Researchers Explore the Role of the Prehistoric Kayuko Mounds in Maya Royal Accession Ceremonies

Around the world and throughout history many rulers who’ve taken power have said their authority is ordained by God. In Europe it was called the divine right of kings and in China the mandate of heaven. Apparently people in the ancient Maya societies of Mesoamerica had a similar concept, though we don’t know what they may have called it.

Some researchers working at a prehistoric site in Belize believe that a group of manmade mounds near a sacred cave were used in royal accession ceremonies by a king seeking approval of the deities.

Archaeologists Holley Moyes, Mark Robinson, and Keith M. Prufer wrote in the February 2016 issue of the closed-access journal Antiquity:

“The cave of Kayuko Naj Tunich is believed to have been the location of the accession ceremonies for the royal dynasty of the ancient Maya Uxbenká polity in southern Belize. Little is known, however, about the structures referred to as the Kayuko Mound Group that lie close to the cave. Excavations have now provided evidence for the date of this complex, and experimental research has estimated the labour costs involved in its construction. The results suggest that while both the mound group and the cave were involved in the celebration of royal accession, the former acted as a short-lived festival site in contrast to the enduring significance of Kayuko Naj Tunich.”

Aerial photograph of the karst cliff containing Kayuko Naj Tunich. Locals refer to the tower in Mopán as Suk Tunich or White Rock.

Aerial photograph of the karst cliff containing Kayuko Naj Tunich. Locals refer to the tower in Mopán as Suk Tunich or White Rock. (Holley Moyes)

In Maya culture, caves “had mythical associations with primordial humans and are thought of as entrances to the sacred earth, as well as to the underworld, a fearsome place inhabited by evil overlords.” Beneficent gods were associated with cave mouths, including the rain god Chac. The authors wrote:

“Based on ethnohistoric documentation, Mesoamerican settlement choices during the establishment of early communities focused on the importance of caves where these deities could be propitiated. Thus, it is not surprising that over time, caves became places of power that could be used to legitimate elite authority.”

Incense burner in the form of the Maya rain god, Chac.

Incense burner in the form of the Maya rain god, Chac. (Public Domain)

In 2009, the researchers cleared, excavated, and mapped the mounds to investigate construction techniques. They cave and mounds are on a karst (landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum) tower high above the nearby river. They are rather far from the town’s farms and houses, leading the authors to suggest that the complex may have been a place of pilgrimage or a festival site.

Pilgrimage sites were usually used continually, but festival sites were used on special occasions and then cleaned up and left empty. The researchers theorize the mounds were erected for one event or possibly a series of events because they are less elaborate and quicker to make than continuously used sites.

LiDAR-based map showing the ritual complex (Kayuko Naj Tunich and the Kayuko Mound Group); inset shows its proximity to the Uxbenká site core

LiDAR-based map showing the ritual complex (Kayuko Naj Tunich and the Kayuko Mound Group); inset shows its proximity to the Uxbenká site core (image courtesy of Uxbenká Archaeological Project and Uxbenká Cave Project).

Iconography at the site shows evidence of temporary wooden structures (scaffolds) that did not survive the long period since the site was built, around the 3rd or 4th century AD, (contemporaneous with the cave construction). The authors wrote:

“KNT is one of the most architecturally elaborated caves in the Maya lowlands, complete with stairways and plastered floors and walls. Abutting the back wall of the cave was a formal masonry altar upon which sat a carved wooden altarpiece in the shape of a basin or small ‘canoe’, hence the cave’s name. Based on an AMS date from a wooden beam supporting the floor fill and associated artefacts, the cave shrine’s initial construction dated between 240–339 BC.”

The cave was maintained or reconstructed until around 600 AD, but the mounds were not maintained that long.

The team of archaeologists paid laborers to re-enact how much work went into hauling the material and building the mounds. They found Structure 1 (of six) required about 3,300 labor hours to haul the sandstone and limestone.

 “Although we have no real way of estimating the number of people involved in the site’s construction, we can discuss some possibilities. Uxbenká supported a population of 1500–2600 at the start of the Early Classic period. Using the low end of this estimate, and assuming a 5-person household composed of a mating couple and their offspring, and a 10% elite population who were removed from communal labour debt, projects directed by these elites may have conscripted one male labourer from each of around 270 households.”

Participants carry stones on tumplines during experiment

Participants carry stones on tumplines during experiment (photograph by Mark Robinson).

The archaeologists calculated it might have taken 50 people working five hours per day about 30 days to construct the mounds. Or, if 200 to 300 people worked, the mounds could have been constructed in five to eight days.  They say their calculations demonstrate construction of the mounds did not take a burdensome amount of time, especially if they built them during the agricultural off-seasons.

Ancient Origins