One of the great things about Mesoamerican history is that we know so much about it. Names of places like Tikal, Calakmul, and Copán might inspire images of stone temples with a mysterious, long-lost history. This may have been true one hundred years ago. But today we know a great deal about their history because we can read their writing. We know the names of their rulers. We know important things that they did. In fact, they put a lot of effort into making sure their histories were preserved for posterity. Thanks to these records we have some very exciting and interesting history.
One of the most important things to understand about Mayan politics in the Classic Period was the rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul. The clashes between these two states dominated the region. These are often called the Tikal-Calakmul Wars and they took place between 537 to 744. These two states forged complicated networks of alliances with other states as they competed for dominance. It’s great history, full of violence and intrigue. Other key players in the great wars included Dos Pilas, Copán, Quiriguá, Naranjo, and Caracol. This period of warefare can be divided into three warring periods: The First Tikal-Calakmul War (537–572), The Second Tikal-Calakmul War (650–695), and the Third Tikal-Calakmul War (720–744).
In what follows I will give a historical narrative of events in the Tikal-Calakmul Wars without referring to all the archeological evidence and glyphs that were used to construct it. This kind of detailed background is available in Robert Sharer and Loa Traxler’s excellent book The Ancient Maya.
Before the ascendancy of Calakmul, Tikal had been the dominant power in the region. One of the most important events in the history of Tikal occurred in 378 when it’s ruler, Chak Tok Ich’aak I (Great Jaguar Paw), was killed by foreign invaders. Chak Tok Ich’aak was defeated by one Siyaj K’ak’ (Fireborn) ostensibly under the auspices of Teotichuacan. Siyaj K’ak’ was serving under Spearthrower Owl, possibly the ruler of Teotichuacan. The first ruler of the new dynasty was Yax Nuun Ayiin I. The new dynasty installed in Tikal was thereafter influenced by Teotihuacan culture mixed with Mayan culture. Tikal exercised significant influence over states in the region in ways that would set the stage for the alliances in the Tikal-Calakmul wars. In 426, Tikal installed K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ as the first ruler of Copán. Copán in turn founded the vassal state of Quiriguá in 426. Calakmul was a less important power in the region until the onset of the First Tikal-Calakmul War in 537.
The First Tikal-Calakmul War (537-572)
Calakmul began to wield more influence in the region after Yaxchilan captured the rulers of Bonampak, Lakamtuun, and Calakmul in 537. After its defeat by Yaxchilan, Calakmul retaliated and conquered Yaxchilan. Calakmul then began to show more ambition, conquering other states. In 546 Calakmul defeated Naranjo and installed Aj Wosal as ruler. This gave Calakmul hegemony over Naranjo and extended its sphere of influence. Meanwhile, in Tikal, Wak Chan K’awill oversaw the inauguration of Yajaw Te’ K’inich II in Caracol. Wak Chan K’awill may have been reacting to Calakmul’s growing power by strengthening an alliance with Caracol. In any event a Tikal-Caracol alliance was not to last.
Tikal and Caracol broke whatever alliance they had and the two states went to war with each other in 556. But things were going to get worse for Tikal. In 561, a new ruler named Sky Witness came to power in Calakmul. One year later, in 562, Wak Chan K’awill was captured by Caracol, which had switched alliances and joined Calakmul. Under this new Calakmul-Caracol alliance Wak Chan K’awill was offered as sacrifice and Tikal suffered significant loss of prestige and influence. Tikal did win some less significant battles in the years following, such as a victory over Caracol in 564. But by 572 Tikal was thoroughly defeated and the First Tikal-Calakmul more came to a close. That same year Sky Witness died.
After the First Tikal-Calakmul War, Tikal entered a period of hiatus. During this time Calakmul strengthened its hegemony. In 579 Scroll Serpent came to power in Calakmul. In 611 Scroll Serpent launched a major campaign against Palenque. The reason for this campaign is not known for certain but Palenque may have been a Tikal ally and this may have been part of the larger conflict between the two states. This attack on Palenque was an impressive logistical achievement and a fine demonstration of Calakmul’s power and ambition. It was a long-distance campaign. Palenque lies nearly 300 km from Calakmul and the army needed to cross several rivers, including the Usumacinta, to get there. As an aside, it was during this time that the future king of Palenque, K’inich Janaab Pakal I, was a young boy. K’inich Janaab Pakal I (603-683), or Pacal the Great, would later become one of the most famous rulers in Mesoamerican history. Pacal’s tomb is also one of the most impressive tombs to have been discovered in the Americas.
