2009-03. The Great Kawinal: A City Submerged
March 29th, 2009
Intersection of the Calá River and Chixoy Reservoir. Border of Cubulco, Baja Verapaz, and Chicamán, Quiché; Guatemala.
March 13th, 2009.
Issues: Historical Memory / Hydroelectric Dams
The Great City of Kawinal (also spelled Cauinal) was an important Mayan political and religious center that emerged in the 12th Century. The locality, however, had been continually populated since the Mayan Middle Pre-Classic period, that is, since 700 years before Christ. During the Mayan Late Post-classic period (1100-1524 A.D.), the City of Kawinal was considered the largest and most important civic center until the arrival of the Spanish. (1)
Kawinal is located along the “midsection of the Chixoy River basin [and] it was dominated during the Late Classic and Early Post-Classic periods by a multiethnic conglomerate of Poqomes, Q’eqchíes, as well as [other Mayan] groups who immigrated from the Gulf of Mexico coast by travelling upriver through the Usumacinta-Salinas-Chixoy river network.” (2)
Kawinal is seemingly the first site where the so-called Plaza Verapaz
architectural pattern was experimented, and its importance has been compared with the great Mayan metropolises of Yucatán: Chichen Itzá and Mayapan. (3)
This diagram illustrates how the Calá River separates structural groups A and B from group C. (4)
This second diagram shows the Plaza Verapaz structure in more detail (identified as Group A in the previous diagram). Along the center of the diagram, from left to right, are: the central pyramid, a small round altar, a secondary central temple, and a ball game court. (5)
The ball game court as seen from the secondary central temple of Group A.
View of the central pyramid and two Group C structures visible in the background on the other side of the river.
Temples in Group C.
Residents of nearby villages cross the Calá River from the Group B whereabouts.
Financed by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), “the construction of the Pueblo Viejo-Quixal hydroelectric project (1977-1983) caused a radical transformation in the Chixoy River basin, which entailed the flooding of approximately 50 km of the lower part of the valley, as well as the disappearance of 23 villages or localities, 45 archaeological sites, cultivation areas and natural resources.” (6)
The financial and governmental institutions involved in the creation of the Pueblo Viejo-Quixal hydroelectric dam commissioned an archaeological rescue study “as complete as possible” to a French archaeological mission. Of the 45 archaeological sites that would become submerged under the massive Chixoy Reservoir, only Kawinal was considered for rescue. However, “it implied a very high cost. Unfortunately, none of the suggested proposals became a reality and so, as always, the Guatemalan cultural patrimony had to settle with however much could be rescued.” (7)
As in most of the country, the Chixoy River basin goes through two main seasons. The first, known as winter, is rainy and goes from May through November. The second, called summer, is dry and occurs between May and November. It is during this last season when the water level in the reservoir lowers considerably, as this image taken in March 2009 shows.
Flooded by the artificial reservoir for over six months of each year, the Great City of Kawinal reappears during the Guatemalan summer.
Only the top part of the central pyramid remains visible all year long. Nevertheless, under water, erosion has occurred at an accelerated pace causing permanent losses and severe structural damages.
In his study, “The Chixoy Mid-river Basin: Two Decades Later”, Horacio Martínez comments: “I believe it is a pity that the great archaeological site of Cauinal had to end up in the conditions that it is currently under. The fact that the Mexican and Guatemalan governments are once again considering the possibility of building a hydroelectric dam in the Usumacinta River calls for reflection, not only among the archaeological community. Are we about to face another Chixoy?” (9)
Related photo-essays, click here.
Versión en español aquí.
1 Van Akkeren, Ruud.
3 Arnauld, Marie-Charlotte. “Relaciones interregionales en el área Maya durante el Postclásico en base a datos arquitectónicos”. In X Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 1996 (edited by J.P. Laporte and H. Escobedo). Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala. P. 125.
4 Arnauld. Op. Cit. P. 129 (Originally published by Alain Ichon).
5 Arnauld. Op. Cit. P. 132 (Originally published by Alain Ichon).
6 Martínez, Horacio. “La cuenca media del río Chixoy: Dos décadas después”. In XVI Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2002 (edited by J.P. Laporte, B. Arroyo, H. Escobedo y H. Mejía. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala. P. 847.
7 Ibid PP. 846-7.
8 Ibid. P. 840.
9 Ibid. P. 848.