Sunday, September 22, 2019

Burned Cities

General Shiz spread terror through the Jaredite countryside by annihilating inhabitants and then burning their cities Ether 14:17. Lamanite armies ca. AD 379 used a similar scorched-earth tactic, destroying Nephites en masse and then burning their towns, villages, and cities Mormon 5:5.

Belligerent Maya city states burned enemy cities as an extreme military tactic. One word for this act of war in Mayan is puluy or puluuy. The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI) Maya Hieroglyph Dictionary edited by Peter Mathews and Péter Bíró has this entry for puluy:
Puluy Hieroglyph Drawn by John Thompson
Mayanists for years wondered if this term was literal or metaphorical. When coupled with a place name, it was clearly used in a war context like "chopping" (ch'ak), but some clung to old romantic notions of Maya pacifism.

All that ambiguity disappeared on August 5, 2019 when the article "Palaeoenvironmental, epigraphic and archaeological evidence of total warfare among the Classic Maya" appeared in the journal Nature Human Behavior. In a rare convergence of disciplines, authors David Wahl (UC Berkeley), Lysanna Anderson (US Geological Survey), Francisco Estrada-Belli (Tulane), and Alexandre Tokovinine (Alabama) showed how lake sediment cores containing charcoal from Laguna Ek' Naab, charred structures from the adjacent archaeological site of Witzna (ancient Bahlam Jol), and epigraphic texts using the term puluy from the site of Naranjo were inter-related. On May 21, AD 697, Naranjo brutally destroyed Witzna by torching the city and environs. The conflagration deposited a layer of charcoal an inch thick in the sediment on the bottom of Laguna Ek' Naab.
Charcoal in Sediment from Laguna Ek' Naab
Photo by Lysanna Anderson
Ruling elites in Naranjo then memorialized their scorched-earth victory by carving inscriptions on Stelae 22 and 23 describing how Witzna (Bahlam Jol) puluy "got burned." See Alexandre Tokovinine, Place and Identity in Classic Maya Narratives, (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2013) pp. 33-34.

Naranjo inscriptions describe a similar fire at Buenavista del Cayo (ancient Komkom) which puluy "got burned" on March 27, AD 696. As they had at Witzna, archaeologists found charred structures at Buenavista del Cayo that date to the indicated time period. Naranjo Stela 22 describes five sites being burned over a five year period. See Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya (London and New York: Thames & Hudson, 2008).

"Puluuy ... is a clear verb for war meaning 'to burn' in Cholan languages and has been noted in many war contexts ... the hieroglyph ... puluuy is a well-accepted verb for war." James Brady (Cal State LA) and Pierre R. Colas (Vanderbilt), "Nikte' Mo' Scattered Fire in the Cave of K'ab Chante' " in James Brady and Keith M. Prufer, editors, In the Maw of the Earth Monster: Mesoamerican Ritual Cave Use, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005) p. 158. "Puluuy was a common war statement and such tactics were not rare." Wahl, et al., op. cit.