In the year 697, flames consumed the ancient Maya city of Bahlam Jol. In the wake of a blaze set by neighboring Naranjo forces, residents vacated their homes as entire buildings crumbled to the ground.
It was an act of “total warfare,” archaeologists say. This grim scene, described in a study published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, upends longstanding notions of peace during the Maya civilization’s Classic period, which spanned 250 to 900 CE.
For years, archaeologists have known that this era ended in chaos, hastened by drought and growing political turmoil. But the new findings suggest that large-scale military conflicts—and the destruction they brought—predate the demise of the Maya civilization’s golden age by at least a couple hundred years.
The story first unfolded when a team of researchers led by David Wahl, a paleoclimatologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, was investigating the ruins of a site archaeologists call Witzna (but known to the Maya as Bahlam Jol) in the northeastern part of what’s now Guatemala. Wahl and his colleagues had initially set out to study how drought had affected the ancient city’s agriculture, but were surprised to uncover a 1.2-inch-thick layer of charcoal blanketing the base of a nearby lake, dating to around the end of the 7th century.
Little else could explain the coat of ash than a massive conflagration—something that would have exceeded the scale of small fires used to clear land. “In 20 years of sampling lakes, I had never seen a layer this thick,” Wahl told Tim Vernimmen at National Geographic.
Stranger still was what appeared to have happened at the site after the alleged fire. The abundance of pollen grains, as well as signs of erosion in the sediment—both indicators of human activity—plummeted in the years following the event.
To make sense of the unusual discovery, Wahl and his group teamed up Francisco Estrada-Belli, an archaeologist at Tulane University leading a nearby dig of the ruins of Witzna itself. Their excavations revealed that many of the city’s buildings, including several culturally significant structures, bore traces of fire, too, suggesting that they had been intentionally burned.
The last piece of the puzzle came from the nearby city of Naranjo, which Bahlam Jol had just declared independence from. A database of Maya texts revealed that one of Naranjo’s stone columns, or stelas, had borne the name Bahlam Jol, a date of May 21, 697 CE, and a single phrase: “puluuy,” or “it burned.”
This didn’t necessarily guarantee that Naranjo was the culprit. But it’s pretty likely the city did more than commemorate the death of its neighbor, the authors argue: Other lines of evidence point to Naranjo’s history of successful military campaigns, which appeared to favor destruction by fire. If Bahlam Jol was a victim of Naranjo’s forces, it was likely one of several.
Following the siege, Bahlam Jol struggled to stay afloat. Though some of its original residents may have stuck around, others were likely absorbed into Naranjo, Nathaniel Scharping reports for Discover.
All this complicates researchers’ understanding of Classic Maya warfare, which remains poorly understood as a whole, archaeologist Elizabeth Graham of University College London, who was not involved in the study, told Bruce Bower at Science News. Certain cultural norms—like a general distaste for killing others from a distance—might have shaped how the Maya chose to settle conflicts, she says.
Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona, who has done research on pre-Columbian warfare himself but was not involved in the study, agrees. As he tells Vernimmen, “Instead of making categorical statements, we need to trace specifically how warfare changed through time.”