Tak'alik Ab'aj National Park

Date of Submission: 27/04/2012
Criteria: (i)(ii)(iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture and Sports
State, Province or Region:
Departamento of Retalhuleu, Municipality of El Asintal
Coordinates: N14 37 26 W91 43 39
Ref.: 5737

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The archaeological site Tak'alik Ab'aj is in the municipality of El Asintal, Department of Retalhuleu, in the southwestern region of Guatemala and its candidacy is proposed as a cultural heritage.

It is situated at a height 600 meters above sea level in the well-drained slopes of the volcanic chain that runs along the Pacific coast. Its location is at a natural and strategic point the cuts through the mountains and leads to the highlands and it must have been deliberately selected as to allow Tak'alik Ab'aj to function as the connection point in the network of the trade prevailing in this area.  As a result of its location, the site developed into one of the most important economic and cultural centers during remote pre-Columbian times.

The extraordinary wealth of Tak’alik Ab’aj was certainly due to its vital role in the trading system that allowed long-distance traffic of products and raw materials in both directions, stretching from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to El Salvador. Along with the traveling merchants also came ideas and traditions resulting in extensively shared communications and cultural dissemination. In this historical process, Tak'alik Ab'aj functioned as a primary protagonist and catalyst in the relationship that existed between the Olmec and the Maya region, which led it to be the site of union between the two ideological systems. It is worth mentioning that during the Early Pre-Classic period (1500-800 BC) there was a dominance of Olmec cultural expression across much of Mesoamerica, but this situation changed in the Middle Pre-Classic period (800-400 BC). When observing the development of Maya ideology, particularly in the Highlands and the Lowlands, there is a much more complex, blended worldview that was placed on top of the Mesoamerican civilizations.

The typical landscape of the piedmont is its continuous descent to the coastal plain in the form of natural terraces and slopes crossed by numerous rivers that drain the water from the highlands and leading finally to the Pacific Ocean. The sloping topography of the landscape determined the way in which the ancient architects designed the streets and distributed the main ceremonial groups. These slopes were exploited and modified in a series of 10 successive terraces covering an area of 6.5 square kilometers (650 hectares). The four main architectural groups, each named by their location within the site are: the North Group, the West Group, the Central Group and South Group. The extension of the urban center, which houses 88 buildings and 364 sculpted stone monuments, is today distributed across five coffee farms.

The dawn of culture and the world Tak'alik Olmeca Ab'aj

The oldest archaeological remains at Tak’alik Ab’aj date back nearly 3000 years to around 800 BC and towards the end of the Early Pre-Classic period. During this period the people of Tak'alik Ab'aj built houses with stone floors (boulders) or sacaton, with palm roofs supported by wooden poles from the Canoj tree and many of which stood for over 2000 years. The buildings also consisted of ceremonial platforms that were built of unbaked, well prepared clay made from a solid and durable mixture. Tak'alik Ab'aj also had ball game courts and the earliest known was actually made of platforms of mud. This ball game court was oriented north to south, was 5 meters wide and 23 meters long, had two sides and two separate stands, all dimensions and characteristics that continued to characterize the later ball game courts.  One problem however that all the pre-Hispanic architects faced was damage by heavy rains.  Small earthen channels, inserted to drain the excess water from the streets, later resolved this problem.

Along with the construction of ceremonial platforms, stone sculpture provided the most powerful ideological and political expression for the rulers. The sculptural corpus is the most remarkable artistic legacy Tak’alik Ab’aj left behind and what sets it apart from other sites. The sculptural style of this time is associated with the Olmec style and one of its major artistic themes was the man-jaguar, a human being with feline features. This can be identified by the way the mouth is represented, usually in a trapezoidal shape. Humans are often depicted emerging from a niche symbolized as the open mouth of the jaguar. These stylistic expressions were recorded in rock by way of reliefs.

The Mayan World

Significant changes took place at Tak’alik Ab’aj around 400 BC, the beginning of the Late Pre-Classic period.  These changes are reflected in the ceramic and architectural record, including the sculptured monuments, and lasted until around 250 AD.  The existing buildings were enlarged and more buildings were added to the architectural groups. In the Central Group this activity resulted in a reduction and delimitation of places in the eastern and western areas and adding stunning steps, extended access to the terrace.  As the building grew in size, construction techniques were also improved. For example, by applying a mud coating to cobblestone buildings the durability was increased. The system of water drainage channels was also strengthened with the use of boulders for construction and real networks were put in place, moving ground water to the main squares, storing it and using lids so the water would not exposed.  In residential areas a system of water supply was implemented through aqueducts that were also built with stones.  It should also be noted that any construction that required the use of stone, cobblestones were used.  All such practices and modification point to the fact that the city was obviously in the process of vigorous new growth and expansion.

