El Trapiche is one of the main archaeological sites of El Salvador. Acknowledging its importance, it was declared as National Monument in 1977. It holds most of the known pyramid in the country, with 24 meters tall. The only research on the site has been thanks to William Coe (1954), Robert Share (1967 and 1969) and Manuel López (1977-1978).

Maya Pacal


The most ancient evidence of human activity at El Trapiche date from long before the pyramids in this zone were built. Around 4,000 years ago, the first crop farmers in the region started cultivating corn (their pollen has been found in a lagoon north to Trapiche). They left some obsidian tools and some bonfire remainders in a layer of the land, which was found under the main pyramid.


El trapiche reached its peak approximately between 200 B.C. and 200 A.C. In this time, several pyramids (including E3-1, the biggest) were built, around which they were extended over a considerable amounts of common houses (Look the plan below).

The zone with pyramids probably had some elite residences, including those where the governors of this early Mayan capital lived. It is supposed that some of the pyramids are funeral monuments, and they contain graves of governors and their close ones. In his research, Share tried to prove this possibility with a tunnel in the main pyramid, but he had to stop because of the lack of money and time.

The excavations of Share found some Stone sculptures, which he named “monuments”. Without a doubt, the most important is a fragment of a Mayan stele, “monument 1”. It was found in front of the main pyramid staircase. Besides being the only Mayan stele known, it is a shame that almost all its writing was deleted in the pre-Hispanic times. The lost writing contained the exact date of the stele, the name of this place that the Mayans used 2000 years ago. The steles are made by Mayan governors; therefore, this piece is evidence that El Trapiche is part of an early Mayan capital, residence of an early dynasty ruled by an estate of unknown extension.

The old Mayan estates lead wars to their adversaries to expand or to defend their territory. In the battles, they did everything as possible to get slaves for sacrifices in the capital, in public celebrations probably. This is how this evidence indicates that El Trapiche was capital of a Mayan estate. It is an amazing finding thanks to Lopez in the small pyramid named E3-7. The pyramid was completely dug out before the developing of a coffee processing plant. In its inside, 33 skeletons were found. Apparently, they were victims of sacrifices. Several showed mutilations, heads, hands and/or feet. They were buried in prone position (upside down), which is not a usual position. They were not even with grave godos. It is probably that for the ancient inhabitants of El Trapiche, the small E-37 pyramid was a monument of a successful war. Only one skeleton is preserved from that, a tooth (found on the surface) with an iron pyrite incrustation.

The ending of El Trapiche as Mayan capital is still an unknown chapter. The place has been abandoned for many years until it was partially covered by volcanic ash from Ilopango eruption, on 500 A.C approximately.

The archaeologist Stanley Boggs suggested that Tazumal replaced the functions of El Trapiche and continued as the hall until centuries later.


The most recent archaeological findings in Chalchuapa under the supervisión of DR. Ito, Mr. Shibata and Mr. Alvarado provides new and interesting data to the scarce knowledge we have about the pre-Hispanic societies that inhabited the west of the country around 23 centuries ago.

The two monuments sculpted on stone reported by the Project belong to a sculpture tradition that we call “Cabezas de jaguar” (Jaguar heads) , and according to my research, they are distributed in the current departments of Ahuachapán, Sonsonate and Santa Ana.


Since 2006, I started my research on sculpted monuments of the pre-Hispanic time of the southeast of Mesoamerica. I have registered 50 sculptures of that time. These monuments and their creators are the central topic of the writing. I have spread part of this information in academic articles and in profesional archaeolgy forums in El Salvador, Guatemala, México, Canada and the United States. They are part of my PhD thesis in Pennsylvania University (2012). Recently, I have left the website to the public in general. www.cabezasjaguar.com.



