The Mystery of the Ancient Maya City That Looks Like a Crocodile

An ancient Maya city that was home to thousands of people for millennia resembles a crocodile when viewed from above. But was this an intentional design decision by the founders of this unique and mysterious settlement—or just pure chance?

The city—known as Nixtun-Ch'ich'—dates back more than 2,500 years. It features an unusual grid layout that is unique in the Maya world, while also being among the earliest examples in all of the Americas.

The Maya civilization dominated what is now southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and the western areas of El Salvador and Honduras for more than 3,000 years until the era of Spanish colonization. They were notable for creating the only fully developed writing system in pre-Columbian America, their striking architecture and art, as well as their advanced calendar, mathematics, and astronomical system.

Located on the southwestern edge of Lake Petén Itzá in what is now Petén Department, Guatemala, Nixtun-Ch'ich' was the largest and most dominant settlement in the region during the Middle Preclassic period of Mesoamerican history—an era characterized by a transformation from hunter-gatherer to more complex agricultural societies.

The ancient Maya city of Nixtun-Ch'ich'.
The site of Nixtun-Ch'ich' located on the southwestern edge of Lake Petén Itzá in Petén Department, Guatemala. The ancient Maya city, now covered by grass, is notable for its unusual urban grid layout. Timothy Pugh

The city's most distinctive feature is a gridded urban core that research indicates was established between 800 and 500 B.C.—or potentially even earlier. The urban grid is centered on a 2-mile-long line of 21 buildings orientated slightly south of east and may have been roughly directed towards the sunrise on particular dates of the year, according to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Political Science.

The authors of the study wrote that the city was clearly planned and resembles a modern town in the sense that it was designed to facilitate social interaction.

One of the authors of the study, Prudence Rice, a professor of anthropology at Southern Illinois University, has previously proposed the idea that the unusual layout of the Maya city may have been modeled to look like the scaly back of a crocodile.

Crocodiles played an important role in the worldview of the Maya and represented a number of things, according to Timothy Pugh, a professor of anthropology at Queens College, City University of New York, who has worked with Rice on research at Nixtun-Ch'ich'.

"The crocodile appears in a number of interrelated ways," Pugh told Newsweek. "They could represent the earth as the crocodile Itzam Cab Ain. This monster was sacrificed and dismembered at creation. It became the ordered universe."

This earth crocodile, which is depicted floating in a primordial sea, was slain by the gods in order to create the surface of the world, according to the myth.

"Related to this, they can represent a cosmic destroyer—a flood monster—but this cosmic destroyer also represents the ends of calendrical cycles," Pugh said.

In relation to their association with the renewal of seasonal cycles, crocodiles were also linked to ideas of fertility and rebirth. Crocodiles were considered to be responsible for the timely arrival of rains and the fertility of the soil, for example.

A crocodile
Stock image: A crocodile. These animals played an important role in Maya mythology. iStock

Harri Kettunen, an expert in Maya culture with the University of Helsinki, Finland, told Newsweek there are depictions of crocodiles early on in the iconography of this ancient civilization and later also in the hieroglyphic texts they produced.

"Crocodiles were indeed an integral part of the ancient Maya culture," Kettunen said. "In Maya art, animals are quite often fused with other animals, creating fantastic beasts. In the case of crocodiles, they are also sometimes fused with trees as the back of the crocodile resembles the trunk of a ceiba tree with thorns."

The ceiba was the most sacred tree for the ancient Maya and was considered to be a symbol of the universe, providing a link between the sky, Earth and underworld. Crocodiles sometimes appear as the base of this "world tree" in Maya cosmology—which was inextricably linked to the natural world.

Crocodiles in nature occupy two habitats—terrestrial, and aquatic—and they came to
embody essential dualities in Mesoamerican cosmology.

"After all, crocs are liminal, they can live on land and in water"—which represented the underworld for the Maya—Pugh said. "Turtles have similar significance. In addition, crocodiles can represent a canoe, which also may represent the Milky Way stretching across the sky."

"So, these are very important symbols, but it is hard to nail down specific, consistent meanings—a common trait of religious symbols."

Early Maya representations of crocodiles occur on a large scale. For example, these animals appeared on stone monuments such as altars, or as embellishments on public architecture, as well as on smaller, portable—and likely private—art in the form of painted ceramics and carved figures made of various materials, according to Paul Healy, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Trent University in Ontario, Canada.

"The large size and ferocity of the crocodile, as a major tropical predator, made the creature a powerful symbol, not unlike the jaguar, among the ancient Maya," Healy told Newsweek.

