by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)
A recent press announcement in Guatemala revealed the discovery of two important early stelae at the site of Naachtun. The monuments are in bad shape, but one stela contains interesting and important information on aspects of the now famous entrada of Sihyaj K’ahk’ into the Peten region in 378 A.D.
As the project epigraphers Alfonso Lacadena and Ignacio Cases note, Stela 24 names a local ruler of Naachtun who is said to be the y-ajaw or y-ajawte’ (“vassal”, roughly) of Sihyaj K’ahk’ himself. The inscription references the dates 18.104.22.168.10 9 Oc 13 Mac and 22.214.171.124.11 10 Chuen 14 Mac — two sequential days before the stated arrival of Sihyaj K’ahk’ to Tikal on 126.96.36.199.12 11 Eb 15 Mac. One might surmise that this indicates Sihyaj K’ahk’s actual presence at Naachtun as he was making his way to Tikal, but it should be cautioned that the text merely states a political relationship, not an itinerary. This is itself important, for the inscription might well imply that Sihyaj K’ahk’ had some sort of political infrastructure in place in the Peten before his arrival to Tikal. Remarkable.
Back in 2000 I published an analysis of the historical texts surrounding the “11 Eb episode” in which I made the case that Sihyaj K’ahk’s arrived into the central Peten from the west and caused a major political disruption at Tikal and Uaxactun (Stuart 2000). Whoever Sihyaj K’ahk’ was — and we still don’t know much — he apparently had some significant political backing from Teotihuacan. Today we take the Teotihuacan entrada interpretation largely for granted, yet it is important to remember that in the late 1980s and 1990s the prevailing interpretation of the 378 event was very different, seeing it as a far more localized conflict between Tikal and Uaxactun. This was presented in dramatic fashion in Chapter 4 of Schele and Friedel’s A Forest of Kings (1990:130-164). My 2000 paper went against that grain and was quite controversial when it appeared. Nevertheless, subsequent finds at sites such as El Peru, La Sufricaya, and now Naachtun have demonstrated how the arrival of 378 was indeed a major disruption involving “strangers” from afar (to echo Proskouriakoff’s original insights) and resulting in wide-ranging changes in the politics and history of the Early Classic Maya.
In the years since that paper was written I’ve become even more convinced that the arrival of Sihyaj K’ahk’ was an outright conquest. Perhaps the most compelling and direct textual evidence comes from the so-called Marcador text of Tikal, in the passage that describes the arrival event in some detail. Here we see a secondary phrase introduced by the verb och ch’een, “enters the town,” or “enters the territory.” It’s a gorgeously rendered glyph (see photo) showing a snake’s tail (OCH) entering into the eye of the owl that is the head-variant of CH’EEN. There can be no mistake of its reading; och ch’een is awell-known term for military conquest found throughout Maya inscriptions, at sites such as Palenque and Dzibanche. This key piece of evidence supports the conquest model very explicitly, although I didn’t have it well-formed in my mind when I wrote that earlier analysis. (The CH’EEN reading came in 1998 or so, just as I wrote and circulated a first draft).
Of course there is still much we do not understand about the 378 entrada and its long-lasting repercussions. Even so, the broad outlines are discernible enough to allow us to say that the conquest of that year was a turning point in ancient Maya history. We now know that it was not a local conflict, but a transformative episode for the Early Classic period in general, instigated one way or another by Teotihuacan and its powerful political influence and military might. Its memory lasted for generations among the elite of the Maya lowlands, and had far-reaching effects on the political and ideological culture of the later Classic Maya.
Schele, Linda, and David Freidel. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. William Morrow, New York.
Stuart, David. 2000. The “Arrival of Strangers”: Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History. In Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, ed. by D. Carrasco, L. Jones, and S. Sessions, pp. 465-514. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.
Given the dramatic change in ceramic styles and iconography that happened in its wake, the “Teotihuacan invasion” thesis is hard to resist. But considering the logistical problems of such a long-range direct intervention by Teotihuacan warriors, is it not reasonable to think that Sihyaj K’ahk’ may have been a local ally of Teotihuacan, who knew the terrain and local politics well enough to achieve what appears to have been a very swift victory over such a broad territory? My first reaction to the scenario of a direct foreign intervention is that such a force would be met with stiff opposition by most (if not all) Maya realms through which it had to go to reach the heart of the Peten. Knowing more about who Sihyaj K’ahk’ was would go a long way in explaining how the “entrada” came to happen.
Regarding Jorge’s comment that “foreign intervention . . . would be met with stiff opposition by most (if not all) Maya realms through which it had to go” seems a sensible view at first, but when when we consider how successful invaders, like Hernán Cortez for instance, made use of the “enemies of their enemies” to affect conquest, one can imagine the Teotihuacanos defeating Tikal by forming alliances with Tikal’s enemies. As David points out, this is the importance of the y-ajaw or y-ajawte statement on Naachtun Stela 24, that there were ajaws of Siyaj K’ahk’, important allies, already established before the “entrance” into Tikal.
Yes, Jorge, your points are all quite valid. You’ll notice how I posit Teotihuacan’s direct involvement “one way or another” so as to hedge my bets! The name of Sihyaj K’ahk is spelled as if it were Mayan, but I doubt this reveals much about his ethnicity, as it could be a translated name (a la Kukulcan). But the extant portraits of SK (on a stela from El Peru and on a vase in a private collection, each with an explicit name caption) clearly show him as if he were a Teotihuacan warrior, goggles, tassels, weapons and all. I’m open to several scenarios, and you are absolutely correct in your very last sentence: “Knowing more about who Sihyaj K’ahk’ was would go a long way in explaining how the ‘entrada’ came to happen.” We may never really know SK’s background, and some will always ask the simple question, “was he *from* Teotihuacan?” The answer will always be a bit messy and complicated. Ethnically and geographically, maybe not. Politically and ideologically, for my money, he certainly was.