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Bones of ancient Mayan ambassador reveal a privileged but difficult life

The remains of a Mayan diplomat were found buried without adornment, with his bones accompanied by only two painted clay pots. Photo by Kenichiro Tsukamoto
The remains of a Mayan diplomat were found buried without adornment, with his bones accompanied by only two painted clay pots. Photo by Kenichiro Tsukamoto

March 16 (UPI) -- The remains of a Mayan man, buried 1,300 years ago, have offered new insights into the life of an ambassador who helped forge an alliance between two powerful dynasties.

The man's bones, in addition to inscriptions surrounding the burial, revealed a life of privilege bookended by hardship.

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But more than just the trajectory of a single life, the man's bones and their archaeological context -- described in the journal Latin American Antiquity -- illuminated the role of communities peripheral to major centers in mediating relations between royal families.

Before archaeologists found the man's bones, they found a ceremonial platform inscribed with his name: Ajpach' Waal.

The platform was discovered at an archaeological site known as El Palmar, a small plaza compound in southern Mexico, near the borders of Belize and Guatemala.

According to the hieroglyphs, Ajpach' Waal was a "lakam," or standard-bearer, a diplomat who carried a banner as they walked from city to city forging alliances. Ajpach' Waal inherited his ambassadorship from his father's lineage. His mother also hailed from an elite family.

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In June, 726 CE, Ajpach' Waal trekked more than 350 miles to meet the king of Copán in present day Honduras. The Mayan diplomat made the trip on behalf of the king of Calakmul, near El Palmar.

The ceremonial platform -- the construction of which was commissioned by Ajpach' Waal himself -- suggests the diplomatic mission was the crowning achievement of the ambassador's life.

But when scientists excavated the man's bones, buried under the floor of a temple next to the platform, they were surprised by to find the body unadorned. Though undisturbed, the man's remains were without jewelry or accessories. Archaeologists found only two painted clay pots.

"His life is not like we expected based on the hieroglyphics," study co-author Kenichiro Tsukamoto, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, said in a press release.

"Many people say that the elite enjoyed their lives, but the story is usually more complex," Tsukamoto said.

Both of the man's arms showed signs of periostitis, which can be caused by trauma, scurvy or rickets. Scientists also found evidence of porotic hyperostosis, spongy, soft spots on the skull caused by childhood malnutrition or illnesses.

By the end of his life, the ambassador had lost several teeth, likely limiting his diet to soft foods.

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Analysis showed Ajpach' Waal suffered a fracture to his right tibia, or shinbone, as a young adult. The fracture resembled the contact injuries suffered by modern athletes participating in contact sports like football or soccer. Hieroglyphs on the stairway leading to the burial suggest Ajpach' Waal enjoyed playing sports.

By the end of his life, Ajpach' Waal had developed arthritis in hands, right elbow, left knee, left ankle and feet -- perhaps as a result of carrying a heavy banner over long distances.

The back end of Ajpach' Waal's was plagued by physical difficulties, but it was also marked by professional disappointment. His crowning achievement, the alliance between the kings of Copán and Calakmul, ultimately failed.

"The ruler of a subordinate dynasty decapitated Copán's king 10 years after his alliance with Calakmul, which was also defeated by a rival dynasty around the same time," Tsukamoto said. "We see the political and economic instability that followed both these events in the sparse burial and in one of the inlaid teeth."

Not long after the demise of Ajpach' Waal, the peripheral community of El Palmar was abandoned and reclaimed by the Mexican jungle.

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