“The “painted walls”, as the city was called by the archaeologist Maudsley, gained regional importance at the beginning of the classical period (around 250 AD).
The economic basis of the society was the subsistence economy, supplemented by the use of the resources of the surrounding forest.
Bonampak’s main buildings, like those in Yaxchilán, are not built on platforms but on natural elevations. The Acropolis and the large Plaza bound the site to the south, which extends over a good four square kilometres. Here is also the only multi-room building in the complex whose murals have made Bonampak famous.
The oldest monument found on the site refers to a “fish face” ruler who ruled until the end of the 5th century. The next regents mentioned by name are Knot-eye Jaguar (516 AD), Chaan Muan I (603 AD) and Ahau (683 AD). The last ruler known by name was Chaan Muan II, who ascended the throne in 776 AD. In 787, he captured an important enemy called “Ah-5-calavera”. This event is depicted on the lintel 1 of the mural building. In another mural, Chaan Muan II presents his son as heir to the throne (room 3). Other depictions show the preparations for a battle, to which blood sacrifices of the ruling family belonged. This ritual should have a reconciling effect. The events of the battle itself are also depicted (Room 2), the capture of enemy warriors who were finally sacrificed in the course of a magnificent ceremony, accompanied by dances and further sacrificial rituals. These mural paintings are thought to be the epic depiction of chronological events that took place between 790 and 792 AD. Since Bonampak, like many other great Mayan centers, was abandoned in the early 9th century, the events depicted in the murals also mark the end of Bonampak’s ruling line.
The city was then abandoned and forgotten in the jungle for twelve centuries until it was rediscovered by an American in 1946. United Fruit Company had sent Giles Healy to Chiapas two years earlier to make a nature film. Members of the Lacandon people, with whom Healy had established a good relationship, led him to Bonampak, whose overgrown building no archaeologist knew. As he walked between the ruins, he saw nothing unusual at first, until he finally stuck his head through the narrow entrance of a temple and froze in awe at the unexpected sight of the colorful murals in the light of his torch…
The discovery of these mural paintings triggered a controversy among Mayan researchers. The equally vivid and drastic depictions of acts of war, torture and bloody sacrificial rituals refuted the prevailing image of the Maya as a peace-loving people.