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The best that the preclassic Maya could do, it was thought, was to erect a modest eight-meter pyramid at Uaxactún, a settlement about 12 miles north of Tikal.
That low-slung structure was regarded as a precursor to the classic-era Mayan structures—much in the way that the small step-pyramids of Saqqara, Dashur, and elsewhere in pharaonic Egypt preceded the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
There was something of a resurgence of grand Mayan architecture in what is known as the “postclassic” period that lasted until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1520s—although the post-classic style, best represented by the pyramid complex of Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula that flourished until around 1250, was heavily influenced by the cultures of the Toltec and Aztec Indians of central Mexico, who might even have invaded and subjected the Mayan territories.
Archaeologists were long aware that there had also been a “preclassic” Mayan period dating from roughly 1,800 b.c.
The ancient Mayan structures in the Mirador Basin, uncovered by Hansen’s team of archaeologists, conservators, soil scientists, students from 66 different research universities and institutions, and up to 400 local Guatemalan workmen, are startlingly massive in both height and volume.
El Mirador is either a five-day humidity-and-snake-plagued hike from the nearest road-accessible town, Carmelita, or a round-trip helicopter ride from Flores, the nearest town with an airport, that can run into the thousands of dollars.
El Mirador’s roadless condition reflects a deliberate choice on Hansen’s part, with the cooperation of the Guatemalan government.
Hansen was flying in from Los Angeles after a whirlwind Southern California fundraising expedition among wealthy donors with Mayan interests who, along with corporations, family foundations, and organizations such as the National Geographic Society, finance his Mirador Basin Project-focused nonprofit, the Foundation for Anthropological Research & Environmental Studies (FARES).
One of the FARES board members is actor and director Mel Gibson; Hansen was the archaeological consultant for Gibson’s 2006 Mayan movie, Despite his impressive credentials, his extraordinary discoveries, and a list of scholarly publications with team members that runs to more than 200, Hansen is essentially an academic entrepreneur, a solo traveler without a tenured professorship or salary who over the years has had to pay for some of his excavations out of his own pocket and even go into debt.
“Doing anything else would facilitate the evils that are there” in chronically poor and crime-afflicted Guatemala, Hansen told me.