Uncovering the Identity of the Red Queen of the Mayan Palenque Kingdom
On April 11, 1994, a team of archaeologists led by Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz explored the jungles of Chiapas near the famous Mayan city of Palenque when they uncovered a sealed door. Upon opening, Gonzalez and his team found a tomb in the Temple of the Skull where over 700 jade pieces were found.
The team immediately assessed the stability of the building and formed a plan to discover what was encased inside Temple Thirteen. What they found was beyond their imagination. Inside the tomb was the final resting place of a powerful and influential woman of Palenque. Her body, which was coated in bright, rust-colored cinnabar, would earn her the name "The Red Queen."
The newly uncovered temple was a smaller pyramid structure that was connected to the Temple of the Inscriptions where the famous Mayan ruler, K'inch Janaab Pakal I, rests. Inside the Red Queen's tomb, they found precious artifacts-including a spindle whorl, whistles, and ceramic bowls. The objects found inside the tomb led the archaeologists to suspect the royal woman was linked to Pakal.
The team took nearly eight weeks to remove the monolithic limestone lid off the sarcophagus. Inside, they found the skeleton of the royal woman who was lying on her back and permeated with red cinnabar. Her skull was adorned with jade beads. Hundreds of bright green fragments also formed a broken mask. Surrounding the skeleton were luxurious items such as jade, shells, obsidian blades, pearls, and bone needles.
Gonzalez and his team also found two skeletons lying outside the sarcophagus. The first belonged to an adolescent male believed to have died when he was about 12 years of age. His body held evidence of cuts and blows to his rib cage-signs that he may have been part of a sacrificial ritual.
The other body belonged to an adult female thought to have died in her 30s. She was stretched out on the floor, with her body bearing signs of fatal injuries. Both skeletons were believed to have been sacrificed to accompany the Red Queen on the journey into the afterlife.
The Red Queen
Mexican researchers carried out extensive studies of the remains to uncover the identity of the Red Queen between 1997 and 2002. Several scholars narrowed the options to three well-known females in Palenque: Yohl ik Naal, Sak K'uk, and Tz'akbu Ajaw.
Yohl ik Naal was the true queen and was the grandmother to Mayan ruler, K'inch Janaab Pakal I. However-based on the sacrificial victims, who were thought to have died in 650 to 700 A.D.-it is unlikely the skeleton belonged to Pakal's grandmother who died in 604 A.D.
The next theory involved Pakal's mother, Sak K'uk, who served as the provisional ruler of Palenque. However, the result of a DNA comparison between the skeleton and Pakal revealed they were not related.
The last option was Lady Tz'akbu Ajaw, the wife of Pakal. A dental analysis showed the skeleton was a Palenque-native. The finding supported the theory that Ajaw, who was part of a marriage alliance, might be the skeleton inside the tomb.
The skeleton also bore signs of osteoporosis that may have been due to late childbirth. A facial reconstruction allowed the researchers to match the Red Queen's face to Pakal's wife, who was depicted on the iconography the Mayans left behind.
The conclusions fit with identifying the skeleton as the ruler's wife. If the researchers could find the tomb of her sons, and their DNA matched hers, the mystery surrounding the Red Queen of Palenque will be revealed.
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