Researchers say they have found out what exact ailments a Maya noble, a diplomat named Ajpach' Waal could have suffered from as a child and as an adult, as they scrutinised his alleged burial place after excavations took place at El Palmar, a tiny plaza compound in Mexico, near the borders of Belize and Guatemala.
The findings have been published in the journal Latin American Antiquity.
The research revealed another exciting detail: that the man Ajpach' Waal did his best to negotiate an alliance between two powerful dynasties almost 1,300 years ago. A hieroglyph-decorated stairway leading up to a ceremonial platform, which was typically owned by the nobility, was found to feature an inscription, suggesting that in AD 726, Ajpach' Waal traveled 350 miles to meet the king of Copán, to talk him into setting up an alliance with the king of Calakmul, near El Palmar.
Ajpach' Waal was portrayed as a "lakam," or standard-bearer, an ambassador that carried a banner when he embarked on diplomatic missions between cities. He is believed to have inherited this lofty position through his father's connections, while his mother also came from a highly respectable family.
Ajpach' Waal must have viewed his diplomatic mission as his top achievement because the hieroglyphs indicate he was not given the platform by El Palmar's ruler, but rather ordered it to be built himself a few months after the diplomatic mission. The platform served the function of a theatrical stage where spectacular rituals were performed for viewers, with only the well-off or influential people able to have their own constructed.
Yet, Kenichiro Tsukamoto, an assistant professor of anthropology at University of California Riverside, said: “His life was not like we expected based on the hieroglyphics... Many people say that the elite enjoyed their lives, but the story is usually more complex.” Tsukamoto described their study of an undisturbed male skeleton they found next to the platform, purported to belong to Ajpach' Waal or his father given the arguably high status of the buried individual combined with proximity to the stairway featuring Ajpach' Waal’s life story.
Quite a few clues pointing to his privileged status have been discovered. In the first place, all his upper front teeth were found to have been drilled to hold decorative implants of pyrite and jade, which was of great value. Mayans associated with ruling elites underwent this painful procedure during their teens as a rite of passage to mark their inclusion within a high social stratum. Also, there apparently had been skull modifications, such as the flattening of the forehead, which Mayans believed made people more attractive.
However, the privileged life didn’t apparently rule out quite a few maladies, the researchers noted mentioning bacterial infections, trauma, scurvy, or rickets, arthritis because of long journeys, and the necessity to carry banners, as well as porotic hyperostosis, caused by nutritional deficiencies or childhood ailments. The condition is commonplace in Mayan burials, suggesting that even Ajpach' Waal's high social status couldn't shield him from malnutrition and disease.
Furthermore, the scientists agreed, by a quirk of fate, the privileged diplomat could have experienced a steep fall from the social ladder:
"The ruler of a subordinate dynasty decapitated Copán's king 10 years after his alliance with Calakmul, which was also defeated by a rival dynasty around the same time," Tsukamoto said. "We see the political and economic instability that followed both these events in the sparse burial and in one of the inlaid teeth.”
The archaeologists came to believe in the wake of in-depth testing that the inlay in Ajpach' Waal's right canine tooth had fallen out and was not replaced before his death. The hole, easily visible when the man smiled or spoke, would have been a humiliating sign of hardship or El Palmar's fall, which could have rendered Ajpach' Waal's role no longer important and reputable.