for National Geographic
Published August 8, 2014
Deep in the jungle in the north of Guatemala, along deep-rutted 4x4 tracks, the pyramids of the great Maya city of Xultún are hidden under heavy vegetation and oddly symmetrical hills. But crudely cut tunnels in the sides of the hills signal a modern intrusion.
The tunnels are the work of "huecheros"undefinedthe local slang term for antiquity looters, derived from the Maya word for armadillo. On a building overlooking an ancient plaza, the looters scrawl a message, brazen and taunting: "We, the huecheros, stuck it to this place."
Almost every pyramid in the sprawling site has a looter's tunnel on at least one side. Most of the hieroglyphic panels, the pottery, and the jade from tombs here have been raided and sold on the black market to wealthy foreigners. One of the tallest pyramidsundefineda majestic building that slices high in the air like the Temple of the Great Jaguarundefinedwas actually cut in half by looters, making it look like a giant stone napkin holder.
Xultún is part of an international trade in Maya antiquities that spread across much of the region in the 1980s and '90s and has scraped away what little opportunity was left to modern scientists to understand the people who once lived here. This amputation of cultural historyundefinedin many ways stretching back to the conquest of the New Worldundefinedhas left us with far more questions than answers about the Maya.