In the footsteps of the Olmecs and Mayans in Taklik Abaju - The My News Listen to this article

About 3,000 years ago, a city in what is today Guatemala was built on roofs and surrounded by a humid forest. As part of a garrison of valleys, the metropolis was a major center on the commercial route that connected many cities from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico to the Pacific Coast of Central America. It was continuously inhabited for more than 1,700 years, and was then abandoned. Vegetation grew first and the ash of the Santa Maria volcano later covered it. Taklik Abaz has fascinated archaeologists ever since it was discovered in 1888. The city, which witnessed the transition between the Olmec and the Maya, still continues to uncover the origins of an enigmatic ancient culture.

The highway between coffee farms and rubber plantations through the municipality of El Asintal leads to access to the archaeological park, which was created in 1987 and covers only part of the six kilometers into which the ancient city expanded. Was. Urban planners defined it by the orientation of the stars and cardinal points, and at their intersection mux, the central point of the city. They modified the land to create buildings and plazas, developed a complex water system that prevented the area from flooding when it still rained, and an astronomical laboratory to measure time.

Statue of a character with a power cane protruding from the jaws of a jaguar at Takaliq Abaaz, Guatemala.
Statue of a character with a power cane protruding from the jaws of a jaguar at Takaliq Abaaz, Guatemala.Francisco Soto (Guatemala Ministry of Culture)

Miguel Orego began studying Taklik Abaz 35 years ago, when he left his position as a professor in the United States. He was able to choose between other places in the country and chose to study it. “Most sites in Mesoamerica are Olmec or Mayan, but it is difficult, very rare, to find a fusion between the two cultures,” explains Orego, who now manages the park. Scientists move between tall buildings covered with grass. The park, which EL PAÍS visited on a visit organized by the Guatemalan government, brings together a dozen low-rise structures – like a four-story building the tallest is 16 meters – and plazas. Even the scattered appear unbroken, milestonesTaklik Abaz, in Ke’chi’ language.

The investigator speaks slowly and less, and walks slowly. Krista Schieber, just the opposite. The archaeologist, who arrived at Talik Abaz with Orrego, leans forward with his eyes wide open to reveal details of the jade necklace, which she points to with her hands. “The Olmecs had a passion for jade, which represented everything that could be sacred to them,” says the scientist. “The Mayans inherited that passion,” he continued, “but at the beginning of the Mayan the art of making jade declined.” That transition, he explains, was gradual. It smells of resin, a replica of a clay cursor is lit.

Archaeologist Christa Schieber shows the Jade Death Mask at Taklik Abaz Archaeological Park on Sunday, March 20.
Archaeologist Christa Schieber shows the Jade Death Mask at Taklik Abaz Archaeological Park on Sunday, March 20.Francisco Soto (Ministry of Culture and Sports of Guatemala)

Both researchers discovered the necklace in 2011. it was part of the defeat Burial of Raja Kutz Chaman, one of the oldest ever found in Mesoamerica. On earth, as if the sovereign had disappeared, the necklace remained in the neck area; short skirt at waist height; Wristbands and anklets were where the limbs were. Also, in one corner were six female figures of clay. Everything is on display at the National Art Museum of Guatemala in the city of Antigua. The number of discoveries made by archaeologists in these decades – about 400 sculptures – and the variety of artistic styles – up to five – allow experts to document the gradual transition described by Schieber.

To understand this continuity, scientists show a statue of a ruler. The base is a Maya-type pillar; Above, appears a bat, representing the underworld, and on that figure an Olmec character, who carries his ancestor on his back. “It means that this ruler wanted to start his journey to the underworld with his ancestors,” he explains. “But how is the poor Maya sculptor going to remember how the Olmecs sculpted 800 years ago?” Shibar asks and replies: “There was a centralized government which maintained the workshops of the artisans”.

Evidence of that transition is one of the arguments of archaeologists and the country’s Ministry of Culture, which called for declaring Taklik Abaz to be a World Heritage Site. The candidacy, submitted in 2021, was created by Guatemala for the first time in four decades. The country already has three other UNESCO accreditations: the city of Antigua, the site of Quirigua, and the Tikal National Park. The committee of the international organization will meet from June to give its decision.