"We know that crocodile hides were likely worn by shamanistic figures in ancient Mesoamerica," he said. "In addition to the many examples of crocodiles in early Maya art, the bony, faunal remains of crocodiles also occur at numerous Maya sites—these often found in ritualized contexts. This too suggests that the creature carried abundant ceremonial and cosmological associations."

According to the proposal put forward by Rice, the layout of Nixtun-Ch'ich' had spiritual significance and was designed to mimic the mythical crocodile of creation, illustrating the role of ideological power in the development of complex societies.

While the site today—located on a peninsula that protrudes into Lake Petén Itzá—is covered with grass, research conducted over the past couple of decades or so by Pugh and Rice has uncovered the topography of the hidden city.

Maps created using GPS data show the layout of the site and the form of the structures within it, revealing its ordered throughways organized in a grid of straight lines.

Looking at maps like these, the site certainly looks like a crocodile with its bilateral symmetry and city blocks that look like the scaly back of the animal, which appears to be shifting into the lake, Pugh said.

"The construction of the city with bilateral symmetry along the peninsula is what gave the site its crocodile-like appearance. The city was certainly planned," he said. "The peninsula of Nixtun-Ch'ich' also looks like the outline of a crocodile from above. We also know that the form of the city could be observed from the high hill to the north."

A map of Nixtun-Ch'ich' in Guatemala
A map of Nixtun-Ch'ich' showing the topography of the site. Some researchers argue that the city may have been constructed to resemble the form of a crocodile. Timothy Pugh

Other aspects of the city may also have been references to the crocodile creation myth. One story suggests that the Earth crocodile had its throat slit by the gods, which, according to Rice, may be referenced by a defensive ditch that runs north to south across the peninsula near its eastern tip—a potential symbol of the mythological creature's sacrificial beheading.

Some versions of the myth describe that the crocodile had a hole in its back. Rice said the presence within Nixtun-Ch'ich' of a possible cenote—water-filled sinkholes found across the Maya lowlands—that has now dried up may have been representative of this feature.

"Here we had this myth about a crocodile with a hole in its back floating in a primordial sea, and its throat being cut," Rice previously told Archaeology magazine. "And I look at the map of Nixtun-Ch'ich', and, my gosh, it's there!"

According to Pugh, the city is the only known example of a Maya archaeological site that may have been constructed to resemble a crocodile, although these animals appeared widely elsewhere in Maya iconography. But the researcher said we cannot be sure that the Maya intended the design of the city to look like a crocodile.

"I am a little skeptical—we cannot state with absolute certainly that this is what the Maya intended," Pugh said. "This is not something that we can demonstrate in a substantial way as Maya at the time the site was established are not known to have had writing."

"The site certainly looks like a crocodile, but maybe it is a Rorschach sort of phenomenon," he said. "I noted above that the bilateral symmetry may be evidence that it was meant to represent a crocodile, but maybe that symmetry—like ink blots—makes it look like a crocodile by happenstance. The jury will remain out, probably permanently, unless we find other evidence."

A crocodile and a Maya pyramid
Stock image: A split image of a crocodile and a Maya pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico. Was the Maya site of Nixtun-Ch’ich’ in Guatemala (not pictured) intentionally modeled on a crocodile? iStock

Such evidence might include an artifact or artwork that depicts the city alongside a crocodile, supporting the idea that the design was intentional.

Some Maya experts, such as Kettunen, are even more skeptical of the hypothesis that the city was modeled on the body of a crocodile.

"I seriously doubt that the ancient Maya had this in mind when they constructed the city," Kettunen. "Obviously, there's no way to prove either way, but I wouldn't push an argument on something that cannot be proved."

In the event that the Maya did intend the site to look like a crocodile, Pugh said their goal would have been to construct the city in the form of the universe as created by the gods.

"By replicating the action of gods, they may have created a divine city," he said.

According to Pugh and Rice, evidence at the site suggests that Nixtun-Ch'ich' served as an important ritual or religious center throughout the Preclassic period and was filled with symbolic public infrastructure and architecture.

The city, with its densely populated and gridded urban core, would have been very different from other Maya settlements, which tended to be much more decentralized. According to the researchers, this unusual design had spiritual significance, with the site planned and constructed as a "sacred landscape" that not only aligned with the movements of the sun but embedded aspects of Maya cosmology into the city itself.

The settlement "was a microcosm that reflected the orderly universe, the balance of earth and water, and the cycles of rain and fertility," the researchers wrote in the Frontiers article. "These features were symbolic public goods that added to the quality of life of Nixtun-Ch'ich' and helped establish it as the Creation place—the world as created by the gods."