Revelations of the Mayan Red Queen’s skeleton about who she was.
It took ten years after the discovery of the Mayan Red Queen’s skeleton in 1994 for archeologists to make progress on her identity. They had narrowed the candidates to four royal women, all connected to K’inich Janaab Pakal, but who she was eluded them. Since the Red Queen’s tomb was found in a small pyramid adjacent to Pakal’s magnificent Pyramid of the Inscriptions holding his burial chamber, it was clear that she must be closely connected with this famous ruler. There were no inscriptions on the sarcophagus or walls of the crypt to indicate the identity of the interred woman. The candidates were:
Yohl Ik’nal, his grandmother – Heart of North Wind
Sak K’uk, his mother – Resplendent White Quetzel
Tz’aakb’u Ahau, his wife – Accumulator of Lords
K’inuuw Mat, his daughter-in-law – Sun-Possessed Cormorant
Early on, Pakal’s grandmother was eliminated because she died more than seventy years before the Red Queen’s tomb was built, and archeologists determined it was not a secondary burial. Both his mother and wife died within the time frame, and possibly the daughter-in-law, although her date of death is not known. The bones were permeated with red mercuric oxide called cinnabar, used as a preservative by ancient Mayas. The bright red color also symbolized sacred energies of blood, called itz. It was the color of the east, the rising sun, the renewal of life eternal. Cinnabar made the bone cells very difficult to examine microscopically, and the bone matrix had deteriorated over time.
Strontium isotopes analysis. Between 1999 and 2003, a project under the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) extracted samples of bone and teeth from both Pakal and the Red Queen. Studies of strontium isotopes were done by Dr. Vera Tiesler and Dr. Andrea Cucina, of the Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan (UADY) during those years. Strontium isotopes are found in
bedrock, and vary with the age and type of rock. Isotopes move from rock into soil and groundwater, into plants and through the food chain. In humans, strontium isotopes in skeletal bones reflect diet during the later years of life; those in tooth enamel indicate diet during childhood. Geologically different regions will have different isotope ratios. When the isotope ratios of Pakal’s bones and teeth were examined, these showed he was born and resided in later life in the Palenque region. The Red Queen’s tooth enamel had isotope ratios of a different geographic region located in the western part of Veracruz, making it likely that she came from Tortuguero or Pomona. Epigraphic evidence also indicates she was from a different city than Palenque. The strontium isotopes studies made it unlikely that the Red Queen was Pakal’s mother, who was born and lived her life in Palenque.
DNA analysis. More definitive evidence that the Red Queen was not Pakal’s grandmother or mother came from DNA studies completed several years later. Dr. Carney Matheson at Lakehead University in Canada studied several bone samples from Pakal, the Red Queen, and three other individuals from Palenque. His group specialized in studying biomolecules and the processes of their degradation, especially focusing on ancient biological remains that were challenging to recover using conventional methods. In June 2012, INAH released a statement with the DNA analysis results that “confirmed that there was no relationship between the Red Queen and Pakal.” They did not have common DNA, so she was not a blood relative. Most Mayanists now believe his wife, Tz’aakb’u Ahau, was the Red Queen. There is still a slight chance it might be his daughter-in-law, or another unrelated woman. If future excavations discover the tomb of one of Pakal’s sons, DNA studies on those bones would confirm the red skeleton’s identity as Pakal’s wife. Of interest, the Red Queen’s bones were returned to
Palenque in 2012, after residing in Mexico City since their discovery in 1994. Placed in several carefully sealed boxes, her bones are kept in the archeological zone in a structure where humidity and temperature can be controlled. Her burial chamber in Temple XIII has too much humidity and temperature fluctuation to safely house the bones and prevent further deterioration. Her empty sarcophagus can be viewed in its chamber, still coated with cinnabar.