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10 Captivating Facts about Tikal

Tikal was an ancient Mayan city, the ruins of which can be found in the jungle of Guatemala, near Belize. Today it is recognized as one of the largest Mayan sites and one of the best-preserved examples of an early to late classical period Mayan cities. It is studied extensively by archaeologists from all over the world, helps raise money for the preservation of the nearby rainforests and was also established as the Tikal National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here is a selection of ten unusual facts about the ancient Mayan metropolis of Tikal.

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1. It is located in the Peten Basin region of northern Guatemala.

The Peten Basin is a geographical region that mainly covers the northern part of Guatemala and stretches out into the Campeche state to the southeast of Mexico. This was the primary region of Mayan settlement in the classic Mayan period, i.e. before the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1942. Apart from Tikal, there existed another center of Mayan culture nearby, called Calakmul. The two cities often rivaled against each other, and later on also against the Mexican cities for domination over the area.

2. Tikal was discovered in 1853.

During the Hispanic Conquest, somehow, the city of Tikal remained unnoticed to Hernan Cortés and his followers. There are no mentions of it in the historic records, at least. The first person who uncovered Tikal to a wider audience was a gum-sapper by the name of Ambrosio Tut, who stumbled by accident onto the Mayan ruins and reported the sighting immediately to La Gaceta, a Guatemalan newspaper. The news reached the ears of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, which began sending its finest scholars and archeologists to investigate. Soon Tikal became an excellent source for gathering information about the life of lowland Guatemala Mayans.

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3. Some of the buildings in Tikal date back to 4th century BC.

Tikal started developing very early on, even before the so-called Classic Period of the Mayan history. But it gained on significance circa 200 AD. Tikal was a Mayan capital city, which held diplomatic relations with other Mayan establishments as well as bordering Mexican cities. One of such cities was the Mexican metropolis of Teotihuacan, which although distant, proved quite a threat to Tikal regarding power and influence over the region. The scientists even suspect that some military warfare occurred between the two sometime around 10th century AD.

4. We know nearly all the rulers of Tikal.

Thanks to accurate studies held by the Berlin Academy and other subsequent institutions, we now have an almost full overview of all the dynasties ruling the ancient city of Tikal. What is quite intriguing, is that the city was overtaken by hostile tribes several times, but each new ruler tended to assimilate into the Mayan culture quite fast, with his descendants becoming almost natively Mayan. The first known ruler of Tikal was Yax Ehb’ Xook, or First Scaffold Shark reigning from c. 90 AD, whereas the last ruler was Jasaw Chan K’awiil II, who was in charge from c. 869 AD.

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5. The name of Tikal comes from the Yucatec language.

It is most probably an abbreviated form of the Yucatec Mayan ti ak’al, meaning ‘at the waterhole’. It is said that the name was given to the city in the ancient times by hunters and travelers, who came to the picturesque land. The name has also been translated as ‘the place of the voices’ from the Itza Mayan. However, a newer discovery confirmed that Tikal was not the original name of the Mayan metropolis. The sources tend to refer to the place as Yax Mutul, as can be read from the emblem glyphs on the stellas. The Mayan Kingdom, as a whole, might have been referred to as Mutul, where the Yax meant ‘the most prominent, or first’ city.

6. The city covers an area of over 16 square kilometers (6.2 sq mi) and has about 3,000 structures.

Thanks to the archaeologists surveying the area, we know the full topography of Tikal, which includes several limestone ridges rising from the surrounding swamps. What is particular of Tikal are the numerous causeways which link together the central architectural structures. There are also some typically Mexican elements incorporated into the structures, such as the talud-tablero building style, commonly known as ‘staircase pyramids’. The talud-tablero styles varied among the regions, with each Mayan city displaying a design of its own.

A Lintel containing the Yax Mutul glyph
A Lintel containing the Yax Mutul glyph

7. Tikal boasts an abundance of tropical fauna.

The area was once deforested for the purpose of building the urban complex but nowadays it is a mixture of rainforest and magnificent ruins. All the stone crevices along with a humid climate are an ideal habitat for many tropical species, including agouti, white-nosed coatis, gray foxes, Geoffroy’s spider monkeys, howler monkeys, harpy eagles, falcons, ocellated turkeys, guans, toucans, green parrots and leafcutter ants. Sometimes it is also possible to spot a hunting party of jaguars and cougars roaming on the grounds of Tikal.

8. Tikal used exclusively rainwater to gather water supplies.

Tikal, in contrast to other prominent ancient cities, had no access to water supplies other than retention containers for rainwater. As the climate on its territory is a tropical humid one, with the average rainfall of about 1,945 millimeters (76.6 inches) annually, this was enough to meet the city’s water needs. Archeologists working on Tikal even restored one of the ten extant water containers for their own purpose, and it still proved to be fully functional!

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9. The city could have had even 90,000 inhabitants.

We are unsure what the number really was, but the researchers estimate the population span of Tikal to be somewhere between 10,000 and 90,000 people. And it is very probable that the latter number is correct! The first rapid population growth period can be observed from 700 AD to 830 AD. The density of the population was vast and could have reached even 517 people per square kilometer, as the widespread swamps were unsuitable for habitation and a large percentage of the population was centered around the city area.

10. The buildings of Tikal have been divided into 10 groups.

The most famous area of Tikal is the Great Plaza. Situated at the very center of the site, it is encompassed by two temple-pyramids, one on the east and one on the west side. Its neighbors are the North Acropolis part and the Central Acropolis part. The North Acropolis and the Great Plaza are the most studied parts of Tikal due to their complexity of structure and excellent preservation of engravings. Another interesting part of Tikal to pay attention to is the Lost World complex, or the Mundo Perdido, which hosts the magnificent Lost World Pyramid, built in the talud-tablero style. Tikal is also home to numerous Twin-pyramid complexes, very characteristic for Mayan culture.

A typical talud-tablero structure
A typical talud-tablero structure

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