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16-Jan-2020 22:05

El Mirador alone likely had a population of 200,000, in contrast to the mere 90,000 who lived in and built Tikal, Hansen believes.“It was boggling to think we were standing on the labor of thousands of people from antiquity, and to imagine their vanished metropolis,” But the sheer size of the Mirador Basin settlement isn’t what made Richard Hansen famous.After 900, that civilization appears to have collapsed, and the inhabitants of its impressive cities abandoned them precipitously.The Mayan ruins at Tikal, as well as those at such well-traveled tourist destinations as Uxmal and Palenque in southern Mexico and Copán in Honduras, all represent glorious architectural phases of the classic Mayan period.There was something of a resurgence of grand Mayan architecture in what is known as the “postclassic” period that lasted until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1520s—although the post-classic style, best represented by the pyramid complex of Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula that flourished until around 1250, was heavily influenced by the cultures of the Toltec and Aztec Indians of central Mexico, who might even have invaded and subjected the Mayan territories.Archaeologists were long aware that there had also been a “preclassic” Mayan period dating from roughly 1,800 b.c.The best that the preclassic Maya could do, it was thought, was to erect a modest eight-meter pyramid at Uaxactún, a settlement about 12 miles north of Tikal.

But while excavating a chamber in the bottom level of a structure at El Mirador known as the Jaguar Paw Temple (the jungle cat had totemic significance for the Maya), the 26-year-old Hansen came across fragments of polished-red pottery, undisturbed for centuries, that could only be preclassic in origin.

“That ceramic was only produced in the Mirador Basin, and I was the first one who identified that,” he says.

It was a startling moment of revisionism: It meant that the entire El Mirador agglomeration dated at least five centuries earlier than anyone had thought, to a period that began before the time of Christ, and that the preclassic Maya, rather than being primitive forerunners of a more elaborate classic civilization, had built far bigger and produced an even more complex and powerful political and social organization than their medieval successors—until they, like their successors, precipitously abandoned their massive settlements during the middle of the second century.

What Idaho is most famous for, though, are the potatoes, all of which are grown in the Snake River valley, a crescent-shaped rolling plain that tracks the Snake River for 400 miles across the southern portion of the state from the Oregon border nearly to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

Rupert is a town of 5,500 near the center of the valley, a few miles north of the Snake, and surrounded by vast potato and sugar-beet fields.

But while excavating a chamber in the bottom level of a structure at El Mirador known as the Jaguar Paw Temple (the jungle cat had totemic significance for the Maya), the 26-year-old Hansen came across fragments of polished-red pottery, undisturbed for centuries, that could only be preclassic in origin.“That ceramic was only produced in the Mirador Basin, and I was the first one who identified that,” he says.It was a startling moment of revisionism: It meant that the entire El Mirador agglomeration dated at least five centuries earlier than anyone had thought, to a period that began before the time of Christ, and that the preclassic Maya, rather than being primitive forerunners of a more elaborate classic civilization, had built far bigger and produced an even more complex and powerful political and social organization than their medieval successors—until they, like their successors, precipitously abandoned their massive settlements during the middle of the second century.What Idaho is most famous for, though, are the potatoes, all of which are grown in the Snake River valley, a crescent-shaped rolling plain that tracks the Snake River for 400 miles across the southern portion of the state from the Oregon border nearly to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.Rupert is a town of 5,500 near the center of the valley, a few miles north of the Snake, and surrounded by vast potato and sugar-beet fields.Shortly after that weekend in Rupert, he would be back in Guatemala entertaining a top NASA official and ferrying around some VIPs from the National Geographic Society—more fundraising, that is.