The Mirador Basin Project

The Mirador Basin is a geographically-defined elevated basin found in the remote rainforest of the northern department of Petén, Guatemala. The basin is dominated by low lying swamps called bajos. The basin is surrounded by rugged karstic limestone hills on the east, south, and to a lesser degree, the western side, forming a triangular geographical trough covering more than 2169 square kilometers. The region also represents the last large area of intact tropical forest left in Mesoamerica. Archaeological and environmental studies conducted by the Mirador Basin Project, previously known as the Regional Archaeological Investigation of the North Petén, Guatemala (RAINPEG) Project have identified data relevant to the origins and early development of the Maya in this area that is exceptional (see project bibliography).

The research and development of the Mirador Basin is in close cooperation and collaboration with the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History (IDAEH), the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sports (Cultura y Deportes), the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism (INGUAT), the National Council of Protected Areas, Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas (CONAP), and the Presidency of the Republic of Guatemala. In addition, the project is working closely with community organizations in the department of Petén.

The work has been sponsored by numerous corporate and private institutions including the Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies (FARES), the International Community Foundation, the Global Heritage Fund, the Reinhart Family Foundation, the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics of the University of California, Los Angeles, Paul Mitchell Systems, the John Paul DeJoria family, the Townshend Family Foundation, the Morgan Family Foundation, the Fundación Carlos F. Novella of Guatemala, Cementos Progreso of Guatemala, FUNDASELVA Foundation of Guatemala, the Association for Friends of the Cultural and Natural Patrimony of Guatemala (APACNAGUA), Counterpart International, the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), the Lannan Foundation, Burch Manufacturing, Inc., the American Mobile Satellite Corporation, the National Geographic Society, the Wallace Foundation, the SPAN Foundation, the Kenneth and Athelia Woolley Family Foundation, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Boeing Corporation, the Ashton Family Foundation, the UCLA Distinguished Scholars Program, the Jacob Javits Fellows Program, the National Graduate Fellows Program, the Goldman Fund, and the SFK Family Foundation. Many private individuals have provided important and substantial contributions to the support of the project. The project director is Dr. Richard D. Hansen.

Previous work in the region from 1978 to 1983 was done under Catholic University of Washington, and Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. The Mirador Basin has been under continuous systematic regional investigation by the RAINPEG Project (now known as Mirador Basin Project) since 1987.

During the past two decades, the region has been the object of scientific investigations at the large Middle and Late Preclassic sites of El Mirador, Nakbe, Tintal, Wakna, the recently discovered site of Xulnal, and numerous smaller settlements, dating mostly to the Classic period, such as La Florida, Maaxte, Zacatal, Chan Kan, Tsab Kan, Pedernal, Isla, La Muerta, and La Muralla. Dozens of additional sites are dispersed within the Basin, including several extremely large ones such as Naachtun in the northeast corner which is currently under investigation by a team from the University of Calgary in Canada (Director: Kathryn Reese-Taylor). The primary settlement of the major sites in the basin dates to the Middle Preclassic (ca. 1000 BC-350 BC) and Late Preclassic periods (ca. 350 BC-AD 150), with relatively little overburden from the large scale constructions and extensive settlements that characterized the Classic periods (AD 300-900) of Lowland Maya civilization.

The Preclassic Maya occupation of this region is marked by an unusual abundance of major sites which are very early and large, with the largest structures dating to the Late Preclassic period (350 BC-AD 150). However, public architecture at Nakbe began in the Middle Preclassic period, with buildings of up to 24 m in height constructed during this time on major platform constructions which buried even earlier village remains. The sites of the Mirador Basin are noted by the presence of architectural constructions as large as, or exceeding, any known Maya structures in size and scale. The monumental architectural constructions in the Mirador Basin are accompanied by numerous residential structures and domestic groups scattered throughout the site centers and peripheral regions, indicating an urban character of the sites. Major causeways, ranging from 25 to 50 meters wide and 1-4 meters high join many of the ancient sites within the Basin, forming a nucleus of closely integrated economic and political polities that formed what is believed to be the first state level society in the Maya Lowlands.

