The Origin of Copan’s Founder 2

The first Classic king of Copan, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ (KYKM), had a complicated life story spanning much of Mesoamerica. His arrival at Copan in AD 426 was the seminal event of the dynasty, but where did he come from? For many years we’ve known about his strong symbolic connections to Teotihuacan, but even within the Maya area he seems to have had roots outside of the Copan Valley, perhaps in the central Petén lowlands. New information, noticed last week while visiting Copan, now leads to an important revision to KYKM’s story, adding a new and unexpected dimension to the founder’s significance in Maya history.

Before citing the newest evidence, one clarification is necessary: KYKM was not a Teotihuacano. Some might assume his highland ethnicity based on KYKM’s appearance in later Copan iconography, where he consistently assumes the garb of a Teotihuacan warrior (best known on Altar Q). Yet his earliest portrait on the Motmot marker, possibly carved while he was still living, shows his “Maya-ness”, and only much later do we see the visual connections to highland Mexico. The key distinction is that KYKM’s political identity was deeply rooted in Teotihuacan and its pan-Mesoamerican role as a hub of political authority. The written evidence from Copan suggests that he acquired sanction for rule at Teotihuacan before founding Copan’s ruling line. Specifically, Altar Q tells us that in AD 426 KYKM is said to have “received k’awiil” (k’am k’awiil) at or in connection with Teotihuacan. K’am k’awiil is a term used elsewhere in Maya inscriptions in association with the establishment of new political lines and offices. Teotihuacan’s historical role in the Early Classic may presage that of later Tollan, “the Place of Bulrushes,” which served a center of political pilgrimage throughout Postclassic Mesoamerica, even among rulers of different ethnicities.

Now back to Copan. Last week, while looking closely at Stela 63, I noticed for the first time that KYKM has a special title with his name glyph, just barely preserved on the front on the monument (see attached photo, at bottom). The very last glyph of the inscription is damaged, but it shows his personal name, followed by what looks to me to be the place glyph 3-WITZ-a or Uxwitza’, “Three Hills Water,” along with ch’ajoom — a common ruler’s title almost as generic in meaning as ajaw, “lord.” This is a toponymic title, and clearly connected to a similar title KYKM carries on the later Stela J, where he is named as the “Three Hills Lord” (also in attached photo).

Uxwitza’, “Three-Hills-Water,” is a known place name, identifiable with one and only one Maya site: Caracol, Belize. There Three-Hills-Water is cited as a local name in both Ealry and Late Classic inscriptions, and rulers of Caracol are often portrayed standing atop animate witz mountains wearing the headband of the number 3 (hence 3-WITZ). The evidence from Stela 63 is, I feel, basic and hard to ignore: KYKM was a Caracol lord by origin.

Jane Buikstra’s strontium analysis of the founder’s bones, excavated by Bob Sharer and David Sedat within the so-called Hunal tomb, points to KYKM having spent his younger days outside of the Copan valley, probably in the central Maya lowlands. The new historical evidence would seem to agree with Buikstra’s analysis, although far more discussions on the topic will tell us for sure. A Caracol origin for the Copan founder also conforms to an odd connection ceramic Copan seems to have had with Belize – something now to be analyzed with renewed effort. The connection might also be reflected in the unusual mention of a later Copan ruler on Caracol’s Stela 16.

I suspect KYKM was born as a member of Caracol’s nobility at a time when “pre-dynastic” Copan was already a place of siginficant size and importance. He may have already had personal connections to Copan, but in AD 426 journeyed to Teotihuacan to receive the emblems and sanction of office (K’awiil), and then established a ritual center — and a new political order — where Copan’s acropolis now lies, shortly before the turn of the Bak’tun.

More to come…

kykm-3-hill-titles.jpg

2 comments

  1. Great idea! I’ve seen the one on Stela J but totally missed the place name on Stela 63! And a nice variation with WITS / WITS-’a! Could it be because the initial /a/ in ajaw: /hux wits ajaw/ but /uhtiiy hux witsa’/ and /hux witsa’ ch’ajoom/?

