Maya Discovery Sheds New Light

Ancient Maya discovery
sheds new light

on the origins of civilization

Over 3,000 years ago, in the warm, fertile lands that are now
Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, the great Maya civilization arose — its vast
pyramid temples appearing to come out of nowhere. But new evidence suggests a
fascinating origin for this ancient, advanced culture.
Just as the Inca once
dominated South America, the Maya dominated large parts of Central America and
Mexico. But we know far less about Maya civilization. Now, after seven years of
careful excavation at the famous Maya cultural center of Ceibal in Guatemala,
University of Arizona anthropologists Daniela Triadan and Takeshi Inomata
believe they have settled one of the greatest debates in their field: where the
Maya came from. They published their work today in Science.
almost half a century, anthropologists studying the origins of the Maya have
been divided into two camps. Some believe that the Maya civilization developed
in Guatemala and Belize, without any contact from other groups in the region.
But others believed the Maya were an outgrowth of the advanced Olmec
civilization on the Gulf Coast.
In 1300 BCE, the Olmec had erected an
impressive city at what is now San Lorenzo, complete with massive ceremonial
architecture featuring now-famous carvings of human heads. The question of the
Olmec’s influence hinged in part on decades-old evidence that the Olmec center
of La Venta, also on the Gulf Coast (see map below), was the first
highly-advanced city to have Maya-esque architecture, including
Because La Venta had clearly been built after the Olmec city of San
Lorenzo, probably starting in 800 BCE, it made sense that the Maya engineers had
followed in the Olmec’s footsteps. The idea was that the characteristic Maya
city layout developed between the construction of San Lorenzo and La Venta. La
Venta’s location also made it seem that Maya culture came from the Olmec, then
spread from the Gulf Coast southward into Guatemala and Belize.
But now
Inomata and Triadan and their colleagues have solid evidence that La Venta was
not the oldest city with Maya features. In fact, their team conducted extensive
carbon dating at the Guatemala site of Ceibal, and placed its origins at least
two hundred years before La Venta. Ceibal has all the characteristics of a
typical Maya settlement, with an enormous pyramid at one end of a large central
plaza dominated by a ceremonial platform. And it was founded in about 1,000
What this means, according to Inomata and Triadan, is that something a
lot more complicated happened than either of the previous two scenarios would
allow. The Olmec did not “create” the Maya culture, nor did it evolve by itself
in Guatemala. Most likely, it was the product of a very rapid social
transformation that was taking place all over the region — caused, in part, by
cultural exchanges between different groups, including the Olmec and the peoples
who eventually became the Maya.
This morning, Inomata told reporters at a
press conference:
This chronology indicates that there was a gap between
the decline of San Lorenzo and the rise of La Venta. Major social change
occurred during this gap. Various groups in southern Mesoamerica began to
experiment with new forms of religion and social organization. This resulted in
the emergence of formal ceremonial complexes with pyramids at various
settlements. San Lorenzo did not have pyramids or similar spatial patterns.
Ceibal was part of this transformation.

What’s fascinating about what
Inomata calls “this gap” is that it represented a dramatic — and still
mysterious — acceleration of the era’s most advanced technologies. Those
technologies included civil engineering and agriculture. Over the course of just
a few short centuries, the primarily nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples of
Guatemala transformed into city dwellers with vast farms. A huge network of
roads connected their villages and cities. And at Ceibal, the excavation team
was able to see that transformation unfolding in the many layers of human
habitation that had been built on top of each other.
Also, the cultural
transformation had been underway before the founding of Ceibal. According to
anthropologist Triadan, people who settled there already had a clear idea of how
to build what we would now call a classic Maya community. So the cultural shift
towards a Maya view of the world was probably already taking hold throughout
Central America.
Triadan described the early developments at
The actual space where people lived and celebrated rituals seemed
to be extremely important, because they kept constructing new buildings over the
original ones, now using clay in their constructions. By 800 BCE the western
building . . . became a pyramid and the platform to the south of it reached a
monumental scale. No monumental constructions of this date have been found at
other Maya sites. The first people who settled at Ceibal had already a
well-developed idea about what a village should look like. It included a planned
ritual complex and other building projects that required the participation of
the whole community. Some people might already have had a special position in
the community and there were most certainly people with specialized ritual
knowledge. This indicates that the transition from a mobile hunter-gather and
horticultural lifestyle to permanently settled agriculturalists was

But what could have caused this rapid cultural transformation,
which led so many people to start building pyramids and participating in what
eventually became the Maya way of life?
Triadan and Inomata believe that
Ceibal, and other Maya villages like it, were the result of cultural mixing. The
rapid pace of social change was spurred by many peoples sharing new technologies
with each other, as well as new ideas. Social norms fell away and new rituals
took their places. It would have been an extremely exciting time in history,
when nobody was sure which cultures would come to dominate the area nor which
ideas would take hold.
Ceibal was settled for 2,000 years, and became a Maya
center. But when it was founded, the Maya as such didn’t exist yet. The Maya
were creating themselves, forging a new identity out of many different groups —
some with highly advanced technology, like the Olmec, and others nomads with
nothing more than what they carried on their backs.
What Triadan, Inomata and
their colleagues’ new discoveries suggest is that great civilizations don’t grow
out of previous dominant groups like the Olmec, nor do they arise in isolation.
They are the result of hybridization. The Maya came to dominate Mexico,
Guatemala and Belize because they were able to incorporate the innovations of
the Olmec along with the discoveries and beliefs of many peoples in the area
whose lives we are just now beginning to learn about. The ancient Maya were, in
other words, a multiculture.
One of the biggest debates in archaeology is
what destroyed the extensive, highly-advanced Maya.
We still aren’t certain
what lead to the downfall of the Maya — though there are some good leads — but
now we have a better picture of where they came from.