A BRIEF HISTORY OF
YAXUNAH RUINS

Around 4000 years ago, south of the Yucatan Peninsula, in the general area of Guatemala, Honduras and Chiapas, a culture arose displaying what nowadays we think of as distinctive Maya features. Current thinking is that the first Maya inhabitants settled at Yaxunah between 2750 and 2500 years ago -- well over a thousand years after Maya civilization arose farther south. Here are major events in the history of the Maya at Yaxunah:

  • 750/500 B.C.: first indications of people living at Yaxunah
  • between 400 and 500 A.D., Yaxunah's royal family is murdered and thrown haphazardly into the tomb now known as Burial B
  • around 600 A.D.: Cobá takes control of Yaxunah and somewhat later the 100-kms-long elevated road, or sacbé, is built between Yaxunah and Cobá
  • ± 1050-1150 A.D.: Chichén Itzá conquers Yaxunah
  • after Chichén Itzá conquers Yaxunah, the population plummets and the site is gradually abandoned

To the people of Yaxunah, each of these events had profound effects, as discussed below:

YAXUNAH'S FIRST INHABITANTS
Based on pottery fragments excavated at Yaxunah, a good guess is that around 750 to 500 B.C. the people who first settled Yaxunah came from Belize and/or Guatemala's southern Petén area.

The oldest buildings at Yaxunah are situated along a north-south axis, suggesting that the structures were built for ceremonial purposes, probably for ancestor worship. Usually such temples are built only when there's an elite group within a population, such as a royal family.

Burial A YaxunahThe museum in Yaxunah's Community Center features a reproduction of a burial from this early time, excavated at Yaxunah ruins. The burial appears to be of an important person, maybe a king. Objects found in the tomb indicate that he had been an important person buried with care, and that he had been made ready for his journey into the afterworld. Not much more is known about this burial. You can see part of the burial's reproduction at the left.

Yaxunah's early pottery style slowly evolved and then stayed the same, and the population continued to grow, until around A.D. 400. That suggests that during this time no successful invasions from the outside took place at Yaxunah.

BURIAL B

POTTERY FRAGMENTS

The main archaeological evidence for establishing dates for discoveries at Yaxunah site comes from pottery fragments. Different cultures at different times in their histories produce distinctive pottery. Oftentimes a pottery expert can look at a piece of pottery and say where it came from and how old it is .One feature of pottery dating is, "the deeper in the ground it's buried, the older it is relative to what's above it." Of course the ground must be undisturbed for this dating method to be used. When looters shovel up the ground, they destroy critically important information. Below you can see ancient pottery fragments picked up in the streets and yards of Yaxunah, on display in the Yaxunah Community Center museum.
pottery sherds from Yaxunah, Yucatan

To date, the most spectacular discovery at Yaxunah is Burial B -- also called Burial 24 or Tomb 24 -- dated between 400 and 500 A.D. The burial holds the remains of eleven men, women and children, apparently Yaxunah's royal family who appeared to have  been tortured and publically killed. The king's head had been removed, and the bodies appear to have been thrown into the tomb haphazardly. This and objects left in the burial were to make the point that the old dynasty had ended and that a new one was being established.

Evidence at Burial B suggests that the people who killed the royal family had knowledge that only someone close to the royal family would have known. Perhaps those who took power were cousins of the royal family. Much mystery still surrounds the dramatic events relating to Burial B.

Pottery fragments indicate that up to this point in Yaxunah's history, Yaxunah maintained strong ties with other Maya settlements, mostly with the traditional Maya homeland to the south. The people who killed the royal family in Burial B didn't maintain these contacts. After the power change, pottery from Ek Balam to the north appeared. Most construction ended at Yaxunah, but the little that did occur used local sources. After the royal family was killed and dumped in Burial B, then, Yaxunah society seems to have suffered a certain isolation and impoverishment.

YAXUNAH DOMINATED BY COBÁ
Around A.D. 600, Cobá, 100 kilometers to the east, violently took control of Yaxunah. Now Yaxunah's population dramatically increased and robust building began again. Surely the most impressive construction at this time was the Maya world's longest elevated road, or sacbé, built between Yaxunah and Cobá. The remarkable scale of that sacbé is shown below:

sacbé at Yaxunah

ARCHEOLOGICAL PUBLICATIONS
ON FILE IN THE LIBRARY AT
YAXUNAH COMMUNITY CENTER

Numerous papers are available but these are the most important:

Ardren, Traci Ann. 1997. "The Politics of Place: Architecture and Cultural Change at the Xkanha Group, Yaxuna, Yucatan, Mexico." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Yale University, New Haven.

Johnstone, Dave. "The Ceramics of Yaxuna." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

Stanton, Travis W. 2000. "Heterarchy, Hierarchy, and the Emergence of the Lowland Maya: A Study of Complexity at Yaxuna, Yucatan, Mexico (400-B.C.-- A.D. 600." Ph. D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

Stanton, Travis W. David A. Freidel, Charles K. Suhler, Traci Ardren, James N. Ambrosino, Justine M. Shaw and Sharon Bennett. 2010. Archaelogical Investigation at Yaxuná, 1986-1996 Results of the Selz Foundation Yaxuna Project. Bar International Series 2056, Archaeopress, Oxford, England

Toscano, Hernández, Lourdes, Diana Trejo Torres, Luis Cabrera Paredes, Gustavo Novelo Rincon. 1998. "Proyecto Yaxuná: Investigación y Restauración Arquitectónica en el Grupo del Juego de Pelota Informe de la Temporada 1997-98." Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Historica Centro INAH Yucatán. Yucatán, Mérida.

Despite the obvious importance of these events, archaeologists find it hard to agree on the story of who did what to whom, and why. A good guess is that at this time Cobá was competing for power in the Peninsula with other Maya kingdoms, and obliged Yaxunah to be part of its military alliance. Later the city of Uxmal joined the alliance. Probably this alliance was felt necessary because of the ever-growing power and  militaristic nature of Chichén Itzá only 20kms to the north.

Yaxunah's increased population may have come about through colonization from Cobá and other cities in the alliance. Also, in the ancient heart of Maya power -- in Guatemala, Belize and Chiapas -- classic Maya society was "collapsing," with great cities being abandoned. Maybe refugees from that still-unexplained event may have worked their way north and settled at Yaxunah. Wherever they came from, the new settlers built wherever they could find space, even in what earlier had been considered sacred ground, so clearly Yaxunah's society changed dramatically with the occupation of Cobá.

YAXUNAH CONQUERED BY CHICHÉN ITZÁ
By ± 900-950 A.D., Chichén Itzá had become so powerful that it conquered Yaxunah and drove out Cobá-led forces.

Apparently Chichén Itzá had no interest in colonizing Yaxunah, for their forces remained only briefly, maybe less than a year. This was probably because Chichén Itzá had its own problems. Around 1200-1300 A.D. or so, Chichén Itzá itself was conquered by people using pottery from Mayapan, the last significant Maya center of power. With this defeat, Chichén Itzá lost much of its population and no longer remained a force to deal with.

YAXUNAH "COLLAPSES"
After being conquered by Chichén Itzá, Yaxunah's population drastically diminished. Only a small number of Maya stayed in the area to farm, Sometimes pilgrims would visit to conduct simple rituals there. This situation endured into colonial times, and to some extent to this very day.