Tikal was one of the major cultural and population centers of the Maya civilization. Though monumental architecture at the site dates to the 4th century BC, Tikal reached its apogee during the Classic Period, ca. 200 AD to 900 AD, during which time the site dominated the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily while interacting with areas throughout Mesoamerica, such as central Mexican center of Teotihuacan. There is also evidence that Tikal was even conquered by Teotihuacan in the 4th century A.D. Following the end of the Late Classic Period, no new major monuments were built at Tikal and there is evidence that elite palaces were burned. These events were coupled with a gradual population decline, culminating with the site’s abandonment by the end of the 10th century.
The ruins lie on lowland rainforest. Conspicuous trees at the Tikal park include gigantic ceiba (Ceiba pentandra) the sacred tree of the Maya; tropical cedar (Cedrela odorata), and mahogany (Swietenia). Regarding the fauna, agouti, coatis, gray foxes, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, Harpy Eagles, Falcons, ocellated turkeys, guans, toucans, green parrots and leaf-cutting ants can be seen there regularly. Jaguars Jaguarundis and Cougars are also said to roam in the park. The largest of the Classic Maya cities, Tikal had no water other than what was collected from rainwater and stored in underground storage facilities (termed chultuns). Archaeologists working in Tikal during the last century utilized the ancient underground facilities to store water for their own use. The absence of springs, rivers, and lakes in the immediate vicinity of Tikal highlights a prodigious feat: building a major city with only supplies of stored seasonal rainfall. Tikal prospered with intensive agricultural techniques, which were far more advanced than the slash and burn methods originally theorized by archeologists. The reliance on seasonal rainfall left Tikal vulnerable to prolonged drought, which is now thought to play a major role in the Classic Maya Collapse.
There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal and only a fraction of these have been excavated after decades of archaeological work. The most prominent surviving buildings include six very large Mesoamerican step pyramids, labeled Temples I – VI, each of which support a temple structure on their summits. Some of these pyramids are over 60 meters high (200 feet). They were numbered sequentially during the early survey of the site. The majority of pyramids currently visible at Tikal were built during Tikal’s resurgence following the Tikal Hiatus (i.e., from the late 7th to the early 9th century). It should be noted, however, that the majority of these structures contain sub-structures that were initially built prior to the hiatus. Temple I (also known as the Temple of Ah Cacao or Temple of the Great Jaguar) was built around C.E. 695; Temple II or the Moon Temple in C.E. 702; and Temple III in C.E. 810. The largest structure at Tikal, Temple IV, is approximately 70 meters (230 feet) tall. Temple IV marks the reign of Yik’in Chan Kawil (Ruler B, the son of Ruler A or Jasaw Chan K’awiil I) and two carved wooden lintels over the doorway that leads into the temple on the pyramid’s summit record a long count date (22.214.171.124.0) that corresponds to C.E. 741 (Sharer 1994:169). Temple V dates to about C.E. 750, and is the only one where no tomb has been found. Temple VI, also known as the Temple of the Inscriptions, was dedicated in C.E. 766. Str. 5C-54, in the southwest portion of Tikal’s central core and west of Temple V, is known as the Lost World Pyramid. A 30 meter high “True Pyramid”, with stairways in 3 sides and stucco masks, dating to the Late Preclassic, this pyramid is part of an enclosed complex of structures that remained intact through and un-impacted by later building activity at Tikal. The organization of this complex adheres to the themes defined for E-Groups. The ancient city also has the remains of royal palaces, in addition to a number of smaller pyramids, palaces, residences, and inscribed stone monuments. There is even a building which seemed to have been a jail, originally with wooden bars across the windows and doors. There are also seven courts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame, including a set of 3 in the “Seven Temples Plaza” a unique feature in Mesoamerica. The residential area of Tikal covers an estimated 60 km² (23 square miles), much of which has not yet been cleared, mapped, or excavated. A huge set of earthworks has been discovered ringing Tikal with a 6 meter wide trench behind a rampart. Only some 9km of it has been mapped; it may have enclosed an area of some 125 km square. Population estimates place the demographic size of the site between 100,000 and 200,000. Recently, a project exploring the earthworks has shown that the scale of the earthworks is highly variable and that in many places it is inconsequential as a defensive feature. In addition, some parts of the earthwork were integrated into a canal system. The earthwork of Tikal varies significantly in coverage from what was originally proposed and it is much more complex and multifaceted than originally thought.
Tikal was a dominating influence in the southern Maya lowlands throughout most of the Early Classic. The site, however, was often at war and inscriptions tell of alliances and conflict with other Maya states, including Uaxactun, Caracol, Dos Pilas, Naranjo, and Calakmul. The site was defeated at the end of the Early Classic by Caracol, who rose to take Tikal’s place as the paramount center in the southern Maya lowlands. It appears another defeat was suffered at the hands of Dos Pilas during the middle 7th century, with the possible capture and sacrifice of Tikal’s ruler at the time. The “Tikal hiatus” refers to a period between the late 6th to late 7th century where there was a lapse in the writing of inscriptions and large-scale construction at Tikal. This hiatus in activity at Tikal was long unexplained until later epigraphic decipherments identified that the period was prompted by Tikal’s comprehensive defeat at the hands of the Caracol polity in A.D. 562 after six years of warfare against an alliance of Calakmul, Dos Pilas and Naranjo.
The hiatus at Tikal lasted up to the ascension of Jasaw Chan K’awiil I (Ruler A) in A.D. 682. In A.D. 695, Yukno’m Yich’Aak K’ahk’ of Calakmul (Kanal), was defeated by the new ruler of Tikal, Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, Nu’n U Jol Chaak’s heir. This defeat of Calakmul restores Tikal’s preeminence in the Central Maya region, but never again in the southwest Petén, where Dos Pilas maintained its presence. The beginning of the Tikal hiatus has served as a marker by which archaeologists commonly sub-divide the Classic period of Mesoamerican chronology into the Early and Late Classic.
As is often the case with huge ancient ruins, knowledge of the site was never completely lost in the region. Some second- or third-hand accounts of Tikal appeared in print starting in the 17th century, continuing through the writings of John Lloyd Stephens in the early 19th century (Stephens and his illustrator Frederick Catherwood heard rumors of a lost city, with white building tops towering above the jungle, during their 1839-40 travels in the region). Due to the site’s remoteness from modern towns, however, no explorers visited Tikal until Modesto Méndez and Ambrosio Tut visited it in 1848. Several other expeditions came to further investigate, map, and photograph Tikal in the 19th century (including Alfred P. Maudslay in 1881-82) and the early 20th century. In 1951 a small airstrip was built at the ruins, which previously could only be reached by several days travel through the jungle on foot or mule. From 1956 through 1970 major archeological excavations were made by the University of Pennsylvania. In 1979 the Guatemalan government began a further archeological project at Tikal, which continues to this day.