Photo: Entrance to the Cueva de la Manos Rojas

Entrance to the Cueva de la Manos Rojas (the Cave of the Red Hands)

Photograph by Andrew Scherer

With funding from the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grant program, Dr. Andrew Scherer and Dr. Charles Golden set out to explore the Middle Usumacinta River basin of Chiapas, Mexico, once a thriving area of Classic Maya (A.D. 250-900) society. Much of this region has not received archaeological attention since the late 19th century when explorer Teobert Maler first documented many of the ruins of the region. Maler identified a number of important archaeological sites, a few of which contained hieroglyphic monuments that have since been looted and are in museums and private collections around the world. By reading the inscriptions on these monuments, we now know that a significant portion of this region was once part of the great Maya polity of Piedras Negras.

In February of 2010, Scherer and Golden established a base of operations near the archaeological site of La Mar. From there they ventured by foot, car, and boat in an attempt to relocate Maler’s sites, many of which have since been lost to archaeologists. Not only did the team re-locate many of those lost sites but they also identified 15 previously unknown Maya archaeological sites. Although most of these new sites are rural settlements that consisted of only a few house groups, at least two new sites, Laguna Oscura and Uch Chan, appear to have been second-tier political centers within the kingdom of Piedras Negras. As a result of the team’s work, we now know that this sparsely populated landscape was once home to a vibrant tapestry of political centers and smaller farming hamlets.

Photo: Eastern face of the median wall of Budsilha Structure 1

Remains of a Classic period building at Budsilha, one of the sites first reported by Maler. When Scherer and Golden returned to the site they noticed centuries-old red hand prints on the interior wall, left by the Lacandon Maya. The left hand print was modified into the form of a human head wearing a headdress and ear flares. The right hand prints only become visible after digital manipulation of the original photograph.

Photograph by Andrew Scherer

Along the way, Scherer and Golden also found abundant evidence of the Lacandón Maya, descendants of the Classic period Maya who retreated to this remote region following the arrival of the Spaniards. The Lacandon left their mark across the landscape in the form of red hand prints, a form of veneration found in both caves and at the ruins of their Classic period ancestors.

Despite the success of the field season, many questions remain. How did the kings of Piedras Negras maintain control over this region? Why were they so interested in the western bank of the Usumacinta River? How did they ultimately lose political control of the area and why was it eventually abandoned? Building upon the National Geographic Society/Waitt Foundation sponsored research in 2010, plans are currently underway to return to the region in 2011 to initiate a multi-year archaeological project at La Mar, Budsilha, and the newly discovered sites. The long term goal of this research is to build a polity-wide socio-political history for the Classic Maya kingdom of Piedras Negras.

This research was approved by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e History of Mexico.

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