The Ancient Maya Civilization Site of Calakmul

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Introduction to Calakmul

Structure I at Calakmul
Structure I at Calakmul. Steven Depolo

Calakmul is an ancient Mayan archaeological site, located in state of Campeche, Mexico, thirty kilometers north of the Guatemala border. Calakmul is also 38 km north of El Mirador, a rival state during the Late Classic period (~600-950 AD). Covering an area of some 3,000 hectares, Calakmul had an estimated population of 50,000 people during its heyday during the Late Classic. As a Late Classic period capital city of the Maya, Calakmul ruled an area of some 8,000 square kilometers, perhaps with as many as 425,000 subjects.

The site was occupied from Middle Preclassic to ​post-classic times, ca. 950 BC-850 AD; it became politically important beginning in the Late Preclassic (350 BC-AD 250); and during Early Classic period (AD 250-600), Calakmul emerged as one of at least four regional Maya capitals (the others are El Mirador, Nakbe and Tikal.

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Controlling Water at Calakmul

Roadway to Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico
Roadway to Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico. Erwin Morales

Because little or no surface water is available in the area, an extensive hydraulic system was created at Calakmul, including 13 large reservoirs with a minimum total capacity of nearly 100 million liters. Canals carry water to and from the reservoirs and at least seven sacbe or sacbeob (causeways) have been mapped to and from Calakmul. Calakmul battled with recurring droughts and it is believed that an extended drought between AD750 and 950 contributed to the city's collapse.

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Central Plaza and Structure II at Calakmul

Central Plaza and Structure II at Calakmul
Central Plaza and Structure II at Calakmul. Anthony Meneses

Calakmul's downtown area of ~1.75 square kilometers was recently mapped: archaeologists discovered it includes a total of 975 buildings, 300 of which are of vaulted stone masonry. Ninety-two of these buildings are constructed atop platform pyramids, and many are adjacent to and define open areas, plazas, and courtyards.

The central plaza of Calakmul includes enormous public buildings, including Structure II, an immense pyramid measuring 140 meters square at the base and 55 meters high. It is the largest at Calakmul, and indeed one of the larger buildings built in prehispanic Mesoamerica, similar in size and layout to the Preclassic El Tigre pyramid at nearby El Mirador. Excavations into the interior of this structure revealed a 28-meter long tunnel. Structure 1, shown on the first page of this photo essay, is not as tall but was built on a low hill so it seems taller.

The best-known ruler of Calakmul was Yukom Yich'ak K'ak', or Jaguar Paw, born in 649 AD, who became ruler of Calakmul in 686. Jaguar Paw was the head of the vast Serpent Head polity. According to stele accounts at Tikal, Jaguar Paw was captured by the Tikal ruler Hasaw Chan K'awil and sacrificed in 689 AD. Archaeologist Ramon Carrasco Vargas, among others, believes that the person captured at Tikal was a war lieutenant of Jaguar Paw, and Yich'ak K'ak himself is buried in Tomb 4 at Calakmul.

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Structure II and the Tomb of Jaguar Paw

Structures IIa and IIb at Calakmul
Structures IIa and IIb at Calakmul. Steven Depolo

Structure II was first built during the Late Preclassic (300 BC-AD 250) period, but the most substantial alterations were during the late Classic, when a nine-room palace with a painted stucco roof comb was built atop the pyramid. The palace has a vaulted roof and measures 19.4 meters by 12 meters; thirty-five hearths heated this structure. The front rooms were used for food preparation, while the interior rooms for sleeping and/or ceremonial purposes.

At the end of the Late Classic period, an elite burial (Tomb 4) was placed under the floor of one of the rooms. The burial, an adult male, included a bone needle, a bone imitation of a stingray spine and two dishes, a tecomate, and a small bowl. The tomb measures 2.5 meters long, .9 meters wide and 1.2 meters high. The skeleton was covered with a textile shroud or cloth treated with a resin and perhaps latex, and then with an animal skin. Eight sets of animal paws (perhaps feline), bone, jadeite and shell beads; jadeite mosaics and earplugs were included. A jadeite mosaic mask was discovered on the skeleton's chest. The mask was made of pieces of jadeite, and then covered with mortar and painted in yellow, green and blue-green. A polychrome plate names Yukum Yich'ak K'ak (Jaguar Paw) as its owner: and some scholars believe this is the burial of the most famous ruler at Calakmul.