    I thought it may help if I through in the references to this place name in Classic Maya inscriptions from my database

    936
    3-WITS-’a
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Step 4, Hierogyphic Stairway 1
    Naranjo
    direct
    [...] hux witsa’ […]
    9.10.10.0.0
    CMHI 2:108

    1097
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Ball Court Marker 3
    Caracol
    aj[x] ha’ ukob’ ukab’jiiy ucha’ sul ach aj hux witsa’ k’ihnich joy k’awiil k’uhul k’antu’ maak k’aleel huk winik ajaw aj hux witsa’
    9.18.8.3.9
    Chase et al. 1991:5-7

    1098
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Ball Court Marker 3
    Caracol
    aj[x] ha’ ukob’ ukab’jiiy ucha’ sul ach aj hux witsa’ k’ihnich joy k’awiil k’uhul k’antu’ maak k’aleel huk winik ajaw aj hux witsa’
    9.18.8.3.9
    Chase et al. 1991:5-7

    1103
    3-WITS-’a
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Stela 3
    Caracol
    arrival
    direct
    huli tahn ch’e’n hux witsa’ ix [?] ek’ k’uhul yaxa’ ajaw
    9.11.0.0.0
    Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:Fig.3,4

    1107
    3-WITS-’a
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Stela 3
    Caracol
    arrival
    direct
    huli hux [?] tahn ch’e’n hux witsa’ yila’ ix [?] ek’ yaxa’ ajaw b’aahajiiy [x] [?] ohl k’ihnich k’uhul k’antu’ maak yak’aw yuknoom ch’e’n [x] [x] kanal ajaw
    9.11.0.0.0
    Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:Fig.3,4

    1112
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Stela 3
    Caracol
    place register
    direct
    hux witsa’
    9.11.0.0.0
    Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:Fig.3,4

    1113
    3-wi-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Altar 12
    Caracol
    place register
    direct
    hux witsa’
    9.19.10.2.3
    Grube 1994:95-96

    1114
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Stela 4
    Caracol
    place register
    direct
    hux witsa’
    9.13.10.0.0
    Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:Fig.5

    1115
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Stela 5
    Caracol
    place register
    direct
    hux witsa’
    9.9.0.0.0
    Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:Fig.6

    1116
    7-CHIIT-K’AN-NAL 3-WITS
    huk chiit k’an nal hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Stela 6
    Caracol
    place register
    direct
    huk ik’ chiit nal hux witsa’
    9.8.10.0.0
    Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:Fig.7,8

    1117
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol Stela 6
    Caracol
    place register
    direct
    hux witsa’
    9.8.10.0.0
    Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:Fig.7,8

    1121
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Stela 10
    Caracol
    [x] hux witsa’ [x]
    10.3.0.0.0
    Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:Fig.11

    1122
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Stela 16
    Caracol
    place register
    direct
    hux witsa’
    9.5.0.0.0
    Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:Fig.15

    1123
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol Stela 16
    Caracol
    [x]ajaw [x] hux witsa’ ajaw
    9.5.0.0.0
    Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:Fig.15

    1126
    3-wi-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Stela 17
    Caracol
    earth opening ritual
    direct
    upasaw kab’ tahn ch’e’n hux witsa’
    10.1.0.0.0
    Drawing by Nikolai Grube

    1128
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Stela 13
    Caracol
    period ending
    [x]ajaw [...] yajawte’ k’ihnich [x] hux witsa’ ajaw 9.4.0.0.0
    Grube 1994:97-99

    1129
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Stela 13
    Caracol
    direct
    [x] hux witsa’ cha’n ch’e’n
    9.4.0.0.0
    Grube 1994:97-99

    1132
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Stucco frieze
    Structure 16,
    Caracol
    war
    direct
    jub’yi hux witsa’ ukab’jiiy sak chwen Grube and Martin 2004:41

    1133
    3-WITS-’a
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    Stucco frieze
    Structure 16,
    Caracol
    arrival
    direct
    huli hux witsa’ k’ahk’ jol [x]
    Grube and Martin 2004:41

    1342
    3-WITS
    hux wits
    Stela J
    Copan
    taking of k’awiil
    [x]ajaw ch’am k’awiil k’ihnich yax k’uk’ mo’ hux wits ajaw [...]
    9.13.10.0.0
    Schele Drawing Archive

    1799
    3-wi-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    vase
    posessing demons
    tahn bihil chamiiy uway hux witsa’ ajaw Reents-Budet 1994:Fig.5.10; MVD:K791

    1875
    3-WITS-li
    hux witsil
    Caracol
    vase
    posessing demons
    [?] winik uway hux witsil ajaw MVD:K3395; photos by A. Tokovinine and Gene Ware

    1894
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    vase
    posessing demons
    [?] [?] hux witsa’
    MVD:K927

    2062
    3-WITS
    hux witsa’
    Caracol
    celt
    [...] [?] hux witsa’ ch’e’n mam [?] ehb’ xook [?] k’ihnich [?] k’an wits nal ajaw [...]
    Grube and Martin 2001:II-38

    Alex

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