Finding the Founder: Old Notes on the Identification of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ of Copan Reply

KYKM name

Figure 1. Name of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, from Altar Q of Copan (Photo by D. Stuart).

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin)

One of the most famous of ancient Maya rulers is K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ (KYKM) (“Solar-Green-Quetzal-Macaw”), the Early Classic founder of the Copan dynasty (Figure 1). He was celebrated by ancient Copanecos throughout the site’s 400 year history, and his legend lives on today in the key sources on Copan’s archaeology (W. Fash 2001; B. Fash 2011:35-47). He was even the subject of a 2001 PBS documentary, The Lost King of the Maya.

Given KYKM’s notoriety it’s interesting to reflect on how little we knew of his history before the mid-’80s. By that time archaeologists and epigraphers had a general outline of Copan’s Late Classic dynasty, and KYKM’s glyph had even been recognized as a personal name of some sort (the K’inich prefix being a strong indication, given its established use as a pre-posed title on late royal names at Palenque). But whose name? Proskouriakoff identified the glyph as a title, a reference to “certain ‘parrots’ that seem to turn up in troubled times” (Prouskouriakoff 1986:129). And both Gary Pahl (1976) and Lounsbury (corresponding in 1978) were closer to the mark, each seeing the glyph as a personal name but still unsure as to its exact nature. Pahl proposed it to be a variant name of the sixteenth ruler, whereas Lounsbury couldn’t commit to any historical identification, but thought it to be in reference to a Late Classic figure as well.

KYKM note

Figure 2. Stuart’s 1984 notes on identifying KYKM as an Early Classic ruler

COP St J back

Figure 3. Back of Copan, Stela J. (Photo by D. Stuart, 1987)

In retrospect this ambiguity is understandable, for the name glyph was in those years known only from much later inscriptions dating the reigns of the last five or six Copan kings (very early texts from close to KYKM’s reign finally appear in excavations during the 1990s, such as the “Xukpi Stone” and the “Motmot Marker”). It’s no wonder therefore that Proskourikoff surmised the glyph to be a general title for troublesome parrots (are there any other kind?), and not that of a definable historical figure.

This all changed in the mid 1980s, when KYKM’s true role in Maya history finally came into focus. In 1984 I became convinced that he was not a Late Classic protagonist at all but rather an early king, probably the founder of the dynasty and the first in the long line of sixteen rulers. I recently came across my old notes from that time (Figure 2), showing my line of thinking in proposing his early placement at or near the beginning of the dynasty (Note 2). The famous mat-shaped text on Stela J (Figure 3) offered the most important clue, for it showed that KYKM’s accession could be linked to the much earlier Bak’tun ending of, in 435 AD. Another piece of the puzzle came a couple of years after these scribblings when, in the summer of 1986, Linda Schele and I recognized that the the first figure depicted on Altar Q wore on his headdress an elaborate combination of the sings K’IN-YAX-K’UK’-MO’, placing  him at the very beginning of the famous sequence of sixteen kings (Figure 4) (Stuart and Schele 1986).  The inscription atop Altar Q soon made more sense as well, for it became clear that that the opening three dates belonged to this same Early Classic time-frame, narrating KYKM’s ch’am-k’awiil accession rite at Teotihuacan in September 6, 426 followed by his arrival back at Copan 152 days later. The last two dates of the altar’s text concerned its dedication centuries later in 775, early in the reign of the sixteenth ruler, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat (Note 3).

KYKM Alt Q name

Figure 3. The name-headdress of K’inich Yan K’uk’ Mo’ on the west side of Altar Q (Photo by D. Stuart).

Of course we have learned a good deal more about KYKM since the 1980s. Soon after he was properly placed in Copan’s dynastic sequence, some archaeologists still expressed informal doubts about his historical veracity, positing that he might not have been a true ancestral king but a character in some constructed, questionable history (a strangely cynical outlook on Maya histories in general, I think). But then in the 1990s his tomb and resting place were identified deep within Copan’s acropolis by the University of Pennsylvania excavations, within the so-called Hunal building phase directly under Structure 10L-16 (see Bell, Canuto and Sharer [2004] for an excellent overview of early Copan archaeology and history). Since then, one epigraphic clue suggested that KYKM may originally have been from the site of Caracol, Belize. KYKM’s story remains enigmatic in many ways, but we know that he settled at Copan in 427, probably in anticipation of the great Bak’tun ending that came less than a decade later. After several generations he was remembered as the singular cultural and political hero of ancient Copan, and after nearly twelve centuries of obscurity he’s emerged once again as a great figure in Maya history.


Note 1. In my overview of early Copan history I mistakenly noted that the identification of KYKM’s role as the dynastic founder came in 1983 (Stuart 2004:227). The dates on surrounding pages in my notebook make it clear it was in 1984.

Note 2. Looking at my old notes, students of epigraphy will see that I make use of old sign readings that are rejected today and may even seem unfamiliar – Thompson’s “hel” reading for the TZ’AK sign, for example, and Lounsbury’s “mak’ina” for what we know to be K’INICH. In fact, on the right margin of the notes here illustrated, one can see the clear inklings of the K’INICH decipherment, noting the K’IN-ni-chi substitution found on Copan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway and in a few other texts. This was confirmed around the same year.

Note 3. In my hand-written notes I botched the Long Counts for the Early Classic dates on Altar Q, even though I correctly placed them roughly 17 k’atuns before the altar’s dedication. I wasn’t using a computer program, and I was thrown-off by the mention of “17 k’atuns” which I took far too literally as a precise expression of elapsed time. It did not take much time to realize that this was instead a rare rounded Distance Number, used from time to time in Copan’s inscriptions. The actual dates on Altar Q’s top are: 5 Caban 15 Yaxkin (“takes k’awiil”); 8 Ahau 18 Yaxkin (“comes from the ‘wite’naah'”); 5 Ben 11 Muan (“arrives”); 6 Ahau 13 Kayab (PE dedication); 5 Kan 12 Uo (unknown). On the west face we find the isolated record of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat’s accession on 6 Caban 10 Mol, placed between his portrait and that of the founder.


Bell, Ellen E, Marcello Canuto and Robert J. Sharer (eds.). 2004. Understanding Early Classic Copan. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Fash, Barbara. 2011. The Copan Sculpture Museum: Ancient Maya Artistry in Stucco and Stone. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum Press.

Fash, William L. 2001. Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copan and the Ancient Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Pahl, Gary. 1976. A Successor-Relationshop Complex and Associated Signs. In The Art, Iconography, and Dynastic History of Palenque, Part 3, edited by M.G. Robertson, pp. 35-44. Pebble Beach, CA: Robert Louis Stevenson School.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. 1986. Maya History. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Stuart, David. 2004. The Beginnings of the Copan Dynasty. In Understanding Early Classic Copan, ed. by E. Bell, M. Canuto and R.J. Sharer, pp. 215-248. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Stuart, David, and Linda Schele. 1986. Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the Founder of the Lineage of Copan. Copan Notes no. 6. Proyecto Acropolis Arqueologico Copan.

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