At the start of the fifth century AD, Copán was a modest village set in a fertile, mountainous valley on the eastern fringe of the Maya world. Within decades, the village embarked on a remarkable rise to become, at its zenith in the eighth century, among the most accomplished Maya cities in art, architecture, and astronomy.

The transfiguration’s instigator was a man named Yax K’uk Mo. According to glyphs carved on a stone altar, Yax K’uk Mo arrived at Copán on 8 February 427, five months after his coronation on 5 September 426. The dynasty he founded ruled Copán for the next four centuries.

Despite their calendrical exactitude, the terse carvings are vague about Yax K’uk Mo’s origin or where and by whom he was crowned. Like ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy, the Maya world consisted of independent city-states linked by trade and vying for hegemony. Conceivably, any one of...

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