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Friday, March 13, 2009

Archaeologists have unearthed a pair of monumental stucco panels in Guatemala that appear to depict one of the New World's oldest-known creation myths, going back thousands of years to what experts call "the cradle of Maya civilization." The discovery suggests that the myth, known as the Popol Vuh, was a centerpiece of Maya religious beliefs for well more than a millennium and stands as one of the world's great creation stories.

The Popol Vuh chronicles how the Maya gods created the world and made several attempts to fashion people to live in it - starting with animals, "mud people" and "wooden people." Finally, the gods got it right, creating the people who inhabited the urban site now known as El Mirador - where the panels were found - and the hundreds of thousands of acres comprising the Serpent Kingdom.

A Quiche Maya text of the Popol Vuh was found in the highland town of Chichicastenango in 1700 and transcribed by a Dominican monk named Francisco Ximenez. The myth's two main characters are the Hero Twins, named Hunahpu and Xbanlanque, who are sort of like a double dose of Hercules.

The 26-foot-long (8-meter-long) El Mirador panels were made of carved and modeled lime plaster, and lined a water collection system in a part of the city known as the Central Acropolis. They date back to the Late Preclassic period of Maya culture, which goes from about 300 B.C. to the time of Jesus, according to an account of the find from Idaho State University.

The amazing thing about the panels is that they show a pair of swimmers, framed by cosmic monsters including an undulating serpent and an old-man deity with outstretched wings. Idaho State University's Richard Hansen, president of the Idaho-based FARES Foundation, said the swimmers appear to represent the fabled Hero Twins.

"One of the swimmers has a decapitated head on his flanks, which is likely the decapitated head of his father, who was known in Maya mythology as Hun Hunahpu," Hansen is quoted as saying in the university's account. The other swimmer wears a jaguar headdress, which would typically be associated with Xbalanque ("Young Jaguar Sun.").

"All in all, the scene is a complex blend of early Maya mythology and cosmology," Hansen said.

Hector Escobedo, Guatemala's vice minister of culture, said the find "suggests that the antiquity of the Popol Vuh as an authentic creation story extends far into the Preclassic eras." The find also adds to the importance attached to the Mirador Basin as a center of ancient Maya culture.

Hansen has been doing research for years in the remote Mirador Basin, which is at the center of a major forest conservation program established by the Guatemalan government. The Idaho researcher served as a consultant to actor/director Mel Gibson on the controversial movie "Apocalypto." And although that film is now far back on the DVD shelves, Gibson is still taking an interest in Mirador. Recently, he called the site "arguably the greatest archaeological find in the Western Hemisphere."


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