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In my continued exploration of the "footprints" of past iterations of society, I have delved even farther back into the history of my homeland; specifically into the history of the mysterious Maya. When I was young I remember being taught that in the classic period the Maya approached a maximum population of about 3 to 4 million people. While this is surely a significant quantity given the challenges of living in the rainforests of Central America, they were nonetheless considered a minor civilization. 

In 2018 our whole understanding of the Mayan world was thrown on its head. That year the PACUNAM foundation, National Geographic, and Tulane University, released the findings of a study based on the use of LiDAR scanning technology. They mapped more than 2,100 square kilometers (800 square miles) of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén region of Guatemala. This project produced the largest LiDAR data set ever obtained for archaeological research.

Over 60,000 previously unknown structures were discovered, including massive suburban areas around cities we previously thought were completely mapped. Furthermore, an extensive network of elevated highways connected cities in a way that was previously unknown. Yet what is most astonishing was the revelation that we had grossly underestimated the Mayan population. Now we think that their numbers were somewhere closer to 15-20 million people! For context, Guatemala's current population is roughly around 16 million. 

Inspired by the impact of these revelations, and what they mean for the Mayan people today, I have begun this ongoing series I have called 20M BC (20 million before Christ), in which I explore the historic footprints left behind by the mysterious Maya. In a time in which the world has ridden Guatemala off as a third world nation that is limited by exponential and unsustainable population growth, I ponder the implications of knowing that thousands of years ago this region actually housed and provided for a population of similar size. Furthermore, these people had no access to our globalized trade, modern technology, and other significant resources. 

History and culture have the ability to empower society. How can this new revelation empower the people of Guatemala as we attempt to forge our own place on the global stage? 

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Tikal 90,000

90cm x 120cm
Modeling Paste, Acrylic, on Canvas
2020

- Tikal is perhaps the best known of the three major Mayan city-states. This city dominated the Mayan world for centuries. The color choice for this piece does not only make reference to a type of Jade commonly used by the Maya, but also to the color “Maya Blue,” which was invented between the 6th and the 8th century, and can be seen in frescos through Mesoamerica. Tikal is estimated to have had a maximum population of 90,000 inhabitants during the Classic Period.

Yet today new evidence has surfaced through the use of LIDAR scanning technology that suggests that the Mayan world was far more populated than we ever imagined. 

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Copán 30,000

90cm x 120cm
Modeling Paste, Acrylic, on Canvas
2020

- Originally named Oxwitik, Copán was a major capital of the Mayan civilization, and was occupied for over 2,000 years. Located within a fertile valley in present day Honduras, and relatively isolated from other Mayan kingdoms, Copán developed a significant architectural and sculptural style. At its height Copán was thought to house 25-30,000 people. Today it is remembered for its remarkable Jade artistry as well as the most significant stone carvings of the Mayan world.

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Calakmul 50,000

90cm x 120cm
Modeling Paste, Acrylic on Canvas
2020

- Calakmul, located in present day Mexico, was one of the major superpowers of the ancient Mayan world. Known sometimes as the “Snake Kingdom,” Calakmul was extremely warlike, and even bested the powerful city of Tikal. Their warmongering earned them tremendous renown and prosperity, and was thought to house a population of 50,000 people.

The legacy of the Snake Kings was extensive throughout the Maya world, and their sigils can be found far beyond the confines of this city.

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Palenque 6,200


90cm x 120cm
modeling paste, acrylic, on canvas
2020
 

- Palenque, also known as Lakamha (“Big Water”), flourished in the VII century. Palenque is a medium sized city and pales in comparison to Tikal, Chichen Itza or Copan; nevertheless, it contains some of the best architecture, sculpture, and ingenuity that the Mayans ever produced. 

What most fascinates me about Palenque were its waterways and water distribution systems. At the same time period as Palenque the only other ancient civilization capable of moving water so efficiently were the Romans. And while the Romans benefited from centuries of contact with many other great civilizations, the Maya were completely isolated, thus reaching their achievements on their own. 
 

