Coming from the highway which runs southbound from the town of Pisté, 20 km later you will see the rusty roadside signs signaling Yaxuná, an archaeological site where temples await, unguarded and overgrown. There is a quiet here. No other tourists crowd as I climb the slippery stone steps of the wet pyramid. From the top, I see jungly hills—really ruins—rising up out of the flat land: a circular temple, several paths, and the largest pyramid at Yaxuná, which dwarfs the Castillo at Chichén Itzá in volume and operated for over half a millennium longer.
Moving through the site, I feel like I am able to commune with the ancient ways of this once-bustling city. Due to its location on an important crossroads, archaeologists discovered that Yaxuná thrived for over 2,000 continuous years beginning around 900 B.C. Throughout its history, the site functioned as an interregional trade hub, resulting in a high consumption of foreign trade goods, increasing its value as a conquest by bigger entities. Political changes resulted in explicit, ritualistic destruction and reconstruction of public buildings, setting the stage for the rise of kingship around 300 A.D.
By the end of the Classic period, the powerful state of Cobá conquered Yaxuná and constructed the longest-ever (100 km) sacbé or “white road” in the Maya world. The construction of the road is attributed to the strong, warring queen Lady K’awiil Ajaw, who ruled the site of Cobá for over 40 years. The road demonstrates an overwhelming control of the communities through which it passed, and served to boost the queen’s military control. The sacbé fell into disuse soon after the death of the queen.
Much of the data used by scientists to understand the daily life at Yaxuná come from the excavation of 48 burials, including royal tombs and, more commonly, ancestral bundles of bones discovered underneath the stucco floors of ancient homes. The bones of ancestors were carefully tucked into offerings, alongside ceramic vessels, food, lithic tools, stone jewels, and other artifacts. Many of the excavated bones reveal dental modification and head shaping rituals, signs of social practices used throughout the Maya world, eloquently discussed in the book Before Kukulkán: Bioarchaeology of Maya Life, Death, and Identity at Classic Period Yaxuná.
Eventually, the violent cult of Kukulkán at Chichén Itzá brought about the tragic downfall of ancient Yaxuná, despite the “hasty” construction of a defense wall around the major acropolis. Consumed and integrated into the ever-expanding urban kingdom of Chichén, the site suffered complete abandonment by the time of the European invasion. Early Hispanic records report the modern municipal capital of Yaxuná, Yaxcabá, as an area of “fierce native resistance and Maya cultural resilience.” The modern pueblo (only two km from the ancient site) conserved its pure indigenous roots up until at least 1815.
Today, the modern pueblo embodies that same cultural spirit, speaking its Maya identity openly to visitors. The town’s innovative community center and botanical gardens sidle up to the cenote “Lol-Há.” Almost a perfect circle, the cenote’s wide-mouth opening closes in on the underground, icy blue water. I peek down into the cenote, and feel the same way I did at the site, like maybe I’m the first person to discover this secret magic.
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