Ancient Palace Used By Maya "Elite" Discovered Deep In The Mexican Jungle


Katy Evans

Katy is Managing Editor at IFLScience where she oversees editorial content from News articles to Features, and even occasionally writes some.

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Temple of the U in the Kulubá archaeological site, in Yucatan, Mexico. Photo: Mauricio Marat. INAH

Archaeologists have discovered ancient ruins deep in the Mexican jungle that were once a Maya palace home to the civilization’s elite over 1,000 years ago.

Excavations at the archaeological site of Kulubá, an ancient Maya city in northeast Yucatán, have been ongoing, but the confirmation of the palace has just been announced by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).


According to INAH, the huge building would have likely been for the upper echelons of society only, due to its size, and the remains of wall decorations discernable.

The palace had six rooms and measured about 55 meters (180 feet) long and 15 meters (50 feet) wide, with walls 6 meters (20 feet) high. It is located east of the main square of Kulubá and also comprises a basement, staircase, and the remains of pilasters. It would have also had an alter and residential rooms as part of a grander complex. 

A Palace located in the middle of the jungle. Photo: Mauricio Marat, INAH

Archaeologist Alfredo Barrera Rubio revealed that the materials point to two phases of occupation: the first during the Late Classic period, 600-900 CE and the second (potentially overlapping) during the Terminal Classic, 850-1050 CE.

The Mayan civilization was one of the dominant indigenous civilizations of Mesoamerica and lasted for nearly 2,000 years before its mysterious collapse. Though it began in the Yucatán region, at its height in the sixth century the empire spanned Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. What caused the empire’s collapse is much-debated – ranging from climate change to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors – but most of its great stone cities and monuments, like the iconic Chichén Itzá (now considered one of the new seven wonders of the world), were abandoned by the 10th century.  

Stabilization and cleaning process of the stucco of the Temple of the U. Photo: Mauricio Marat, INAH

Kulubá didn't remain independent during its existence, and was swallowed up by bigger metropolises as the Maya influence grew.

“It was in the Terminal Classic when Chichén Itzá, becoming a prominent metropolis in the northeast of present-day Yucatan, extended its influence over sites such as Kulubá,” Barrera said. “Which, due to the data we have and Chichén and obsidian-type ceramic materials from the same sources that provided this Mayan city, we can infer that it became an Itzá enclave.”

The Maya were highly skilled, building sophisticated cities of buildings, temples, stone monuments, and pyramids. They had complex agriculture systems like farming and irrigation and were skilled in crafts and culture, with written language, art, and religion. They were also skilled in math, astronomy, and had a complex calendar that famously predicted the end of the world in 2012 (spoiler, this did not come to pass). Unfortunately, they were also a hierarchal society that involved a lot of bloodshed, sacrifices, and serving the nobility, who were not averse to wearing the skulls of their vanquished enemies as trophies.

María Fernanda Escalante Hernández and Natalia Hernández Tangarife, restorers of the Conservation Section of the INAH Yucatan Center, unveiling and protecting the stone. Photo: Mauricio Marat, INAH

Because the archaeological site sits in the middle of the jungle, it is at risk of weathering and being overtaken by flora and fauna. The preservation of the site is high priority for INAH while the researchers study and map it, but also so is conserving the natural and cultural balance. As well as covering the ruins with protective floorings and coverings to preserve original finishes, in some cases they are even using the jungle itself as protection. 


To get to some of the more inaccessible buildings they had to remove trees, now they are planning on planting new trees to help protect the delicate ruins.

"One option that the site itself gives is to use vegetation in favor of conservation; reforesting specific sites for trees to protect polychrome structures from direct light, wind and other elements," Natalia H. Tangarife, co-director of the conservation of architectural finishes in Kulubá, said