Research Press Release

Archaeology: Earliest Mayan ceremonial structure revealed


June 4, 2020

The discovery of the earliest and largest known monumental structure built by the Maya civilization to date is reported in a Nature paper this week.

Archaeologists thought that the Maya civilization developed gradually, with small villages emerging during the Middle Preclassic period (1,000–350 BC). However, the recent discovery of early ceremonial centres, such as an artificial plateau at Ceibal dated to 950 BC, challenge this model.

By conducting an airborne survey using LIDAR, a remote sensing method using lasers that creates a 3D map of the surface below, Takeshi Inomata and colleagues discovered a previously unknown Maya site in Tabasco, Mexico. The site, called Aguada Fénix, consists of an elevated platform measuring 1,413 metres north to south and 399 metres east to west. The construction is 10–15 metres above the surrounding area with 9 causeways extending from the platform. Using radiocarbon dating, the authors estimate the structure was built between 1,000 and 800 BC, which makes it the oldest monumental structure found in the Maya area so far.

The authors note that unlike some other archaeological sites from around the same period (from the Olmec culture) Aguada Fénix does not have any clear indicators of marked social inequality, such as sculptures of high-status individuals. They conclude that ceremonial complexes, such as Aguada Fénix, suggest the importance of communal work in the initial development of the Maya civilization.


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