The following is an article excerpt from the Fall 2019 Issue of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member to subscribe and read the full story!
By Mike Toner
A riveting story of dynastic intrigue and bloody conflict is unfolding that’s reshaping long-held notions about the Maya, one of North America’s most studied ancient cultures. A gusher of discoveries—in tombs and temples, on polychrome vases and limestone stairways, and from state-of-the-art airborne laser surveys—is spurring interest in an alliance of kings, overlords, and vassals known as Kaanul, the Snake dynasty. In contrast to other Maya polities, the Snake kings were little understood until recently. But researchers now know that they wielded immense power throughout the lowlands of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize for more than two centuries.
COVER PHOTO: Archaeologist Anya Shetler cleans an inscription below a frieze discovered at Holmul in 2013. The frieze contains information about the Snake dynasty. | Credit: Francisco Estrada-Belli
This is a reconstruction of Holmul during the late Classic period. Holmul was one of numerous cities controlled by the Snake dynasty. | Credit: Holmul Archaeological Proyect/PACUNAM
This panel discovered at La Corona by archaeologist Marcello Canuto in 2005 links La Corona’s ruling family to the Snake kings. | Credit: Roan McNab of Wildlife Conservation Society.
Lady K’abel, a daughter or granddaughter of the Snake ruler of El Peru-Waká, is portrayed in Stelae 34. | Credit: Cleveland Museum Of Art, purchase from the J.H.Wade Fund #1967.29.
Tikal, located in what is now northern Guatemala, was once thought to have been the unchallenged superpower in this area during the Classic Period (A.D. 250 – 950). But archaeologists now say the Snake dynasty—using strategic intermarriages, trade policy, diplomacy, and military might—not only challenged Tikal, but, under a leader some describe as the Mesoamerican equivalent of Alexander the Great, twice defeated it. “This has been a breathtaking time for Maya studies,” said archaeologist David Freidel of Washington University in St. Louis. “We are caught up in a veritable tornado of intellectual discovery. In addition to new archaeological discoveries, we are finding new texts and new history.”