With the advent of ground-penetrating radar and LiDAR (laser imaging, detection, and ranging), finding lost cities, temples and buildings of the ancient pre-Columbian Maya civilization is becoming an almost-everyday occurrence. However, minding a multi-ethnic one is still pretty rare, which is why the latest find by archeologists in northern Venezuela is special. The government of Venezuela announced the discovery of a hidden embassy in Tikal that was built to resemble a compound in Teotihuacan, a rival city-state that eventually conquered it. Yet it now appears at one time they were friends. What happened?
“We knew that the Teotihuacanos had at least some presence and influence in Tikal and nearby Maya areas prior to the year 378. But it wasn’t clear whether the Maya were just emulating aspects of the region’s most powerful kingdom. Now there’s evidence that the relationship was much more than that.”
Edwin Román-Ramírez, the director of the South Tikal Archaeological Project, tells National Geographic that when LiDAR searches began in Tikal in 2019, all that was known was its people had some contact with the Teotihuacanos prior to being conquered by them in 378 CE. The 3-D map created by the LiDAR scans pointed him to obscured ruins, including what appeared to be a pyramid, that closely resembled the square at the center of Teotihuacán known as the Citadel. Digging at that spot in the summer of 2020, he found an incense burner decorated with an image of the Teotihuacán rain god, a tomb with Teotihuacan-style offerings, weaponry typical of Teotihuacán and more. Dating puts the objects and the structures they were found in at around 75 years before 378 CE.
If the Teotihuacanos thought well enough of the Tikal people to build an embassy there, what happened … and why did it happen so quickly? According to dw.com, it may have been triggered by something that happened in a “Maya barrio” in Teotihuacán resembling the embassy in Tikal :
“The hypothesis that the rupture between the two cultures arose suddenly is contributed by the fact that the Mayan murals at Teotihuacán were destroyed and buried between approximately 350 and 400 years. Archaeologists theorize that the murals were part of a complex of Mayan nobles or diplomats who lived in the foreign city.”
Evidence of that destruction was only found recently. Tikal was known to be a multi-ethnic city-state – assimilating neighboring areas without destroying them – so it’s difficult to imagine what could have caused this violent outburst followed by the conquest by a city it had seemingly good diplomatic relations with. Perhaps the Teotihuacanos weren't quite so multi-ethically friendly.
Will the cause of the rift between these two cultures ever be found? Nobody even knew about the embassy just two years ago, so that would be a good bet.