The tomb was likely conceived, planned and carried out during the ruler's lifetime.

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Structure VII at Calakmul

Structure VII at Calakmul
Structure VII at Calakmul. Joe Flood

Structure VII is a 24-meter high public building topped with a three-room Late Classic temple that once had a tall stuccoed roof comb. Incised into the floor of the outermost room of the temple is a patolii game board, a game depicted at several Maya sites such as Xunantunich, Tikal, Palenque, Dzibilchaltun, and Uxmal.


Under the floor of the central passageway was a Late Classic vaulted tomb, dated to 750 AD. The tomb is 3.38 meters long, 1.35 meters wide and 1.65 meters high; it included a male, 25-35 years in age and 1.6 meters tall. Based on cutmarks, on the bones, his flesh had been removed prior to burial.

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Structure Sub 1-4 in Chiik Nahb at Calakmul
The southeast corner of Structure Sub 1-4 of the Chiik Nahb complex. Copyright, PNAS

In November of 2009, archaeologist Ramon Carrasco Vargas and colleagues reported on the discovery of a painted mural, located in the Chiik Nahb complex, an architectural group just north of the Central Plaza. The find is important, in part because of the domestic nature of the murals discovered there. One small building was revealed to have been a residential area, built first between AD 420 and 620 and remodeled extensively until AD 820-1020, when it was abandoned. The third remodeling included several murals on panels including this one, built between AD 620 and 700. The frescoes include at least 30 individual scenes and evidence shows that they were painted over several times. The murals are painted on a background of gray-white stucco, in blue, green, yellow, red, and brown.

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Drawing from Chiik Nahb Complex at Calakmul

Scene from Sub 1-4 in Chiik Nahb complex at Calakmul
Scene from Sub 1-4 in Chiik Nahb complex at Calakmul. Copyright, PNAS.

Images in the murals in the building in Chiik Nahb include groups of men, women and a child engaged in cooking or carrying goods with a tumpline, or selling pottery. The majority of the texts have captions that describe what appear to be job descriptions: maize-bread person, maize-grain person, salt-person, clay-vessel person; none have names attached.

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Stele 51 at Calakmul

Stele 51 from Calakmul at INAH in Mexico City
Stele 51 from Calakmul at INAH in Mexico City. Thelmadatter

Calakmul's ruins were discovered in 1931 by the biologist Cyrus Longworth Lundell; it is today the center of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Expeditions to the site were conducted by Sylvanus G. Morley, funded by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Other archaeologists involved with the site have included Karl Rupper, Enrique Juan Palacios, John Dennison, Joyce Marcus, Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube. The Calakmul Project has been ongoing at Calakmul since 1982, led by the Universidad Autonoma de Campeche and the University of Michigan and led by William Folan and Pina Chan. The Archaeological Project of the Calakmul Biosphere began in 1993, led by Ramon Carrasco Vargas of INAH.

Sources and Further Information

  • Calakmul, from Ancient History at
  • Nakbe
  • Tikal
  • Finding Site Q

Carrasco Vargas, Ramon, Veronica A. Vazquez Lopez, and Simon Martin 2009 Daily life of the ancient Maya recorded on murals at Calakmul, MexicoProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.

Carrasco Vargas, Ramon, et al. 1999 A Dynastic Tomb from Campeche, Mexico: New Evidence on Jaguar Paw, a Ruler of Calakmul. Latin American Antiquity 10(1):47-58.

Folan, William J. 2001. Calakmul (Campeche, Mexico). pp 88-90 in Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia, Susan Toby Evans and David L. Webster, eds. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York.

Folan, William J., et al. 1995 Calakmul: New Data from an Ancient Maya Capital in Campeche, MexicoLatin American Antiquity 6(4):310-334.

Pincemin, Sophia, et al. 1998 Extending the Calakmul Dynasty Back in Time: A New Stela from a Maya Capital in Campeche, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 9(4):310-327.