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Utatlan was the capital of the Late Postclassic highland Maya K'iche' polity, also known as K'umarcaaj (its K'iche' name). The site is located west of Santa Cruz del Quiché, in the department of Quiché, Guatemala. Utatlan and the related settlements of Chisalin, Ismachi, Resguardo, and Pakaman occupy relatively inaccessible plateaus surrounded by deep ravines. Utatlan proper consists of more than seventy structures centered on a central large plaza, flanked by two temple-pyramids, a large ball court and long platforms usually interpreted as council houses. Surrounding the main plaza, dense settlements occupy all the available land. Residential compounds are disposed around patios and some may include temples and long platforms. Cut-stone masonry with stucco facing is found throughout the site. Some buildings had mural paintings in the Postclassic Mesoamerican style, evidencing the participation of the K'iche' in widespread networks of cultural interaction.

Sixteenth-century documents provide considerable information about Utatlan and its ruling houses, which traced their origins to remote regions and described long migrations passing through the legendary city of Tollan. The historical accuracy of these accounts remains controversial. Archaeological research shows that the K'iche' rose to power after 1300 ce. They established their capital at Utatlan, and grew to become a powerful center, with hegemony over an extensive region in the western highlands and Pacific coastal piedmont of Guatemala. The K'iche' kingdom was organized as a confederacy of several groups, ruled by four lords who were heads of the city's major lineages. The city of Utatlan probably functioned as the court and major military stronghold of these powerful ruling houses. At the time of the Spanish conquest, K'iche' power was rivaled by their former allies the Kaqchikel, who established their own court at the city of Iximche.

A K'iche' warrior, Tecum, the grandson of a K'iche' ruler, led a major battle against the invading Spaniards in 1524 and died in the process. The conquistador Pedro de Alvarado subsequently burned Utatlan; a new town, Santa Cruz, was established for the surviving inhabitants. K'iche' mythical origins and history were recorded in the mid-sixteenth century by members of a noble lineage, using the Spanish alphabet. Known as the Popol Vuh, this major literary work is a key source on the religion and mythology of the ancient Maya.

See alsoAlvarado y Mesía, Pedro de; Archaeology; Iximché; Kaqchikel; K'iche'; Maya, The; Popol Vuh; Precontact History: Mesoamerica.


Carmack, Robert M. The Quiché Mayas of Utatlan: The Evolution of a Highland Guatemala Kingdom. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.

Popol Vuh: Literal Poetic Version, transcribed and trans. Allen J. Christenson. Winchester, U.K., and New York: O Books, 2004.

Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings, trans. Dennis Tedlock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Smith, Michael E., and Francis F. Berdan, eds. The Postclassic Mesoamerican World. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2003.

                                             Janine Gasco

                       Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos

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