An altar that is part of the astronomical laboratory of Takaliq Abaz in Guatemala.
An altar that is part of the astronomical laboratory of Takaliq Abaz in Guatemala.Francisco Soto (Guatemala Ministry of Culture)

The country’s Minister of Culture, Felipe Aguilar, has already been involved in the project before being appointed to this position. “Culture should become a growth engine,” Aguilar says. “In Egypt they understood it, there is a whole scaffolding around the culture, in Asia also, the Greeks, the Italians… and we, who have the founding civilizations of the world, did not understand it,” says the politician. There are 2,754 registered archaeological sites in Guatemala – more than 5,000 if the sites discovered by lidar scanning technology are considered. “We have that cultural richness”, explains the politician, “we have to learn to present it and that communities can receive local and foreign tourists”.

Tourism is one of the main economic engines of Guatemala. The country’s president, the conservative Alejandro Giammattei, questioned for alleged bribery and harassment of anti-corruption judges and prosecutors, expressed during his second government report in January, that “international tourism is a priority” for economic reactivation. The main Central American economy, whose growth slowed during the pandemic. For example, the archaeological park was closed for six months in 2020 and received about 25,000 fewer visitors that year compared to 2019.

return of jade mask

Orego and Schieber are now moving to a wooden cabin in a corner of the archaeological park near the area where their rooms are also located. Thousands of pieces of pottery and other materials classified in baskets or bags are kept on shelves arranged like a library. A laminated map of the area is pasted on the wall; Below is a framed sketch of six sculptures found in 2011. In the center, on a long table, are three closed wooden boxes with the same inscription indicating that the contents are fragile.

The fragments were found at the Takaliq Abaz archaeological site, in the Asintal Municipality of the Department of Retalhulu, 200 km south of Guatemala City.
The fragments were found at the Takaliq Abaz archaeological site, in the Asintal Municipality of the Department of Retalhulu, 200 km south of Guatemala City.Orlando Estrada (AFP)

The scientist, along with Mario Maldonado, the Deputy Minister of Cultural and Natural Heritage, exposes them to national and international media cameras. From the inside they take out three pieces made of jade pieces. With the new discoveries, they learn that the parts are poorly assembled and must be the Jade Head, not the Death Mask. “They are unique, extremely rare,” says Shiber. This type of piece was carved into stone and then fragmented according to patterns that researchers have seen in other areas, such as Oaxaca in Mexico. The job of archaeologists now is to rearrange and recreate the mosaics. They know that there are four heads, because there are four noses. “We have a method, ‘How to make a miniature ceremonial head in 22 steps’, which is easier than making a cake,” jokes the archaeologist.

The pieces are returned to Talik Abaz after 30 years and will be displayed in the park’s future museum, which officials predict will be completed in 2023. The goal is for site searches to appear there, not hundreds of kilometers, to the capital. Three decades later, excavations in the park continue to give researchers information about the city, which was sacred to the ancient settlers and remains a spiritual center for their descendants.

1,000 years in one aspect

The history of the site, Schieber explains, is summed up in the façade of one of the park’s tall buildings. Archaeologists say that it is an open-air museum. Several stelae are displayed there: the central one contrasts with other older ones located in the corners and with zoomorphic elements. “We have a sculptural tradition of nearly 1,000 years represented in this façade. Why is this done in a public place?” Archaeologists ask. This, he says, “has a political message.” “It coincides with the moment in which a pivotal moment in the city takes place. The transition from the Olmec to the Maya was without problems, but after 150 AD there is a great danger: two population movements beginning the development of Teotihuacan. They wanted Jade”, he points out.

General view of Takaliq Abaz National Archaeological Park in Guatemala.
General view of Takaliq Abaz National Archaeological Park in Guatemala.Luis Echeveria (Reuters)

When this happened, the Taklik Abaz officers decided to strategically align themselves with the enemy. “But as a powerful ally, not a subordinate,” explains Shiber. From that moment on, the two groups began to interact and continued in the city until about 900 after Christ, the scientists say. It was then that another population, the Ke’che, began to claim control over cocoa production from the city to the coast, albeit as a tribute. The settlers left the city. “The Katch ended the story of Taklik Abaz,” says Shiber.

“After 1,700 years of skilful negotiations, for adaptation, the people of Taklik Abaz did not enter into that alliance,” notes Shiber. “Now we have to find out where they went, why they went, why they could not talk anymore. Because they left the city and there is nothing more, ”says the archaeologist. Orego gives an explanation: “Sometimes we say we disappear, but that’s not true. Maya did not disappear, Takaliq did not disappear even of Abaz. Simply, he says, they came out of a system: “Most likely they’ve taken the road back to the highlands.” In fact, no one lived in it. Then Taklik Abaz was covered with green paint.

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