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Archeologists Safe After Jungle Attack

California and the West

Science: Five researchers who were missing since being assaulted by Indians in Mexico stumbled into a village apparently unharmed. Their guides, who had been helping them transport a Maya artifact, had escaped earlier.

July 01, 1997|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five archeologists missing in eastern Mexico since Friday, when they were bushwhacked by Indian marauders while attempting to rescue a valuable Maya monument, stumbled into a small village Monday night, exhausted and naked but apparently not seriously harmed.

The five were taken to the city of Palenque where they were recuperating from their ordeal, said Mexican archeologist Alfonso Morales, who lives in the city.

The team included archeologists Peter Mathews of the University of Calgary, Mario Aliphat of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City and three graduate students who had accompanied them on the expedition. Mathews is a MacArthur "genius" award recipient for his studies of Maya writing.

Six Cholo Indians hired to help move the monument had escaped from their attackers earlier and made their way back to the city Saturday. The workers reported having been beaten with rifle butts and machetes, but none were seriously harmed.

Details of the Mathews team's escape were sketchy Monday evening, but the group apparently worked its way back to civilization through the rain forests of nearby Guatemala, just across the Usumacinta River from the ambush site, according to Morales.

An anonymous source at Mexico's Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed the team's rescue to the Associated Press. The Mexican military had been searching for the team Sunday and Monday, but was hampered by bad weather that grounded helicopters.

Mathews, 47, has been one of the leaders in deciphering Maya glyphs or writing. In 1984, he was given an award by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to allow him to pursue the work.

He has been working in Mexico for four years at a site called El Cayo, Spanish for "the key," along the Usumacinta, a broad river that has been called Central America's Amazon. The Maya city at the site dates from the so-called Classic Maya period, ranging from A.D. 600 to A.D. 900.

El Cayo was a client state of the larger and better-known city of Piedres Negres, and Mathews hoped to learn more about interactions among city-states in the region.

He had actually canceled fieldwork at the site this summer because of unrest in the area, particularly fighting among farm villages in the region. But he was particularly concerned about one artifact that his team had discovered at the site and reburied, said University of Texas archeologist Khristaan D. Villela, who said he talked to Mathews in Palenque last week. Villela has been acting as a U.S. coordinator for information about the incident.

The artifact was a large stone altar, about four feet in diameter and weighing 1,000 pounds. It has writing on the top, the sides and the three legs and is thus considered quite valuable because of what it can reveal about the history of El Cayo. Because Mathews was afraid that it would be stolen and sold to collectors, he decided to ship it to a museum at Frontero Corozal, upriver from the site.

According to art historian Merle Green Robertson of the Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute in San Francisco, who is now in Palenque, the altar was crated for shipment by helicopter. But when the helicopter did not arrive Friday, the team decided to transport it by boat.

Robertson said by telephone Monday that one of the escaped workers, Martin Arcos Zarago, described the attack. According to Zarago, the group had gotten about five miles upriver when it was attacked by 80 to 100 Indians and captured.

The archeological team members were stripped of their clothes and boots. Mathews was robbed of about 5,000 pesos and $900 cash and was forced to write a check for all the money in his bank account. All were beaten during their captivity, Robertson said.

At one point, at least some of the group of 11 managed to break free. Some ran into the forest, while Mathews and a companion left in a canoe.

Reports Monday had said three were being held hostage and two were lost on the river.

Although details were not available Monday, the five archeologists somehow joined up and crossed the river into relatively safer jungle and made their way back to civilization, according to Morales.

The altar is apparently still sitting on the bank of the river.

Others on the team include Armando Amaya, a doctoral candidate at Calgary who is from Mexico City, and graduate student Rosario Magana, known locally as "El Chayo" or "the Kid." The fifth person was not identified.

Times staff writer Juanita Darling in San Salvador contributed to this story.

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