There was also trouble within the Calakmul alliance. Caracol and Naranjo were both allies of Calakmul but they were also longtime enemies of each other. In 626 Caracol launched two attacks on Naranjo. Caracol’s king, Tajoom Uk’ab’ K’ak’ was dead shortly after in 630, possibly from conflict with Naranjo. In 631 it seems that Calakmul’s ruler, Yuknoom Head, dealt with these inter-alliance conflicts by conquering Naranjo and torturing its ruler.
Meanwhile in Tikal, Ajaw K’inich Muwaan Jol II founded the vassal state of Dos Pilas in 629, installing his own son, B’alaj Chan K’awiil, as its ruler. B’alaj Chan K’awiil was going to have an important part to play in the upcoming resurgence of conflict with Calakmul. Tikal’s influence was beginning to resurface and become a threat to Calakmul, which was now becoming accustomed to its preeminent position.
The Second Tikal-Calakmul War (650–695)
In 636 one of the most important rulers in Maya history came to power in Calakmul. His name was Yuknoom Ch’een II, also known as Yuknoom the Great. He was to reign for 50 years from 636 to 686. In 650 Yuknoom the Great launched an attack on Dos Pilas, Tikal’s recently formed vassal state. This began the Second Tikal-Calakmul War. The ruler of Dos Pilas, B’alaj Chan K’awiil, was the son of the late Tikal ruler Ajaw K’inich Muwaan Jol II. B’alaj Chan K’awiil was forced to flee from Dos Pilas to Aguateca.
In 657 Yuknoom the Great attacked Tikal itself, which was now under the rule of Nuun Ujol Chaak. If Nuun Ujol Chaak was the son of previous ruler, Ajaw K’inich Muwaan Jol II, he would have been the brother of the exiled Dos Pilas ruler B’alaj Chan K’awiil. If these two were indeed brothers they were about to be engaged in a fracticidal conflict of shifting alliances. In any event, Nuun Ujol Chaak was forced to flee Tikal. That same year B’alaj Chan K’awiil accepted Yuknoom the Great as his overlord and Dos Pilas, the vassal state Tikal had founded, moved into the Calakmul alliance.
After submitting to Calakmul, B’alaj Chan K’awiil was able to return to Dos Pilas but 15 years later, in 672, he was forced to flee again. That year Nuun Ujol Chaak attacked Dos Pilas and B’alaj Chan K’awiil fled to Chaak Naah. Seemingly in relentless pursuit, Nuun Ujol Chaak burned down Chaak Naah, forcing B’alaj Chan K’awiil to flee yet again, this time to Hix Witz. In 677 Calakmul defeated Nuun Ujol Chaak at Pulil and B’alaj Chan K’awiil was once again able to return to Dos Pilas.
The conflict between Tikal, Dos Pilas, and Calakmul came to a head in 679, when Dos Pilas and Calakmul finally defeated and killed Nuun Ujol Chaak. The battle was apparently very bloody and celebrated for this fact. In 682 B’alaj Chan K’awiil commissioned inscriptions to commemorate his struggles and ultimate, glorious victory over Tikal. Famously, the inscriptions speak of “pools of blood” and “piles of heads” in the great battle. B’alaj Chan K’awiil spent a lot of effort to assure his legacy, quite successfully it seems. B’alaj Chan K’awiil also strenghtened his position through marriage alliances. He produced his heir, Itzamnaaj Balam, through a wife from the nobility of Itzan. Through his second wife came a daughter, named Lady Six Sky.
