Ancient Maya Past in Peril

There is no word for “tourism” in Chol, a Prehispanic language still spoken by more than 10,000 Maya living along the southern reaches of the Usumacinta River, which separates Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas. Yet, due to a recent surge in interest in the development of two vast, ancient Maya cities—Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras—the need to come to terms with tourism and the encroachment of the modern world has become of vital importance. How such changes will impact this region must be addressed if this fragile land - scape is to be preserved for future generations. Settled in the early years of the first millennium a . d ., Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras rose to preeminence on the banks of the Usumacinta in the sixth and seventh centuries a . d ., reaching their apogee in the mid-eighth century when most of the structures we see today—temples, pyramids, and ballcourts—were constructed. In antiquity, the Usumacinta served as a vast commercial highway for dugout canoes laden with exotic goods. The sites prospered from, and often competed for, control of the lucrative riverine trade in salt and kakaw (cocoa); cotton for clothing; obsidian for knife blades; and jade, feathers, and shells to make jewelry and royal headdresses. In addition to their splendid architectural features, the sites have played a key role in Maya studies, yielding abundant inscriptions—among the longest in the Maya world—that have have provided key clues in the decipherment of a complex writing system. Today, an estimated 60 per - cent of the ancient Maya glyphs can be read. Since their construction more than 1,200 years ago, however, time has taken its toll on the two sites. Both have suffered from exposure to the elements, exuberant vegetation, and the predations of looters. Piedras Negras, in particular, has suffered more recent structural deterioration and destabilization due to poor excavation techniques employed in the early decades of the twentieth century. Though the sites had suffered from the ravages of time, until recently, their remoteness had protected them from the hoards of visitors who frequent better-known Maya sites such as Chichén Itza in Yucatán and Tikal in the Petén region of Guatemala. But this may soon change.

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