During the Late Pre-Classic period (400 BC-250 AD) the sculptors of Tak’alik Ab’aj built a series of new monuments in the streets, resulting in three different styles: Maya, barrigón and zoomorphic. The Maya style differs from the other type of sculpture in that the rock is cut and packaged in the form of a tablet (stele) and before beginning to sculpt, the artist designs on it.

Typically Mayan stelae represent an important person, often standing in profile, wearing lavish costumes and headdresses. Usually an elaborate design that is above the ruler (a face emerging from a cloud scroll for example) has been interpreted as indicating a close relationship with an ancestor from whom the ruler has inherited the right to govern. Early versions of the Mayan style sculpture portray the ruler standing in profile with one foot in front of another. Also characteristic of this early style is the theme of two people facing each other with a glyph panel between them, indicating the date of the act and the names of the characters, which generally are father and son at the time of the transmission of power. In the monuments carved at Tak’alik Ab’aj the early development of Maya writing in the form of hieroglyphic texts and Short and Long Count dates are evident. These early Maya art styles are shared with other sites such as Kaminaljuyu in the highlands, El Baul and Chocola in the South Coast and Chalchuapa in El Salvador, all of which were major centers along the major trade route and coastal highlands.

The pot-bellied style tradition of sculpture also continues on at Tak'alik Ab'aj, as seen previously in the Middle Pre-Classic period. These sculptures represent obese humans usually with swollen eyelids, hands resting on their prominent bellies. There is also a zoomorphic form of this type of sculpture, represented by amphibians and reptiles such as frogs and crocodiles.  The combination of both sculpture types is called anthropomorphic pot-bellied and they are distributed throughout the South Coast region and the highlands of Guatemala.

The Twilight of Tak'alik Ab'aj

Between 150 and 500 AD many changes took place in the Maya world and these changes are reflected in the culmination of wealth and cultural splendor that took place at Tak'alik Ab'aj. This phenomenon may be related to the collapse of a major trading system due to several factors, including the simultaneous actions of several interacting groups fighting for territory throughout the highlands and along the coastal plains. It is clear however, through data provided by found pottery and obsidian objects, that there was a shift in trade relations, shifting the coastal route to the southwestern region of the highlands of Guatemala.

At the end of the Early Classic period (250-550 AD) all sculptural activity in Tak’alik Ab’aj came abruptly to a halt, which is quite important to note as Tak’alik Ab’aj was distinguished by its extraordinary tradition of sculpture and this occurrence may represent the most dramatic event in its history.  It also appears that the destruction and mutilation of its many monuments may have also occurred during this time, probably as a result of a violent episode, but such an event has not yet been proven.  After this episode the most emblematic buildings were enlarged and remodeled. The facades were endowed with distinctive architectural elements such as the combination of sloping, basal walls and game areas tucked into corners. Many significant sculptures of earlier times were moved and relocated to the front of the facades and other mutilated areas were integrated into the new walls, giving the impression that it was vital to raise the legacy of the past at this critical time.

The "Rebirth"

In the Late Classic period, from 500 to 900 AD, Tak'alik Ab'aj experienced a revitalization. The beautiful ancient plazas, with sculptures once again, were recreated and were like large open-air museums.  There were new carved sculptures filled with rocks from unworked stelae, altars and smooth stelae, some buildings were remodeled with stone cladding, some equipped with large steps, and although the rich sculptural tradition was not completely recovered, there was a huge effort devoted to construction activities and the city was enlarged quite a bit.

The last page of the history book for Tak’alik Ab’aj was written in the early Post-Classic period (900-1524 AD). The material remains recovered by archaeologists seem to agree, in many ways, with the reports documented in ethno-historic sources. The pottery indicates a strong intrusion of K'iche', a fact consistent with the K'iche' chronicles that claim they had conquered large areas of the south coast sometime during the Post-Classic period. This particular historical phenomenon is currently being studied.

The unique culture of this ancient metropolis is still alive in the ceremonial rites of modern indigenous groups that perpetuate the traditions and rituals of their ancestors. Thus, last in the eyes of the Guatemalan people and the world.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Tak’alik Ab’aj National Archaeological Park is 1) Cultural Heritage; 2) Sacred Ancestral Heritage; and 3) Natural Heritage and has the characteristics on the following criteria of outstanding universal value:

criterion (i): Tak'alik Ab'aj is a wonderful example to illustrate that when a way of life, worldview or ideology appears to have become inadequate and obsolete - as was seen at the end of the Olmec culture - this does not necessarily imply the disintegration and disappearance of the society facing this situation.  Rather, generating a new philosophy or way of life or worldview can encourage a society to continue and to flourish. This is the true, universal legacy of Tak’alik Ab’aj, in addition to its extraordinary body of sculptural works that are very well preserved and have a wide variety of performances covering a large span of time, reflecting the ideology of the inhabitants of the region.

criterion (ii): Its extraordinary number and variety of styles of stone sculptures reflect the cultural richness of its history and distinguishes Tak’alik Ab’aj from other pre-Hispanic cities in Mesoamerica. This richness is due to its participation as an important partner in the system of large, long-distance trade routes between the Olmec heartland in the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Coast and the highlands of Guatemala during the Pre-Classic period.