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Map of Iximche ruins in Tecpan Guatemala
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Iximche “the Smouldered”


200cm x 107cm
modeling paste, acrylic, on canvas
2021


- Originally the capital of the Kakchikel Maya, located in what we now know as Tecpán, the city of Iximché saw the beginning of the end of the Maya kingdoms. In this city Pedro de Alvarado (conquistador of Central America) established a capital to govern the newly formed colony of Guatemala. The Spanish and the Kakchikel had made an alliance of convenience as the later was at war with several neighboring groups. Believing the Spanish would help them overcome their enemies, the Kakchikel king offered his city to the newcomers. However, Alvarado was a terrible diplomat and a bloodthirsty tyrant. His relations with the Maya quickly deteriorated. In short time the true intentions of the newcomers were shown. The Kakchikel made a desperate attempt to drive out the newcomers, but were defeated by the Spanish superior weaponry. The people of Iximche were driven into the forests after their failed attempt to get away from their former allies. Iximché, once the second most powerful city of the Guatemalan Highlands, was devoured by fire. By 1530 the Kakchikel were officially declared as defeated. Their homes, their history, and their way of life was left as a smoldering heap of charcoal.
 

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Alvarado, the Duped 1521

50cm x 60cm

modeling paste, gold leaf, acrylic, on canvas

2021

- map of the center of Tikal

 

The conquest of Guatemala is perhaps one of the most convoluted, confusing, bloody, and least recorded chapters in Latin American history. Although there is much debate about what happened at that time, some ideas can be found in the correspondence between Hernán Cortés and his close friend and right-hand man, Pedro de Alvarado.

 

According to this correspondence, after Alvarado was sent south to Guatemala following the conquest of Mexico, he met with emissaries of the Mayan people. Specifically, the Kaqchikels who, in the town of Soconusco, sent Alvarado a great treasure that included 20,000 pesos in gold, as a bribe to drive him and his army back.

 

In fact, Alvarado, after witnessing how difficult the terrain and how poor the natives were as he moved away from Tenochtitlán, had the intention of turning back. However, upon receiving the gift, he was encouraged. Convinced that the Mayan kings were guarding their greatest riches, he continued his search, determined to find a kingdom as enriched with gold as the Aztecs had been.

 

To his great dismay, the Mayan kings had been quite generous in their gift because they had never been as interested with gold as their northern neighbors. In the end, Alvarado was duped for all intents and purposes.

Promises of El Dorado


60cm x 80cm
modeling paste, gold leaf, acrylic, on canvas
2021

The legacy of Latin America is truly great. As a Guatemalan artist, I explore the wonders of the peoples that make my nation beautiful, varied, rich, and vibrant. However, so great is this legacy, so interconnected are its peoples, that limiting myself to the confines of my country - confines established by invaders 500 years ago - seems a disservice to the great promise of cultural wealth that we possess in Latin America.

Reading the reports that the first Spanish explorers brought to Europe, I came across a description that stuck in my mind. "[The New World is] A land where reality shames fantasy." Since then I have been thinking about the promise that this "new" world held for these explorers, and I came to think of the concept of "El Dorado." Commonly mistaken for a city of gold, El Dorado was actually a concept: the promise of vast wealth that drew millions of Europeans across the sea on one of the largest human migrations in our history.

However, that was 500 years ago. But is El Dorado still relevant today? Is Latin America still the land of wonders where reality puts fantasy to shame? What wealth is really here? For those early explorers, wealth was defined by gold. But in the information age, is gold really that valuable? In an age when we finally have the ability and insight to unlock greater understanding, isn't knowledge the new "Gold"? If so, Latin America stands on top of one of the greatest treasures the world will ever know. The vast wisdom and knowledge of the ancient peoples who lived here has the ability to empower and exalt the peoples of Latin America!

Here I look at El Tajín. A city that I do not know; built by a people I know nothing about. However, the promise that I see in it - the same promise that it represents for all of Latin America - is calling me.

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