – a cattle rancher identified as Mr. Gómez – had found something on his property. It was a two-by-four-foot stone tablet, and he believed it could have been thousands of years old. Indeed, in a former Mayan stronghold, it wouldn’t be farfetched to find such an ancient artifact in one’s backyard.

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Examining Mr. Gómez’s backyard wouldn’t be a straightforward process for Schroder and other archaeologists. Charles Golden, an anthropology professor from Brandeis University, explained to CNN that it took them years to build a trusting relationship with the people of Chiapas. It wasn’t the first time someone had come to town for Mayan artifacts, after all.

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In the 1960s Mr. Gómez’s property fell victim to looters. The uninvited guests had stolen items from the land, but they left the stone tablet behind in a pile of rubble. To say that the cattle rancher was fortunate to have that one remnant would be an understatement. Golden said, “He found it by accident. There’s a lucky, lucky rescued object the looters had missed.”

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Worse yet, such stolen items often end up on the shelves of museums or private collectors, earning cash for those who illegally procured the goods. And the looters weren’t gentle in gathering their spoils, either. They often relied on heavy-duty machinery to slice up ancient artifacts, taking the most valuable parts and selling them.

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Experts including Golden have worked hard to reverse this trend. He explained, “When you go to the museum and see these objects, you’re seeing something that’s been really butchered from its original piece of stone. So, we would try to reconnect it to the original piece of stone that may still be on on site.”

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This selfish looting cycle left the archaeologists with an uphill battle in building the Chiapas locals’ trust. Of course, the right people could helm a dig without doing damage to their finds. Golden explained, “We are both excavating to find out how people lived and more about how they built these places. But we also have to conserve these buildings.”

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Eventually, though, the team gained the required permission to excavate Mr. Gómez’s land. They still had the rancher’s cattle to contend with, though. And it was a big ask for archaeologists to simultaneously man their dig while keeping the animals at bay to prevent them from trodding on potential finds.

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Furthermore, there were the archaeological pits, into which even a massive cow could fall. And perhaps worst of all, cattle dung could easily infiltrate the archaeologists’ working area. But they knew they had to keep going because they thought that Mr. Gomez’s land could contain a missing puzzle piece in ancient Maya history.

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Indeed, Chiapas did have a lengthy history, especially as Mayan civilization grew to prominence during the Classic Period, which stretched from around 300 A.D. to 900 A.D. Ancient Mayans struck out across the Yucatán Peninsula and into Guatemala, building agricultural settlements and sprawling metropolises along the way. Many major Mayan cities have been uncovered in Chiapas, including Palenque, Bonampak, Toniná, Chinkultic and Yaxchilán.

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The Mayans built more than just these cities, though. They honed their knowledge of tough subjects, such as astronomy and math. They developed a system for writing, and they decorated their cities in ornate murals. And they built a network that connected their major cities so that they could trade their most valued goods – animal skins, indigo, vanilla and more.

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The end of the Classic Period in around 900 A.D. marked the end of most of the major Mayan cities. After that, the ancient people dispersed, re-organizing their social structures in a much less complicated way than their ancestors. By the time the Spanish arrived to colonize Mexico in the 16th century, the Mayans were still a major part of the country’s indigenous population.

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Even with the arrival of the Spanish, Chiapas held onto its indigenous roots. Into the 18th century, the state had a healthy population of 20,000 people, most of whom were native Mexicans. They tilled the land for both native crops – corn, cacao, cotton and beans – and the ones brought over by their European colonizers.

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The Spanish introduced their share of crops, such as barley, wheat, sugar cane and indigo. Their plants proved to be the biggest products, but they didn’t stop there – European colonizers also brought over livestock, too. So, the Chiapas natives began to raise horses, sheep and cattle along with their crops.

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Chiapas maintains this tie to the past to this day – more than half of the state’s population works in agriculture, fishing or forestry. They continue to grow corn, beans, cacao and sugar cane on 95 percent of the state’s cultivated grounds. But the Chiapas locals have added palm oil, soybeans, mangos, bananas, coffee, peanuts and sesame seeds to their repertoire.

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Agriculture isn’t the only tie that Chiapas maintains to its Mayan roots, either. The state encompasses a stunning spread of ancient ruins, which draw swathes of tourists each year. Palenqu stands as the state’s most vital piece of Mayan history, although visitors will often check out Bonampak and Yaxchilan, too.

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It might comes as something of a surprise to learn that experts haven’t always known where these Mayan remnants stood after their ancient inhabitants dispersed. And that’s precisely why Mr. Gómez’s stone tablet was so important to archaeologists. It helped them to pinpoint another important landmark belonging to Chiapas’s most widely known inhabitants.

