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Archaeologists Discover Almost 500 Ancient Ceremonial Sites in Southern Mexico

This discovery changed the researchers’ understanding of the relationship between the Olmec civilization and the subsequent Mayan civilization.

A group of international researchers led by the University of Arizona reported last year that they had discovered the largest and oldest Mayan monument: Aguada Fénix. The same team discovered nearly 500 smaller ritual complexes with shapes and features similar to Aguada Fénix. This discovery changed the previous understanding of the origin of the Mesoamerican civilization and the relationship between the Olmecs and the Mayans.

A new paper published in the journal Natural Human Behavior details the team’s findings. Takeshi Inomata, professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, is the first author of the paper. His UArizona co-authors include Daniela Triadan, Professor of Anthropology, and Greg Hodgins, Director of the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory.

Melina García Aguada Fenix
Melina García (front) excavates the central part of Aguada Fenix, the largest and oldest Maya monument ever uncovered. A team of UArizona researchers reported on the discovery in 2020. The team has since uncovered nearly 500 smaller ceremonial complexes that are similar in shape and features to Aguada Fénix. Credit: Takeshi Inomata

Researchers used data collected through an airborne laser mapping technique called lidar to identify 478 complexes in the Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz. Lidar penetrates the tree canopy and reflects the three-dimensional form of archaeological features hidden under the vegetation. The lidar data was collected by the Mexican government organization Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, covering an area of ​​32,800 square miles, roughly the same size as the island of Ireland.

Publicly available LIDAR data allows researchers to investigate large areas before using high-resolution LIDAR for tracking to study locations of interest in more detail.

“Until a few years ago, it was unthinkable to study such a large area,” Inomata said. “Publicly available lidar is changing archaeology.”

Lost link?
Whether it was the Olmec civilization that led to the development of the Maya civilization or the independent development of the Maya people has long been controversial.

The newly discovered site is located in a wide area of ​​the Olmec region and the western Mayan lowlands. These buildings may have been built between 1100 BC. C. and 400 B.C. and were built by various groups nearly a thousand years before the Mayan civilization peaked from 250 to 950 AD.

Nearly 500 Ceremonial Sites
Nearly 500 ceremonial sites were uncovered using lidar and have been mapped across the study site. Credit: Inomata et al.

The researchers found that these complexes have similar characteristics to the first center in San Lorenzo, Olmec, which peaked between 1400 and 1100 BC. C. Aguada Fenix and other related sites in the Mayan region began to take the form of San Lorenzo and were formalized around 1100 BC.

In San Lorenzo, the team also discovered a previously unknown rectangular space.

“These sites are large in the horizontal direction, but not in the vertical direction,” Inomata said. “People don’t notice its rectangular space when walking on it, but we can see it very well with lidar.”

The work of the researchers showed that San Lorenzo was a model of later buildings, including Aguada Fénix.

La Carmelita Excavation
Excavation efforts at one of the nearly 500 uncovered sites, La Carmelita. Credit: Takeshi Inomata

“People have always thought that San Lorenzo is unique and different from the next in terms of site layout,” Inomata said. “But now we prove that San Lorenzo is very similar to Aguada Fénix. It has a rectangular square with edge platforms on both sides. These features become very clear in the lidar and can also be found in the Aguada Fénix built later. This tells us that San Lorenzo was very important to the beginning of some of these ideas that were later used by the Mayans.”

These locations may be ceremonial spaces

According to the newspaper, the location discovered by Inomata and his collaborators is likely to be used as a place of worship. They include large central open spaces where many people can gather and participate in ceremonies.

The researchers also analyzed the direction of each site and found that when possible, these sites appeared to be aligned with the sunrise on a given date.

“There are many exceptions; for example, not all sites have enough space to place the rectangle in the desired direction, but if they can, they seem to have selected certain dates,” Inomata said.

Although it is not clear why specific dates were chosen, one possibility is that they may be related to the day when the zenith passes, which is the day when the sun passes directly above the head. This happened on May 10, in the area where these locations were found. This day marks the beginning of the rainy season and the planting of corn. Some groups choose to position their sites in the direction of sunrise on the 40th, 60th, 80th, or 100th day before the zenith day. This is important because later the Mesoamerican calendar was based on the number 20.

San Lorenzo, Aguada Fénix and other stations have 20 edge platforms on the east and west sides of the rectangular square. Edge platforms are mounds placed along the edges of a large rectangular square. They define the shape of squares, and the size of each square is usually no more than one meter.

“This means that they represent cosmological thought through these ritual spaces,” Inomata said. “In this space, people gather according to this sacrificial calendar.”

Inomata emphasized that this is just the beginning of the team’s work.

He said: “There are still many questions that have not been answered.”

The researchers wanted to know what the social organization of the people who built these buildings was like. San Lorenzo may have a ruler, and the sculpture implies this.

“But Aguada Fénix doesn’t have these things,” Inomata said. “We think people are still moving around in a certain way because they have just started to use pottery and live in short-lived structures on the ground. People are transitioning to a more stable lifestyle, and many of them may not have too many hierarchical organizations. . But they can still make this kind of center organized very well.”

Inomata’s team and others are still looking for more evidence to explain these differences in social organization.

“Continuing to excavate these sites to find these answers will take longer,” Inomata said, “and many other scholars will be involved.”

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