Architectural attractions in the Mirador Basin include the overwhelming presence of unique architectural forms, construction techniques, and extraordinary architectural art. For example, the triadic style of architecture dominates the major structures. This form consists of three summit structures on a large pyramidal platform with the center structure as the dominant building, with two flanking structures facing each other. This architecture pattern is pervasive on the large architecture throughout the Basin and surrounding areas. This pattern appears apparently relatively suddenly, about 300 BC and is believed to reflect a dramatic new emphasis in political, economic, and religious ideology as a technique of consolidating religious and secular authority. The facades and panels of these buildings are covered with ornate architectural art consisting of monumental masks and panels of carved stucco depicting portraits of deities and associated regalia and symbols.

The massive Preclassic cities in the Mirador Basin were abandoned about A.D. 150. This "collapse" is currently being investigated from a variety of disciplines. However, after about 500 years, a small re-settlement began in the basin. Late Classic (A.D. 600-900) architecture consists of corbeled-vault buildings, ornate sculpture, and elite tomb constructions among dispersed residential compounds nestled among the Preclassic ruins. Even though elite Late Classic residences were placed among the ruins of the great Preclassic sites, scribes and artisans were painting an exotic polychrome pottery known as Codex-style ceramics. These ceramics appear to have been produced primarily within the Mirador Basin, particularly at Nakbe. This pottery consists of fine, black line scenes painted on a white or cream background. Many of these looted ceramics are found in private collections throughout the world and are among the finest examples of ancient Maya art.

There are currently scholars and specialists from 34 universities and research institutions from throughout the world involved with the Mirador Basin Project. These studies range from quarry and stone tool research, ceramics, bone, epigraphy, iconography, shell, phytoliths, pollen, neutron activation, mapping, hydrology, botany, ornithology, biology, soils, lime production, remote sensing, and many other disciplines. The research effort is focused on three principal objectives.


  1. Scientific archaeological research and environmental studies in northern Guatemala and southern Mexico. The Mirador Basin Project--Regional Archaeological Investigation of the North Peten, Guatemala (RAINPEG)--is currently exploring the origins, processual dynamics, and demise of Maya civilization in northern Guatemala.

  2. The preservation of the tropical rainforest in northern Guatemala and the Mesoamerican Lowlands. The forest in this region is highly threatened, but can provide new economic benefits for Guatemala through the establishment of a world class archaeological parks and natural preserves. The project is assisting the government of Guatemala in the formation of a vast conservation system in northern Guatemala which will have long-term economic benefits for impoverished communities.

  3. Establishment of educational programs for indigenous populations of Guatemala dealing with health, ecology, agricultural techniques, eco-tourism, financial management, health, first aid, reforestation, literacy, tourist services, artisan products, wilderness and park management programs, sustainable development, and forestry.

The Mirador Basin is currently being considered for protection by the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala. It is proposed as a wilderness area, with limited or no road access so as to incorporate the communities surrounding the Basin into the economic and educational development of the region.

Your support is greatly needed. We need the participation of specialists and volunteers. We need the financial support to protect and develop this area as a wilderness preserve with world-class tourist attractions. You can support by sending a tax deductible check to the Mirador Basin Project through either the FARES Foundation, the Global Heritage Fund, or through a secured credit card transaction on this website.

The Mirador Basin Project, through the generous sponsorship of its partners in conservation, the Fundación Carlos F. Novella in Guatemala, and Cementos Progreso, the largest cement manufacturer in Central America has established the Mirador Basin Museum under the authority of the Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History (IDAEH). The museum, which opened on July 17, 2001, has the theme of “Preserving the Past and Constructing the Future of the Mirador Basin.” The museum has Preclassic and Classic period artifacts from sites in the Mirador Basin, as well as videos, etched glass texts, and other visual aids. The Mirador Basin museum is open to the public from Monday to Friday from 9:00 A.M to 4:00 P.M. with no charge. The address is 15 Ave. 18-01, Zona 6, Interior Finca La Pedrera, Guatemala, with a telephone at (502)289-3985 and a fax at (502) 289-4038.

The Mirador Basin represents a unique opportunity for major advances in science, environmental causes, and humanitarian assistance through the establishment of new major tourist destinations in a tropical wilderness area. Please help and support this effort.