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Specifically, Mr. Gómez’s tablet told archaeologists where they could find Sak Tz’i’. This was a one-time capital of the Mayan civilization that thrived during the population’s Classic Period peak. Experts have long known about Sak Tz’i’, as its name has appeared in inscriptions found across archaeological digs in the area.

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The search for Sak Tz’i’ began in 1994, when archaeologists uncovered the first references to this mysterious Mayan kingdom. Its name means “white dog,” and it had an important place in the ancient community, despite the much larger and stronger cities that sprung up in the same region. Its remnants proved much harder to find than those of Palenque and other sites, too.

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In its heyday, though, the Sak Tz’i’ kingdom housed between 5,000 and 10,000 residents. It may not have a prominent place in history today, but Golden said that ancient texts revealed the role that the “white dog” state played in the Mayan landscape. Apparently, its people remained resilient in the face of many conflicts.

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Some ancient Mayan texts highlighted their efforts. Golden explained it to CNN, saying, “The reason we know about the kingdom from the inscriptions is because they get beat up by all these superpowers, their rulers are taken captive, they’re fighting wars, but they’re also negotiating alliances with those superpowers at the same time.”

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The only thing missing from the story were the remnants of Sak Tz‘i’ itself. But the team who examined Mr. Gómez’s ancient tablet would finally uncover the mystery – and the answer was right under their feet. You see, as they excavated the cattle rancher’s grazing grounds, they found more and more evidence that the stone carving wasn’t a one-off discovery.

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Instead, the archaeologists found artifacts and structures to indicate that Mr. Gómez’s backyard was once the sprawling kingdom of Sak Tz’i’. They found the remains of ancient buildings including pyramids and a palace. The site also featured a ball court, where ancient people may have played sports, take in wrestling matches, attend feasts and more.

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Still, one discovery proved to be the most important of all – and it was the one that ignited the search on Mr. Gómez’s property. The stone tablet’s inscriptions painted a clearer picture of how the Mayans lived. It told of battles and rituals and some of the people’s spiritual beliefs, including the dance for their rain deity.

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The tablet also told of a water serpent from Mayan myth, which, combined with the rain deity, seemed to indicate the importance of Sak Tz’i’s physical location. Andrew Scherer, an associate anthropology professor at Brown University, explained this theory in a 2020 press release from the acclaimed Ivy League institution.

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Scherer said, “Although we have mythic accounts of creation from other sites, such as Palenque, the story inscribed on the… monument is unique to the site.” He added that the etchings “may be an allegory for the construction of the site itself,” a theory made particularly plausible by the natural surroundings of Sak Tz’i’.

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Sak Tz’i’ – and, now, Mr. Gómez’s ranch – sits amid an area that literally overflows with natural water sources. Streams delineate the landscape, and waterfalls rush over peaks, all of which makes it susceptible to floods. The kingdom’s sometimes precarious environment raised another question – why did other kingdoms make such a big deal of Sak Tz’i’ in their texts?

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It wasn’t just the flooding that gave Scherer pause – it was the kingdom’s small size, too. For such a small metropolis, it had a lot of physical reinforcement, seemingly to prevent invasion. As such, the anthropology professor could speculate as to why Sak Tz’i’ often popped up in other kingdoms’ written texts.

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It all had to do with the small kingdom’s domain, Scherer theorized. He explained, “Why was Sak Tz’i’ of such concern for its neighbors that its defeats were regularly celebrated in inscriptions from the region? One clue comes from remote sensing research. Sak Tz’i’ is located within the Santo Domingo Valley of Chiapas, which affords one of the few easy routes of travel through the region… this area was likely a key route of travel.”

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And that’s why finding Sak Tz’i’ has been so important to archaeologists. They now have a clearer picture of the ancient Mayan hierarchy, in terms of both culture and politics. Golden said the discovery was akin to medieval European historians reading about France in ancient texts, then finally finding its location on a map. That’s how important Sak Tz’i’ was to the civilization.

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And research hasn’t ended at Sak Tz’i’, either. Instead, the team shared their first round of finds with the Journal of Field Archaeology. They then started aerial surveys of the kingdom with the help of light detection and ranging tech, also known as LiDAR. With that on their side, they’d already found platforms that dated back to 1,000 B.C. – possible proof that even earlier people had once inhabited the same swath of land.

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Most importantly, though, Scherer hoped that their research would highlight the incredible civilization that once reigned in Mexico – and their ancestors who remain in Chiapas. He said, “Just as we celebrate the great feats of Rome or Greece, we should also acknowledge the many great accomplishments of the Maya and other indigenous peoples of the Americas… Every facet of our research is done with an eye toward collaboration with indigenous communities here.”

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