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HISTORY - Maya Murals of Bonampak

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

Though Carlos Frey and John Bourne were the first westerners to arrive at the ancient city of Bonampak, Chiapas in February 1946, and Giles Healey is credited as the first for seeing the murals of Structure 1 in May of the same year, they were guided by two Lacandon Maya, Jose Pepe Chan Bor and Acasio Chan. Bonampak had long remained a ceremonial centre for the Lacandon Maya of the region, and pilgrimages had continued to this site regardless of contact, due to the remoteness of the impenetrable jungle, and the absence of colonizers. To date, the murals of Bonampak are revered as the best preserved and most important of the Maya world, and we are fortunate that archaeologists and INAH have implemented temperature and climate control measures to preserve them for the occassional explorer who passes through.

Historically, Bonampak is not as old as other sites of the Maya Empire, with construction taking place from the Early Classic Period (250-600 CE) to the Late Classic (600-900), the latter of which was when most of the temples and frescoes seen today, were erected. The city only reached a maximum population of around 6,000 inhabitants.

Bonampak is believed to be a satelite city of nearby Yaxchilan, which also features one structure with similar murals. Archaeologists believe the painting style of Bonampak was imported from Yaxchilan, given the historical and familial ties, though it is interesting to note these two cities were originally rivals. In the 5th Century, Bonampak was defeated by Kínich Tatbú Skull I, and a century later by Knot-Eye Jaguar I, and again by Kínich Tatbù Skull II. This third defeat resulted in Bonampak falling under the fierce rulers of Yaxchilan.

The vaulted ceiling with murals depicting war and victory

Located about 2 hours from the famous ruins of Palenque, only the truly intrepid travellers and lovers of Maya archaeology make the trek to the ancient city of Bonampak. This compact site is in the middle of the jungle, with a path leading away from the parking lot. The site does not receive a lot of visitors, though there are guides here. During high season, it is more likely to run into small crowds, as many tour operators now offer tours from Palenque, but there will certainly be fewer here than in major sites that have long been famous.

Painted walls - In the heart of the Lacandon jungle, Bonampak is famous for its extraordinary murals, which show scenes of war, paying tribute and the capture of prisoners for sacrific - Video by INAH

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