At the beginning of Tak'alik Ab'aj’s existence, this civilization interacted and participated with the Olmecs and later was one of the protagonists in the development of early Maya culture.  This feature, in addition to the implementation of an extraordinary iconographic program reflected in its sculptures, most obviously where one can trace the evolution or the transit of cultural expression from Olmec to Maya, make Tak'alik Ab'aj unique in the history of Mesoamerica.  Tak’alik Ab’aj contains a considerable body of Olmec-style sculpture including monuments similar to those found in the Olmec capital of La Venta, in the State of Tabasco, in Mexico. This reinforces the idea of cultural contact with the area Tak'alik Ab'aj and the Olmec Gulf Coast of Mexico in the Middle Pre-Classic period.

During the Late Pre-Classic period the rich collection of Mayan style sculptures at Tak’alik Ab’aj reflects the evolution of Maya sculpture, including the development of a system of hieroglyphic writing and calculating the time in the form of dates and the use of the Long Count calendar. At this time the changes were minted as distinctive Maya sculptural traditions and lasted for the entire evolution of this civilization.

criterion (iii): The history of Tak'alik Ab'aj is unique in the Mesoamerican world.  At its beginning Tak'alik Ab'aj shared the cultural concepts of the Olmec culture and then, without apparent shock, participated in the development of the Mayan cultural expressions.  In fact it is one of the earliest cities where they recorded the earliest evidence of writing and historical dates in the Long Count system, the latter considered one of the greatest achievements of the Mayan civilization.  The sculptural and architectural legacy of Tak’alik Ab’aj gives all the opportunity to observe the evolution of a society moving from one ideological system to another, and this is why it can be seen as a "bridge" between the Olmec and Maya World.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Tak'alik Ab'aj was a commercial hub between the Guatemalan highlands and the coastal area of the Pacific Ocean. The exchange of products increased the relationships between sites in different regions and increased the richness of cultural expressions found in architecture, sculpture and writing.

The study of the sculptures from the Maya and Olmec style, as well as Izapa, allows scholars to recognize the close, intercultural relationship and appreciate their differences in style. In addition to this, archaeological research has revealed a large number and variety of cultural materials, the main evidence that supports the notion that Tak’alik Ab’aj was the center of trade and the location of both Mayan and Olmec beliefs.

Today this archaeological site remains a living cultural stronghold where the indigenous people, still to this day, make special ceremonies according to their ritual calendar.

Authenticity and/or integrity of the property are based on the work of the scientific research and conservation carried out by the Tak'alik Ab'aj National Project.  Their work started in 1987 and continues today under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Sport / Department of Heritage Cultural and Natural / Institute of Anthropology and History.

Comparison with other similar properties

The present culture of Tak’alik Ab’aj shares some similar features with the Olmec cities of La Venta, San Lorenzo and Tres Zapotes (States of Tabasco and Veracruz in Mexico), as there are similarities in their construction system with the use of mud, dirt and cobble stones for the building of pyramids and other major structures, as well as the use of similar hydraulic systems and the management of a long-distance trade network.  Tak’alik Ab’aj also has features resembling those found at the Mayan city of Kaminaljuyu in the Guatemalan highlands and even more with the nearby city of Chocolá, in the piedmont of Guatemala and Chiapa de Corzo near to the southern border of Mexico.

Along the Pacific Coast of Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, are the earliest human settlements. Many of these centers can be compared with the European prehistoric Bronze or Iron Ages, except that in the Americas settlers did not yet use metals, this came at a much later time.

The archaeological sites mentioned above also share a program of conservation, research and maintenance by state institutions and are therefore in a relatively good state of preservation.

The big difference and importance in the case of Tak'alik Ab'aj is that in this city are traits of two cultures, the Maya and Olmec. For this reason the Tak'alik Ab'aj National Archaeological Park, which houses the ruins of the Central Group of the ancient urban center of Tak’alik Ab’aj cannot be compared with any other sites, as there are no other similar cases. The interest and charm of this commercial and cultural center over other cosmopolitan Pre-Classic sites in Mesoamerica, lies in its continued development for many centuries, its shared values with the Olmec culture, and then reaching its apogee during the flourishing, early years of the Mayan culture. The wealth of sculptural styles and early development of hieroglyphic writing also mark its history and make it extremely unique.