Lidar reveals the oldest and biggest Maya structure yet found

Ancient Maya society got off to a monumentally fast start
around 3,000 years ago.

Excavations and airborne mapping at a previously unknown
site in Mexico, called Aguada Fénix, have uncovered the oldest and largest
known structure built by Maya people
, say archaeologist Takeshi Inomata of
the University of Arizona in Tucson and his colleagues. This raised ceremonial
area made of clay and earth was constructed from around 1000 B.C. to 800 B.C.,
the scientists report June 3 in Nature.

The new discovery adds to recent evidence that from its very
beginnings around 3,000 years ago, the
Maya civilization built monumental structures
(SN: 4/25/13). A similar but smaller ritual area previously
discovered by Inomata’s team at a Maya site in Guatemala called Ceibal dates to
950 B.C.

The finds run counter to the idea that Maya society developed
gradually from small villages to urban centers with pyramids and other massive buildings,
as some scientists have suggested. Those Maya cities and kingdoms of what’s
known as the Classic period didn’t flourish in parts of southern Mexico and
Central America until around A.D. 250 to 900.

What’s more, the study is yet another example of how an airborne remote-sensing technique called light detection and ranging, or lidar, is dramatically changing how archaeological research is done in heavily forested regions. The technique, which uses laser pulses to gather data on the contours of jungle- and vegetation-covered land, has uncovered other lost ruins at the Maya city of Tikal in Guatemala (SN: 9/27/18) and a vast network connecting ancient cities of Southeast Asia’s Khmer Empire (SN: 6/17/16), among other finds.

aerial view of former Maya site
It’s difficult to see remains of Aguada Fénix from this aerial view of the landscape today. But laser technology gave researchers a look at the site’s causeways and reservoirs, in front, and ceremonial area, in back.T. Inomata

In the new study, researchers turned to lidar to peer
through forests in Tabasco, Mexico and uncover the previously hidden surface
remains of 21 ceremonial centers, including Aguada Fénix. Lidar maps showed that
each site contains a round or square mound near a long, rectangular platform,
running west to east. That layout characterizes similar structures in areas
where public rituals were held in many later Maya cities.

Inomata’s team then used the lidar maps to focus on Aguada Fénix.
There, the scientists found an elevated, rectangular plateau measuring about 1,400
meters long and nearly 400 meters wide. Within that space is a roughly 400-meter-long
platform — the length of more than four American football fields — positioned
east of a 15- to 18-meter tall earthen mound. Lidar revealed other structures
around the human-built plateau, including rectangular buildings, plazas and
several reservoirs.

Discoveries at Aguada Fénix challenge a traditional
assumption that only large settlements directed by kings and a ruling class could
organize and execute big building projects, Inomata says. No remnants of a royal
class that appear at later Maya sites, such as sculptures of high-ranking
individuals, have been found at the site so far. People living in the region
around Aguada Fénix, who were cultivating maize by 3,000 years ago, must
have banded together to create a ritual site suitable for large gatherings, he
suggests.

“Though there were probably some [Aguada Fénix]
leaders who played central roles in planning and organizing such work, the main
factor was people’s voluntary participation, which does not necessarily require
a centralized government,” Inomata says. Large crowds from surrounding areas
probably gathered at the ancient ceremonial site on special occasions, possibly
related to key calendrical dates and astronomical events, Inomata suspects.
Nine causeways connected to the site’s rectangular platform carried processions
of those participating in rituals, he suggests. A set of jade axes excavated in
the center of the platform may have been deposited during a ritual event.

Inomata’s conclusions make sense to anthropological
archaeologist Andrew Scherer of Brown University in Providence, R.I. “The
public spaces at Aguada Fénix are huge, and there is nothing to indicate that access
was limited to a privileged few,” says Scherer, who did not participate in the
new study.

A limestone animal sculpture found at the site, possibly
representing a white-lipped peccary or a coatimundi, contrasts with sculptures
at later Olmec and Maya sites that celebrated supernatural beings and human
leaders who governed ranked societies, Scherer says. While the meaning of the
newly discovered sculpture to its makers is unknown, there is no evidence that
animal depictions such as this referred to high-ranking Maya individuals.

Maya animal sculpture
Excavations of the oldest and largest Maya ceremonial structure unearthed an animal sculpture, possibly representing a white-lipped peccary or a coatimundi, that the researchers nicknamed Choco.T. Inomata

Francisco Estrada-Belli , an archaeologist at Tulane
University in New Orleans, awaits further excavations at Aguada Fénix
before assuming its structures were built by a community without a social
hierarchy. But the large platform and surrounding plaza at Aguada Fénix
resemble those at a slightly older Olmec site, suggesting the two civilizations
developed in parallel, says Estrada-Belli, who was not part of the new
research.

Some researchers have argued that the Olmec society, which
was located west of Aguada Fénix near Mexico’s Gulf Coast and is
known for constructing giant stone heads, served as a “mother culture” for the
Maya. That mysterious culture arose around 3,500 years ago and lasted until
roughly 2,400 years ago. But Inomata suspects a more complicated situation
existed in which Maya and Olmec people influenced each other’s ritual practices
between around 3,000 and 2,800 years ago.

The Maya expanded on an Olmec tradition of building long
platforms and developed ritual areas featuring a western mound or pyramid and
an eastern long platform, Inomata says. That Maya practice then appeared at an
Olmec site called La Venta, which flourished between 800 B.C. and 400 B.C.

Inomata’s scenario suggests that the two ancient societies may have been more like older and younger siblings than mother and child.

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