Tintal Portada

El Tintal: How researching an ancient Mayan city can help us to understand our future?

By Fabio Cresto Aleina and Francisco Castañeda

The Mayan Biosphere Reserve in Peten includes one of the largest tropical forests in Central America, and it represents one of the most important ecosystems in the world. In the middle of this jungle are located some of the most ancient and remarkable ruins of the Mayan civilization. El Mirador is probably the most well-known site within the region, and it recently came to prominence not only because of its archaeological significance, but also because of a controversial bill proposed in the United States last year, aiming to promote programs with incalculable impacts for local ecosystems. One of the goals of the bill is to transform the El Mirador in a huge tourist park, through the construction of hotels and even a railway through the jungle. The consequences of such a project would be very serious not only for the environment, but also for the local communities, that could lose their forestry concessions. These concessions constitute a method which has been extremely successful in the past years in promoting forest conservation and in the fight against wildfires and illegal exploitation. One of the most prominent communities in the area is Carmelita, a small community established at the beginning of the XX century, in connection with the extraction of the sap of the sapodilla tree. Because of the danger they face, the local communities headed by Carmelita strongly opposed the projects proposed by the bill. In support to the revindications of Carmelita and the other local communities, the Guatemalan archaeologists working in the Archaeological Project “El Tintal” (PAET) also spoke up, with a strong public statement condemning “the profit-focused interests of high-impact tourism in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve”. 

Among the signatories of the statement is Francisco Castañeda, a Guatemalan archaeologist working since many years in the region. “I was born in the urban context of Guatemala City from a middle-class family, with a father absent due to death and with a mother who had to work a lot in order to support my brother and me” remembers Francisco about his childhood, when he is asked about how his adventure in archaeology started. One of his first memories comes from a visit to the archaeological park of Kaminal Juyu. In 1997 he started his studies in archaeology. “Just like many of my colleagues, because of the Guatemalan history, one of the first approaches to excavation with an archaeological application were the exhumation projects related to the internal armed conflict”. Afterwards, he worked in various research projects, from conservation and restoration to excavation activites, from the Petexbatún laguna to Tikal.

The project where Francisco is mainly working nowadays is located in the ancient pre-Hispanic settlement of El Tintal, some 17 km north from the community of Carmelita, and around 23 km south from El Mirador. It is a site accessible only by foot, after hours of hiking in the lush tropical forest. El Tintal is an extremely ancient city, with an occupation that started in the period called Middle Preclassic (1000 – 350 BC) and that continued until the Terminal Classic (830 – 950 AD). “The general goal of the project is to understand, though archaeological investigations, the history of El Tintal, from its beginnings to its abandonment”, explains Francisco. The application of novel technologies such as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging or Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging) in this site has recently allowed the researchers to identify a series of hydraulic engineering projects undertaken by the ancient inhabitants of the site, reflecting their high grade of knowledge about the environment and the use of natural resources.

Archaeological Intervention Areas, 2020 season

The work of Francisco Castañeda and of the PAET archaeologists has close relations with Carmelita, in particular with the cooperative of the community, as the cooperative partners are the ones handling the forest concession established between the government and the cooperative in 1996. The Cooperativa also handles the tourist activities in the region (in particular the popular trek Carmelita – El Mirador), but also the exploitation of timber under the agreements of the “Concesión Forestal Comunitaria”, by means of which the cooperative was also commissioned to protect and conserve the local forest. “With the project and the cooperative there is a continuous communication, as we share with them the investigation plans, and we contract them for support personnel to realize our research activities” reports Francisco, while talking about hypothetical forms of sustainable tourism in the region. Despite the numbers of tourists undertaking the hard 5-days trek (or even longer, if the tourists want to visit the ruins of Nakbé) to El Mirador are low, if compared to the masses visiting sites like Tikal, it is possible to observe enormous damages to the forest soil caused by the passing mules, carrying food and baggage of the tourists. Moreover, in the forest are already evident the impacts of an invasion of ticks, also carried by the mules, although there is still no scientific evidence of diseases transmitted by the ticks to the wildlife.

Can a sustainable tourism at all exist, especially in a delicate and peculiar ecosystem such as the one of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve? “A well-informed tourism will generate an appreciation of the knowledge. Because, at the end, what does the tourist take back home? The nice pictures, the adventure and various mosquito bites. We have to find a way so that the tourist will take back also knowledge, and this process will have repercussions in the appreciation for the cultural and natural monuments”. Therefore, to be sustainable the tourism has to be, first of all, conscious. Only in this way, and by deepening the relationship between archaeology and nature, it will be possible, in Francisco’s opinion, to understand how to realize a really sustainable tourism. The process cannot be only realized by the individuals, though. It is imperative that “the State and the population do the same, and really understand the importance of the information that the people who lived in these archaeological sites left, so that they will transmit us through the archaeological investigation their experiences and their ways to interact with the environment”. 

The archaeological research of the life of the ancient Mayan communities and of their collapses can help us to understand some aspects of our civilization and, maybe, our future. Just like us, the Maya had a big impact on the ecosystems that they exploited to build their civilization: “in a period of many centuries the Maya interacted with their surroundings, changing the landscape and leaving their mark”. The interaction between the populations who lived for generations in the forests and the local ecosystems was not always sustainable. In a dramatic parallelism with our modern situation, some studies highlighted that already during the Mayan times there was overexploitation of the soil, massive deforestation, and an overpopulation that exceeded the carrying capacity of the region in which the ancient Maya lived. Francisco Castañeda states that “[The Maya] were extremely successful, but at a certain moment something happened and this interaction [between the Maya and the ecosystems] stopped, and the great cities were abandoned”. The archaeologists are now investigating the traces of what happened. A deeper understanding of what led to the Mayan collapses, and the dissemination of the results of projects such as PAET are therefore extremely important, not only for the academic research, but also to help us better comprehend our own interaction with nature, and to really learn the lessons of the past.