Calakmul (also Kalakmul and other less frequent variants) is the name given to site of one of the largest ancient Maya cities ever uncovered. It is located in the 1,800,000 acre Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in the Mexican state of Campeche, deep in the jungles of the greater Petén Basin region, 30 km from the Guatemalan border.
Calakmul was a major Maya superpower within the northern Peten region of the Yucatan of southern Mexico. Calakmul administered a large domain marked by the extensive distribution of their emblem glyph of the snake head sign (Schele and Freidel pp.456-457). Calakmul was the seat of what has been dubbed the Serpent Head Polity. This Serpent Head polity reigned, like Tikal, during most of the Classic Maya period. Calakmul itself is estimated to have had a population of 50,000 people and had governance, at times, to places as far away as 150 kilometers (Sharer and Traxler pp.356). There are 6,750 ancient structures identified at Calakmul the largest of which is the great pyramid at the site. The pyramid is 55 meters high, making it the tallest of the Maya pyramids. Four tombs have been located within the pyramid. Like many temples or pyramids within Mesoamerica the pyramid at Calakmul increased in size by building upon the existing temple to reach its current size (Folan et. al. pp.316). The size of the central monumental architecture is approximately two square kilometers and the whole of the site; mostly covered with dense residential structures is about twenty square kilometers.
Calakmul is one of the most structure rich sites within the Maya region. The site contains 117 stelae the largest total in the region, most are in paired sets representing rulers and their wives (Sharer and Traxler pp.356). However, due to these carved stelae being produced with soft limestone most of these stelae have been eroded beyond interpretation. Also many elaborate murals were discovered at Calakmul. Unusually these murals do not represent activities of the elite class. Elaborate market scenes are depictions of people preparing or consuming products such as atole or tamales or tobacco as an ointment. Also items being sold were textiles and needles. These murals also have glyphs within them describing the actions occurring (Martin).The most prominent figure in these murals is identified as Lady Nine Stone, she appears in many scenes. This brings a world of the Maya marketplace to vibrant life for archaeologists. Another highly beneficial resource to Maya archeological understanding at Calakmul is the ceramic remains. The composition of the ceramic materials identifies the region or more specifically the polity that produced them. Ceramics found at several sites which also are found to have the snake emblem glyph give more evidence to identify ties or control over that site by Calakmul.
Much that led to the collapse of classic Maya civilization was warfare and degradation of natural resources. Within the greater Peten region of southern Mexico the two main contributors to this collapse were the superpowers of Calakmul and Tikal. The initial understanding from Maya archaeologists was that Tikal and Calakmul were active competitors of resources in their region. They waged almost constant warfare through to the terminal classic period and could have begun their rivalry in ancestral times. Calakmul rose to be powerful then defeated Tikal; Tikal eventually gained strength and returned to defeat Calakmul. Calakmul allied itself with Yaxchilan, Naranjo, and Caracol surrounding and conquering Tikal. Calakmul remained in power until two of these polities began fighting and then Tikal muscled itself out of control of the northern superpower and in 695 AD conquered Calakmul (Sharer and Traxler pp.379, 390-394). Calakmul in turn, utilized surrounding smaller cities of the Tikal sphere of power to defeat their political center at Tikal. It was originally understood that Tikal was the more powerful of the two polities, however, recent archaeological evidence supports that both were influential and each was the seat of their respective dynastic polities. Calakmul is located approximately 60 miles north of Tikal within the Peten, so they are relatively close to each other and inevitably are competing for the same resources. Calakmul acquired and influenced other outposts including many in the Tikal zone such as El Peru and Dos Pilas. Dos Pilas was originally created as an outpost for Tikal who implanted rulers from the royal lineage of the great city. Recently a hurricane ripped through the northern jungles of Guatemala and uncovered ten previously unknown glyph ridden stairs at the site of Dos Pilas, adding to the eight already known and deciphered steps of the hieroglyphic staircase #2, structure L5-49 (Fahsen). According to the decipherment the glyphs indicate that the ruler of Dos Pilas was actually brother to the ruler of Tikal and ascended to the throne at age four. The ruler of Dos Pilas, Balaj Chan K’awiil, was a great warrior and was loyal to his brothers’ empire until while in his twenties the enemy of Tikal sacked the young rulers city and he became subordinate to Calakmul. According to the glyphs Balaj Chan K’awiil, acting as a “puppet king”, waged a ten year proxy war against Tikal (Coe pp.130). What is described in the staircase at this point is a very graphic description of the victory over Tikal by Dos Pilas under the Calakmul authority (Sharer and Traxler pp.387). A direct quote from the translation of the glyphs is “Blood flowed and skulls of the 13 peoples of the Tikal place were piled up”. Tikal didn’t remain in subordination of Calakmul for very long, shortly after the events described in the staircase at Dos Pilas, Tikal sacked Calakmul and crushed the superpower. Calakmul never fully recovered and after the k’atun ending in 909 AD we have little evidence of Calakmul being a significant center at all (Schele and Freidel pp388). It is clear that warfare was a constant during the classic Maya period and the rivalry between the polities of Calakmul and Tikal were tantamount to catalysts in the great collapse in the greater Peten region in the terminal classic. The terminal classic is identified by a shift of powerful polities within the Peten and the central lowlands to the post classic centers of the Yucatan peninsula, such as Chichen Itza, Coba, and Uxmal.
After a long period of inactivity following Morley's 1932 expedition, the city was explored by William Folan between 1984 and 1994, and is now the subject of a large-scale project of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) under Ramón Carrasco.
Coe, Michael D.. The Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2005
Fahsen, Federico.” Rescuing the Origins of Dos Pilas Dynasty: a Salvage of Hieroglyphic Stairway #2, Structure L5-49”.FAMSI, 2002.
Folan, William S., Marcus, Joyce, Pincemin, Sophia, Carrasco, Maria del Rosario Dominguez, Fletcher, Loraine, and Lopez, Abel Morales. “Calakmul: New Data from an Ancient Maya Capitol in Campeche, Mexico.” Latin American Antiquity, Vol. 6, No. 4, Dec. 1995. pp.310-334. Martin, Simon. Recently Uncovered Murals and Fascades at Calakmul. The Maya Mural Symposium. Oct. 2005.
Schele, Linda and Freidel, David. A Forest of Kings: the Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New York: Harper Perinial, 1990.
Sharer, Robert J. and Traxler, Loa P.. The Ancient Maya. California: Stanford University Press, 2006.
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