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El Mirador (Guatemala): Early Maya City

Hidden deep within the lush rain forest of the department of Petén in Guatemala lies a once-magnificent city called El Mirador. The name means “The Lookout” in Spanish because of the center’s tall pyramids. According to the Bible Timeline Poster with World History, El Mirador began before the 1st century AD. It was located in the Maya heartland in the Mirador Basin right next to the Mexico-Guatemala border. Because of the thick rain forest that covers the city and the remoteness of the site, it was not until the last decade that El Mirador was fully explored, excavated, and studied. Although it was first discovered in 1926.

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Cradle of Maya Civilization

The area was first occupied in the Late Preclassic Period and settlements were present well into the Late Classic Period, with a population that reached up to 100,000 during its height. During the peak of the city’s power, some of the largest, tallest, and oldest pyramids were built in El Mirador by the rulers from the Snake (Kan) Dynasty. It became a center for ritual and pilgrimage. Linked to it were surrounding cities by several limestone causeways called sacbe’ob or sacbe. The longest causeway was found between El Mirador and Tintal, which stretched up to 40 km and is still visible today via satellite.

The Tikal Temple

El Mirador was the center for trade in the region as artifacts made of jade, obsidian, granite, quartzite, and ceramics from other areas were found in the city. The jade came from the central Guatemalan region of Rio Motagua, obsidian from the San Martin Jilotepeque and El Chayal regions, shells from the coasts of the Caribbean and the Pacific, and ceramics from the highlands. El Mirador was also a source of a large number of Codex-style ceramics which were named because of their similarities with Maya codices (books) of mythology and history, particularly the Popol Vuh.

The people of El Mirador constructed some of the tallest and most spectacular stepped pyramids in the world including the one called La Danta (Tapir). It stands up to 236 feet high with a base that is larger than the Central Acropolis of Tikal; the pyramid is such a massive structure that only the top portion has been recently revealed through excavation. Other structures in El Mirador include the triadic pyramid El Tigre, Los Monos pyramid, large temples, ball courts, and plazas.


El Mirador’s position in the middle of the rain forest enabled the city to have a better water supply than other Maya cities in the region. (A pool with carved depictions of the Maya creation myth Popol Vuh was recently excavated in the site.) It was located near a long cliff which made it easy to defend in case of invasion. But it was abandoned suddenly in the Late Preclassic Period because of a scarcity of the food sources and massive deforestation done by the Maya which resulted in poor soil. Obsidian spear points were recovered on top of the El Tigre pyramid, so warfare possibly caused the abrupt disappearance of the Maya from El Mirador.

Picture By Maurice MarcellinOwn work, Public Domain,
Brown, Chip. “El Mirador, the Lost City of the Maya.” Smithsonian. May 2011.
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