We know that the old inhabitants of these regions created and used these Stone monuments some hundreds of years ago before the terrible volcanic eruption of Ilopango, which was between the centuries IV and VI. That is what the archaeological work of Robert Sharer, in Chalchuapa during the 60’s, shows. My own work in charge of the archaeological project, Ataco, (2009-2011) shows that the first examples of this tradition are linked to the rise of the Mayan civilization in the Southwest of Mesoamerica, and it has to do with the known Olmeca horizon since it is older (1200-400 BC). My research allows me to point out that the oldest jaguar heads were sculpted during the late pre-classical period, which means between 300 BC and 250 AC. Nevertheless, the tradition can be much older. In fact, the data of my research in Ataco shows that in the year of 1000 AC, three of those monuments, originally sculpted during the pre-classical period, were used as worship and veneration. In spite of this documented information, the relationship of the two jaguar heads with the archaeology of the Nahua groups in El Salvador is much harder to establish. As it was said before, it is fitting to point out that the jaguar heads are a local innovation of the southwest of Mesoamerica (current territories of the west of El Salvador) during the Mayan civilization development.


The monuments in Stone tell us about the history and the social process that happened in the current Salvadoran western territories many centuries before the republic existed. They tell us about societies that reached sophisticated developments compared to other regions of the planet where social life started organized forms. The western archaeology of El Salvador allows us to know material reminders of human groups with different social classes to 200 BC. In this time, the power of the governors was sculpted on stones, and added to them, there were calendar writings, and portraits of the governors themselves either standing up in a public rite or sitting down on their thrones. That is how the steles sculpted with governors’ portraits show in different archaeological sites of Mesoamerica. Two monuments of these characteristics have been located in the East of Paz River, one in Chalchuapa and the other in Ataco. In the case of the jaguar heads, I hold that the monuments are a testimony of the magical-religious practices of societies that created them. They were used to point out the power of the governors. This conclusion is because the jaguar heads were used aligned with the sculpted governors’ portraits. The sculpted steles represent the portrait of a governor, a hereditary charge that was given to the political leaders of different places in the Mesoamerican southeast in the rise of Mayan civilization.


The monuments of the jaguar head tradition were used in groups of three, That is what the findings in Ataco, Ahuachapan and in Tapalchucut, Izalco. The National Anthropology museum in San Salvador will keep 15 of these monuments; the rest is in the town properties and in particular collections. The conditions to preserve these pieces depend on many factors, but this topic deserves an article separately.

As a reference to how important archaeology is in the Salvadoran western zone in the study of the ancient activities of the Mesoamerican southwest in the pre-classical period, I have coined the term “nuclear zone of the jaguar heads”. With this term, I refer to a región of 3200 Km2 located to the east of Paz river that includes the coast, mountains, volcanoes, and valleys. It is known by having the findings of the monuments of the jaguar head tradition aligned with other Stone sculpted monuments such as:

Mayan stele fragment

Museo Abraham Perdomo

Straight steles

Estelas lisas

Stylized jaguar head

Cabeza de jaguar


The nuclear zone of the jaguar heads in the southwest of Mesoamerica is an original proposal that allows the exploration of local symbols and regional activities as complementary processes in the formation of early complex societies. The study of several sculpture sets is used to enlighten the social life during the late pre-classical period (300 BC – 250 AC). The nuclear zone is defined by the geographical distribution of a monumental tradition identified by Francis Richardson in his article in 1940: Escultura Monumental No Maya de América Central (Non-Mayan Monumental Sculpture in Central America).

The sculptural ensemble tradition of jaguar head consists of slender faces sculpted on bulge, mainly distributed in the current territory of the Salvadoran western zone. The region covers an area of approximately 3000 Km2 to the east of Paz River. With new evidence, it is seen as a representation of magical-religious activities, described by many authors as shamanism. The observed data shows that it is associated with the centralization of political power in a scenario of theocracy or archaic estates. My research highlights the strategies of the governors to point out their power, and it describes how the monumental culture was part of those strategies. Along with the rise of regional capitals in the southwest of Mesoamerica, the institutionalization of the beliefs systems occurred. The nuclear zone of the jaguar heads represent the opportunity to document the local processes of socio-political evolution in the Mesoamerican southeast during the beginning of Mayan civilization.

*The autor is a Salvadoran archaeologist and an intern of Instituto de investigaciones Antropológicas de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.