Altun Ha

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Altun Ha

The Mayan site of Altun Ha is notable for its unusually high population density, abundant material wealth, and remarkable and diverse architecture, especially in light of the site's moderate size and its location in a swampy, desolate area in north-central Belize, approximately 50 kilometers north of Belize City and 10 kilometers inland from the Caribbean shore. The first archaeological reconnaissance was conducted by A. H. Anderson and W. R. Bullard in the early 1960s. A seven-year program beginning in 1963 of intensive excavations, mapping, and artifact analysis was sponsored by the Royal Ontario Museum and directed by David Pendergast. This thorough archaeological investigation has revealed a long and complex development that is distinct within Maya prehistory.

Occupation of Altun Ha began approximately 200 bce (Late Preclassic) and persisted until about 925 ce (Late Classic). An Early Classic post-interment tomb offering included Teotihuacán-style (Miccaotli phase) ceramic vessels and green Pachuca obsidian eccentric lithics. Another Early Classic offering at Altun Ha included a claw-shaped bead of tumbaga (gold-copper alloy) from the Coclé culture of central Panama. Slightly later finds include a four-kilogram jade head of Kinich Ahau and an engraved jade plaque with a Mayan long-count date of 584 ce. During its maximum florescence, the site core of Altun Ha measured approximately one square kilometer and included fifteen large monumental structures set around two adjoining plazas. The urban settlement surrounding the site core covered about five square kilometers and was nearly twice as dense as Tikal. Altun Ha had long-distance relationships with the inland and southern Maya area, central Mexico, and lower Central America that may have been based in part on commerce in marine materials. Isotopic ratios present in human bone from Altun Ha demonstrate a stronger maritime diet than at any other Maya site and a reduced consumption of corn after the Early Classic.

A complete or partial hiatus in occupation occurred from 900 to 1000 ce. In contrast to most Maya sites to the west, Altun Ha witnessed a resurgence during the Late Postclassic Ueyeb phase, 1225–1500 ce. The community of Rockstone Pond is currently located adjacent to the ancient ruins. Considerable effort has been made to restore Altun Ha as a national monument and to foster economic development through tourism.

See alsoArchaeology; Goldwork, Pre-Columbian; Maya, The; Teotihuacán; Tikal.


Hammond, Norman. "The Prehistory of Belize." Journal of Field Archaeology 9, no. 3 (1982): 349-362.

Pendergast, David M. Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964–1970, 3 vols. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1979–1990.

White, Christine D., David M. Pendergast, Fred J. Long-staffe, and Kimberley R. Law. "Social Complexity and Food Systems at Altun Ha, Belize: The Isotopic Evidence." Latin American Antiquity 12, no. 4 (2001): 371-393.

                                      Kathryn Sampeck