Ancient Maya city found in Mexican nature reserve

Chactun may yield clues about civilization’s collapse

 Archaeologists have found an ancient Maya city that remained hidden for centuries in the rain forests of eastern Mexico, a discovery in a remote nature reserve they hope will yield clues about how the civilization collapsed around 1,000 years ago.

The team, led by Ivan Sprajc, associate professor at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, found 15 pyramids — including one that stands 23 metres tall — ball courts, plazas and tall, sculpted stone shafts called stelae.

They named the city Chactun, meaning “Red Rock” or “Large Rock.” Sprajc said it was likely slightly less populous than the large ancient Maya city of Tikal in Guatemala, and could have been home to as many as 30,000 or 40,000 people, though further research is necessary to make a more precise estimate.

Chactun likely had its heyday during the late Classic period of Maya civilization between 600 and 900 A.D., Sprajc said.

The team’s research was approved by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History and funded by the National Geographic Society and two European companies.

Sprajc said the site — which covers 22 hectares and lies 120 kilometres due west of Chetumal — is one of the largest found in the Yucatan’s central lowlands. The nearest settlement to the ruins is the small town of Xpujil, around 25 kilometres away.

“The whole site is covered by the jungle,” he said in Spanish.

While the site was unknown to the academic community, Sprajc found evidence that other people had been to the site as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, but not since.

“Lumberjacks and gum extractors were certainly already there, because we saw cuts on the trees,” Sprajc said. “What happened is they never told anyone.”

Clues in aerial photographs

While reviewing aerial photographs taken by the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity 15 years ago to monitor the nature reserve, Sprajc and his team saw suggestions of ruins and marked the coordinates.

Researchers visited the site after seeing traces of it in aerial photographs taken 15 years ago to monitor the nature reserve. They then spent three weeks clearing a 16-km path through the jungle to reach the site. After mapping the site for six weeks and documenting the monuments, they blocked the path before leaving to prevent access.

The presence of multiple ball game courts is an indication that Chactun was a very important city, Sprajc said. It was likely abandoned around the year 1,000, probably due to demographic pressure, climate change, wars and rebellions.

He hopes the find could shed new light on relations between different regions of the Maya empire during that period.

The Maya civilization was one of the most advanced in the pre-Columbian Americas and ruled over large swaths of the Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras at its height.

Tikal, which was first mapped by archaeologists in the late 19th century, had a population estimated at up to 90,000.

In December, thousands of people traveled to the Yucatan to celebrate a new cycle in the Maya calendar amidst fears that the Maya had actually predicted that Dec. 21 would mark the end of the world.

Madeline Milne on EmailMadeline Milne on Instagram
Living in Mexico full time since 2011, Madeline is a graphic designer, writer, iPhone photographer and road tripper.


  1. All life on Earth are dependent on migration to avoid extinction due to climate changes, and finding environments with suitable weather and natural resources. Extended drought was the reason for the Maya civilization in the eastern Mexico migrating north into the Mississippi River Valley of the U.S.

    In the U.S. states of Georga and Alabama, are found stepped pyramids and the culture of the Creek American Indians who apparently integrated with the Maya and incorporated the Maya culture and traditions into their Creek Confederacy and Muskogean language. The Creek Indians eventually migrated to Oklahoma.

    A greater story was of the Maya ruler Hanab Pakal LL, the “Navigator” [or astronaut] , and his tombstone of the sarcophagus in the temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. The question of where he flew his rocket flying ship, may have been answered when the American Astronauts during the Apollo LL moon landing, while flying their space module around the back side of the Moon, photographed a large stepped pyramid on the equator, so positioned to be on a line through the center of the Moon and Earth.

    Who could have built a half mile high one mile wide on each side, ancient Ziggurat , with a domed temple on top, with steps, and surrounded with a walled dam? And why did the ancient Maya on Earth build the same structures in so many countries, but with the walled dams removed? More information regarding the Moon pyramid may be found in the Oct. 8-14, 2012 Issue 809 of the Vallarta Tribune.

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