Study finds nearly 500 ancient ceremonial sites in southern Mexico

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 public domain
Last year, a team of international researchers headed by the University of Arizona reported that they had discovered the oldest and largest Maya monumentAguada Fnix. The same team also discovered nearly 500 smaller ceremonial structures that were similar to Aguada Fnix. This discovery transforms our understanding of Mesoamerican civilization origins, and the relationship between Olmecs and Maya peoples.

In a paper published in Nature Human Behavior, the team's findings have been detailed. Takeshi Inomata, UArizona anthropology professor, is the paper's initial author. His UArizona coauthors are Daniela Triadan, anthropology professor, and Greg Hodgins (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Lab Director).

The researchers discovered 478 complexes in Mexico's states of Tabasco, Veracruz and Veracruz using data from an airborne laser mapping technique called Lidar. Lidar penetrates trees and reflects three-dimensional forms hidden beneath vegetation. The Mexican government organization Instituto Nacional de Estadstica y Geografa collected the lidar data. It covered a 32 800-square-mile area that is roughly equal to the size of the island of Ireland.

Researchers can use publicly available lidar data to explore vast areas of land before using high-resolution lidar to examine sites of particular interest in greater detail.

Inomata stated that it was impossible to study such a large area until just a few years ago. "Publicly accessible lidar is changing archaeology."

Are you missing any links?

The long-running debate is over whether the Olmec civilization was responsible for the Maya civilization's development or if the Maya evolved independently.

These newly discovered sites are found in an area that includes the Olmec region as well as the western Maya lowlands. These complexes were probably built between 1100 B.C. The complexes were built between 1100 B.C. and 400 B.C. They were constructed by diverse groups almost a millennium prior to the peak of the Maya civilization, which was between A.D. 250-950.

Researchers discovered that the complexes have similarities with San Lorenzo's earliest center in Olmec, which was built between 1400 and 1100 BC. Aguada Fenix, Maya's area, and other sites related to it adopted San Lorenzo’s form around 1100 BC.

The team discovered a previously unknown rectangular space at San Lorenzo.

Inomata stated that the sites are large horizontally, but not vertically. "People will walk on one of them and not notice the rectangular space. But lidar can show it very clearly."

According to the researchers, San Lorenzo may have served as a model for later constructions such as Aguada Fix.

Inomata stated that people always believed San Lorenzo was unique and different from other sites. We now know that San Lorenzo looks very similar to Aguada Fnixit features a rectangular plaza with edge platforms. These features are clearly visible in lidar. They also appear at AguadaFnix, which was constructed a bit later. This shows that San Lorenzo was very important in the development of some of the ideas later used by Maya.

Sites were likely to be ritual spaces

According to the paper, Inomata and his colleagues found sites that were used for ritual gathering. These sites include large open spaces in the center where many people can gather to participate in rituals.

Researchers also looked at the orientation of each site and concluded that they appear to be aligned with the sunrise on a particular date when it is possible.

Inomata stated that there are many exceptions. For example, not all sites have enough space to place the rectangular forms in the desired direction. However, when they do, they seem to be choosing certain dates.

Although it is not known why these dates were chosen, one possibility suggests that they could be linked to Zenith passage day. This is when the sun passes directly above the horizon. It occurs in the area where the sites are located on May 10. This day marks the start of the rainy season, and the planting maize. Some groups orientated their sites in the direction of the sunrise on the days 40, 60 and 80, respectively, before the zenith passage. This is important because later Mesoamerican calendars were based on the number 20,

San Lorenzo and AguadaFnix have 20 edge platforms on the eastern and west sides of the rectangular plaza. Edge platforms are mounds that are placed at the edges of large rectangular plazas. These mounds define the shapes of the plazas and are typically no higher than 3 feet.

Inomata stated that this meant they were representing cosmological ideas via these ceremonial spaces. "In this space, people gathered in accordance with this ceremonial calendar."

Inomata said that this is only the beginning of the team’s work.

He said, "There are still many unanswered queries."

Researchers are curious about the social structure of those who built these complexes. It is possible that San Lorenzo had rulers. This is supported by sculptures.

Inomata stated that Aguada Fnix does not have these things. We believe that people were still mobile because they just started using ceramics and lived in temporary structures at ground level. People were transitioning to settled lifeways and many of these areas didn't have any hierarchical organization. They could still make this type of well-organized center."

The team of Inomata and others continue to search for additional evidence to explain the differences in social organization.

Inomata stated that "continuing to excavate these sites to find answers will take longer" and "will involve many other scholars."

Continue reading Largest and oldest Maya monument demonstrates importance of communal work

Takeshi Inomata, The origins and spread formal ceremonial structures in the Olmec-Maya regions was revealed by airborne lidar. Nature Human Behaviour (2021). Journal information: Nature Human Behaviour Takeshi Inomata, Origins and spread of formal ceremonial complexes in the Olmec and Maya regions revealed by airborne lidar,(2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-021-01218-1