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The city developed a distinctive sculptural style within the tradition of the lowland Maya, perhaps to emphasize the Maya ethnicity of the city's rulers.
However, it suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of its former vassal state Quirigua in 738, when the long-ruling king Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil was captured and beheaded by Quirigua's ruler K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat (Cauac Sky).
The hieroglyphic text on Copán Altar Q describes the lord being elevated to kingship with the receipt of his royal scepter.
The ceremonies involved in the founding of the Copán dynasty also included the installation of a subordinate king at Quiriguá.
The fertile Copán River valley was long a site of agriculture before the first known stone architecture was built in the region about the 9th century BC.
The city was important before its refounding by a foreign elite; mentions of the predynastic history of Copán are found in later texts, but none of these predates the refounding of the city in AD 426.
The ceremonial center was long abandoned and the surrounding valley home to only a few farming hamlets at the time of the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.