Meanwhile, Caracol’s influence began to decline after a defeat at the hands of its old rival, Naranjo, in 680. Caracol’s deposed king, K’ak’ Ujol K’inich II, fled. In 682 the daughter of Dos Pilas ruler B’alaj Chan K’awiil, Lady Six Sky, was chosen as ruler of Naranjo. She proved to be an exceptional leader and appears on several monuments. She was never formally ruler herself but carried out royal functions and seems to have been the de facto ruler. In 688 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Chaak become official ruler of Naranjo but he was only 5 years old at the time. He was probably Lady Six Sky’s son and she almost certainly acted as regent for quite some time. Lady Six Sky seems to have lead Naranjo in 8 military campaigns in the first 5 years of K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Chaak’s reign, including a victory against Tikal in 695.
Meanwhile, in Tikal a sleeping giant was growing. In 682 Jasaw Chan K’awill I came to power and launched an ambitious cultural revitalization program. This program included the construction of temples and tombs that pointed back to Tikal’s glorious past, before it lost it’s preeminence to Calakmul. It was clear that Jasaw Chan K’awill I’s revitalization not only pointed to a glorious past but looked forward to a similarly glorious future. This was an ominous sign for Calakmul.
In 695 the Second Tikal-Calakmul War came to a climax. Tikal recorded that it successfully confronted Calakmul, “bringing down the flint and shield” of its ruler, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ak’. In an important symbolic move, in a world rich in symbolism, Tikal captured a huge effigy of one of Calakmul’s patron deities. Jasaw Chan K’awill I celebrated his victory with ceremony and inscriptions. Ever one to connect Tikal’s glory to the past, he chose to hold his victory celebration on the anniversary of the death of Spearthrower Owl, father of the Yax Nuun Ayiin I, who had replaced Chak Tok Ich’aak I as ruler back in 379.
The Third Tikal-Calakmul War (720-744)
The great victory of Tikal over Calakmul in 695 changed the course history in the region. It went a long way to restore Tikal’s prestige and dominance. But there were still some important events in the region following this great battle. The Third Tikal-Calakmul War involved two very key players: Copán and Quiriguá. Recall that before the wars, Tikal had founded Copán in 426, installing as its ruler K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. Copán in turn founded its own vassal state of Quiriguá in 426. This system of relations was critical to what would follow.
In 725 the ruler of Copán, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (18-Rabbit), installed K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat as a subordinate ruler in Quiriguá. But by 734 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat had declared Quiriguá independent from Copán. Things got even more complicated a couple years later. As a subordinate state to Copán, Quiriguá had been, by extension, subject to Tikal. Quiriguá had been part of a network of alliances tied to Tikal. But in 736 Calakmul’s ruler, Wamaw K’awiil, met with K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat and forged an alliance. Quiriguá had switched sides.
Quiriguá was a smaller state than Copán and presumably less powerful on its own. But with a superpower like Calakmul backing it, Quiriguá was able to challenge and actually defeat Copán. In 738 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat captured his former overlord, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, and beheaded him. It was a dramatic reversal.
However, Calakmul was ultimately not able to permanently thwart Tikal’s regained dominance. In 743 Tikal conquered El Peru. In 744 also defeated Naranjo and then Calakmul itself ending the Third Tikal-Calakmul War.
The history of both kingdoms was much less glorious following the events of the great battle of 695 and the battles between Copán and Quiriguá. In fact, the entire region seems to have entered into a decline, at least as far as organizational complexity is concerned. The reasons for the decline of the Classic Maya civilization are heavily debated. One theory is that the Tikal-Calakmul Wars took such a toll on the inhabitants of Mesoamerica that it led to a collapse. Other theories include drought, climate change, overpopulation, and mismanagement of natural resources. Popular theories like drought focus on external forces that we can measure and quantify archeologically. But it is also possible that various cultural trends contributed to a change in the structure of the civilization. But a simultaneous decrease in the amount records being kept at this time makes cultural causes difficult to corroborate. Eventually new powers like Uxmal and Chichen Itza came to dominate in Terminal Classic and Postclassic.
Sharer, Robert J., and Loa P. Traxler. The Ancient Maya. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2006.
Edwin Barnhart. Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2015.
Simon Martin, and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 2008.