Kings and commoners at Copan: Isotopic evidence for origins and movement in the Classic Maya period

T. Douglas Price, James H. Burton, Robert J. Sharer, Jane Buikstra, Lori E. Wright, Loa P. Traxler, Katherine A. Miller

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114 Scopus citations


Eight human interments were excavated in the 1990s beneath the Acropolis at the Classic Maya site of Copan in Honduras, which was the capital of a Maya kingdom from ca. AD 400 to 800. These human remains come from both royal tombs and less elaborate burials dating to the early part of this period and lie deep in the accumulated architectural layers of the Acropolis. We present a brief summary of the context, contents, and external links represented by these interments. Several lines of evidence point to connections between early Copan and Teotihuacan in the Central Highlands of Mexico, and Tikal in the central Maya lowlands of the Petén in Guatemala. The bioarchaeology of the interred individuals from the Copan Acropolis is summarized in terms of major characteristics and life history. The focus of this study is the isotopic investigation of these individuals, which included both light and heavy isotopes. We have measured carbon and nitrogen in some of the burials along with strontium, carbon, and oxygen in tooth enamel. In addition, we have a substantial database of strontium isotopes from human burials and both ancient and modern fauna at the site that help to characterize the local isotope ratio at Copan. This information is compared with the larger Maya region and the site of Teotihuacan in the Central Highlands of Mexico to examine questions of human migration and interaction in the Classic Maya period. Focus is on the primary burial identified as K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', the first dynastic ruler of Copan. Epigraphic information on his early years and subsequent events in his life are compared to isotopic data on his place of birth and possible movements. The isotopic evidence suggests that several of the individuals buried in the Acropolis at Copan, including K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', were not born in the local area, but came to this ancient city from elsewhere.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15-32
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Anthropological Archaeology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2010


  • Bioarchaeology
  • Honduras
  • Maya
  • Mesoamerica
  • Oxygen isotopes
  • Strontium isotopes
  • Tikal
  • Tombs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Archaeology
  • History
  • Archaeology


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