The Secret History of the Unconquered Maya


Limestone cliff and newly exposed carved rock art

What if the Spanish had never conquered the Maya?

In one corner of southern Mexico, an alternate historical trajectory has been followed by Maya who managed to dodge the bullet of Spanish subjugation. Since 1990, National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration grantee Joel Palka has been exploring the sacred landscape of the Lacandon Maya, who today still wear traditional long white gowns and weave feathers into women’s hair, even as they enjoy Western appliances and own cars. His goal: to understand how they weathered the upheaval inflicted by conquistadors and emerged 500 years later with their identity intact.


Antonio, a Lacandon Maya man, discusses rituals in his ‘god house’ or temple in Naja, Chiapas, Mexico

Dotted with ceremonial shrines containing incense burners and human bones, the mountainous area surrounding Lake Mensabak in Chiapas had been a pilgrimage destination long before the Spanish arrived. Elite members of Maya society have performed rituals here to worship ancestors, ensure bountiful harvests, and pray for good health for the past 1,000 years.

Current Lacandon residents told researchers about their gods, who live in sacred places at the lake, and spoke of the curing “secrets” of their ancestors. Their oral history included stories of past disease and depopulation at the lake following European contact. Displaced for hundreds of years, some of the migrants’ descendants returned in the 20th century to live in caves.

Palka and Mexican collaborator Fabiola Sanchez Balderas combed the area in an archaeological survey and discovered several new shrines containing god effigy pots, sacred paper, incense, and bone. Many of the human skulls they discovered had been bound in life to compress and elongate the head, a painful procedure that caused skull lesions to develop.


Maya shrine with human bone and decorated pottery

Lucky for Palka’s team, low water levels at Lake Mensabak exposed never-recorded rock art at the base of a cliff. Painted designs could be seen higher up on the cliff, and new artifacts surfaced at water’s edge.

The team also discovered a large archaeological site a mile from the lake probably dating to the heyday of Maya civilization (A.D. 500-800). Stone monuments, plazas, and an unusual earthen mound were found surrounding the temple mounds.


A man clears a mountaintop masonry temple

The team hopes to undertake extensive excavations at these new shrines and archaeological sites to address a number of unanswered questions: Did the Lacandon Maya become seminomadic and live in temporary dwellings after the Spanish appeared on the scene? Did elites survive to manage rituals, or did non-elites take over their ceremonial duties? Were pilgrimage and ritual interrupted, or could they have increased due to stress in the rapidly changing Maya world?

The clear waters of Lake Mensabak may hold further clues, as the Maya were known to throw offerings into the lake during cliff-side rituals. Looking to the future, Palka notes that “the fact that the lake is unexplored archaeologically will provide us with decades of opportunities for new discoveries on the Maya.”

Read more about Palka’s work with the unconquered Maya in National Geographic News or about the Maya Rise and Fall in National Geographic magazine.

Photographs by Joel Palka

Human Journey