The ancient Mayan cities discovered deep in the Mexican jungle — and the secrets they hold

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The ancient city of Lagunita, deep in the Yucatan jungle. (Courtesy of Ivan Sprajc)

In the 1970s, an American explorer named Eric Von Euw ventured into unexplored forest at the base of the Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula near the border of Guatemala. Called the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, it’s a sweeping expanse of trees and river that extends 2,800 square miles. What Von Euw returned with was remarkable. He had drawn images of an “extraordinary facade with an entrance representing open jaws of the earth monster,” as would later be written of it.

Von Euw would never publish the drawings. And despite several attempts to once again locate the “open jaws of the earth monster,” no one ever could. The site and the city that held it — which came to be known as “Lagunita” — was lost. It would become, according to Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, “a mystery.”

Now, four decades later, another explorer has ventured into the Yucatan jungle to find Lagunita. After a two-month expedition, archaeologist Ivan Sprajc of the Slovenian Academy emerged from the jungle with more than drawings. He had pictures. Along with another previously unknown city he named Tamchen, Sprajc had rediscovered Lagunita. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to have been “the seat of a relatively powerful polity,” a researcher said.

Why had it remained hidden for so long? “The information about Lagunita were vague and totally useless,” he told Discovery News. “In the jungle you can be as little as 600 feet from a large site and do not even suspect it might be there. Small mounds are all over the place, but they give you no idea about where an urban center might be.”

Though his expedition trudged into the forests with machetes, trucks and tortillas, a bird’s eye view is what discovered Lagunita. “We found the site with the aid of aerial photographs,” he explained in a statement, “but were able to identify it with Lagunita only after we saw the facade and the monuments and compared them with Von Euw’s drawings.”

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Researchers: “Note the stylized eye of the earth monster and fangs along the doorway jamb.” (Courtesy of Ivan Sprajc)

The discoveries make for Sprajc’s second recent find in the region, which is still virtually unexplored and extremely difficult to traverse. Wearing what appears to be an adventure hat, the Slovenian explorer landed upon the ancient Mayan city of Chactun in 2013. Before that discovery, almost nothing was known about the archaeological treasures contained in the forests between the Rio Bec and Chenes regions, which boast architecture dating back to 600 A.D.

Aspects of Lagunita and the other ancient city of Tamchén — which means “deep well” in Yucatan Mayan — reflect the same architectural designs of the broader region, Sprajc said. Both appear to have been abandoned around 1000 A.D., and the most miraculous find was the “profusely decorated facade with a monster-mouth doorway,” the Slovenia Academy of Sciences and Arts said in a statement. They represent “the gaping maws of the earth and fertility deity.”

That sounds fairly profound. But what does it mean? “It represents a Maya earth deity related with fertility,” Sprajc explained in his interview with Discovery News. “These doorways symbolize the entrance to a cave and, in general, to the watery underworld, place of mythologized origin of maize and abode of ancestors.”

The abode of ancestors. Yes, that.

Just six kilometers away from Lagunita lay Tamchen. It’s home to several plazas rimmed by “voluminous buildings,” an “acropolis” and a pyramid-type temple. Some of the findings there signify that the city was first inhabited as long ago as 300 B.C., researchers contend. There were also more than 30 chultuns — chambers as deep as 43 feet that collected rainwater.

The archaeologists said both ancient cities are ripe for further research — as is the greater forest.

“Only future research in the extensive archaeologically unsurveyed region to the north may reveal whether such characteristics, which at the moment appear to be rather unique, were in fact common in a wider area,” the Slovenian Academy said.


The deep wells of Tamchen. (Courtesy of Ivan Sprajc)
Terrence McCoy writes on foreign affairs for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter here.
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