Researchers Uncover Circular Temple Dedicated To Maya Serpent Deity In Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

Published November 3, 2023

The temple was likely built in honor of Kukulcán, the Maya equivalent of the wind god Quetzalcóatl in Aztec mythology.

Circular Maya Temple

INAHThe circular Maya temple dedicated to Kukulcán.

Archaeologists in Mexico recently discovered a roughly 1,000-year-old circular temple likely built in worship of the Maya serpent deity Kukulcán.

As reported by Mexico News Daily, the discovery was made at the El Tigre archaeological site as part of the ongoing archaeological excavations accompanying the Maya Train project in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula.

The newly discovered structure is a two-leveled circular building that archaeologists say was once topped by a flat-roofed temple. Similar structures have previously been found in other areas in the Yucatán peninsula, including at archaeological sites in Edzná, Becán, Uxmal, and Chichen Itzá.

During a press conference, the head of Mexico’s National Institute of Archaeology and History (INAH) Diego Prieto Hernández said the discovery “broadens our knowledge of the late occupation of El Tigre.”

“Circular structures generally correspond to the early Postclassic period between A.D. 1000 and 1200,” he said, “when the Maya zone had links with other regions of Mesoamerica, in particular with central Mexico, Oaxaca and the Gulf coast.”

He added that the circular structure would have been “of great importance” to the Maya people.

Researchers have potentially linked the site to one described in a key historical text on the region, the “Paxbolón Maldonado Papers.” The text was written by Don Pablo Paxbolón, who served as the Chontal chief — the leader of the Maya people in Tabasco — between 1575 and 1576.

In his papers, Paxbolón wrote of a settlement known as Itzamkanac, describing temples dedicated to four Postclassic Maya deities, including Kukulcán. Researchers say the newly discovered temple matches descriptions from the text, leading them to believe that El Tigre may in fact be Itzamkanac, according to a translated INAH statement.

Other archaeological and historical evidence supports this notion.

During the press conference, Prieto Hernández said the Archaeological Zone Improvement Program accompanying the Maya Train project has enabled the country “to recover the glorious past and cultural present of the great Mesoamerican Maya nation.”

Per the translated statement, the archaeological work, directed by Ernesto Vargas Pacheco, is now 87 percent complete. Construction of the Maya Train — a 1,000-mile set of tracks connecting Mexican states — is set to begin in December.

Maya Train Route

Wikimedia CommonsThe intended route of the Maya Train.

And while the Maya Train project has led to a number of fascinating archaeological discoveries in recent years, it has also received a fair amount of criticism.

As TIME reported, the project has proven to be environmentally damaging, and critics have argued that the tourist-focused train will destroy Indigenous land and contaminate water sources.

The Mexican government has meanwhile referred to the project as an economic “detonator” for the southeastern region of the country, which has historically been poor and marginalized.

Since the project was first proposed back in September 2018, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promised to ensure the environment would be protected throughout the construction. In fact, the project’s supporters have argued that the biodiesel-powered trains would actually present an environmentally-friendly alternative to more traditional road and air transportation.

Already, however, significant portions of forest have been cleared to make way for the railroad tracks. López Obrador once claimed that “not a single tree” would be cut down to make room for the Maya Train. Four years later, the Mexican government admitted that 300,000 trees had been felled along one section connecting Playa del Carmen and Tulun alone.

Unforeseen circumstances have also forced mid-construction changes to the intended route. This has caused the project to go over-budget and face several delays. What’s more, the project planners seemingly ignored early warnings from various groups, including environmentalists and academics, about these exact scenarios.

The other issue is that many of the tracks are being constructed over several cenotes — water-filled sinkholes formed by limestone collapsing. This could prove detrimental, as these fragile cave systems also form part of the Great Maya Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to nearly five million Mexicans.

Only time will tell if the Maya Train project ends up being successful.

After learning about this new discovery in the Yucatán, read about when archaeologists uncovered a lost city as part of this same project. Or, learn all about what ultimately wiped out the Maya society.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Harvey, Austin. "Researchers Uncover Circular Temple Dedicated To Maya Serpent Deity In Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.", November 3, 2023, Accessed May 24, 2024.