Ancient Maya civilization's roots deepen

7:26 AM, Apr 26, 2013   |    comments
A carved stone head excavated from the lowland Maya site of Ceibal, Guatemala (around 400 BCE). (Photo: Daniela Triadan; Takeshi Inomata; AAAS)
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(USA TODAY) -- The ancient Maya started building their storied cities amid a construction boom in Central America as early as 1000 B.C., archaeologists reported Thursday.

New radiocarbon date samples from the ruined plazas and pyramids of Ceibal, in modern-day Guatemala, point to an earlier spread in growth of ancient Maya city building than people had previously believed, suggests a team led by archaeologist Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona-Tucson.

"Ceibal's ceremonial complex (is) the earliest in the Maya lowlands, predating other examples by roughly 200 years," Inomata said. "This also means there was a drastic social change at the time" as the Maya switched from largely hunter-gatherer lives to farming.

Anthropologists study the origins of civilizations for clues to the ties that bind us together. The Maya offer an interesting example of a society that started building cities uninfluenced by the Old World's Egyptian and Fertile Crescent civilizations.

More than 6 million Maya people still live in Central America. Accounts of their ancestors' jungle-draped ruins have been objects of popular fascination since the 1840s, when U.S. explorer John Lloyd Stephens, "the father of American archaeology," wrote best-selling accounts of these lost cities and crumbling pyramid temples. More recently, scholars have held a "heated debate," Inomata says, over whether the ancient Maya cities sprang from the even older Olmec civilization of Mexico's Gulf Coast or started their building habits on their own.

Instead, the famed pyramid-builders of Central America probably owe the beginnings of their city building more to broad cultural changes taking place there at the time, Inomata says. A ceremonial platform built at Ceibal around 1000 B.C. appears to precede the pyramid and plazas built in the Olmec city of La Venta around 800 B.C., his team reports in the journal Science. Around that time, a pyramid also appears to have been built at Ceibal.

"The exciting thing about this (study) is not about a 'cool' find as much as about supplying a realistic, practical, complicated, story on the origins of things Maya," says archaeologist Lisa Lucero of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, who was not part of the study team. "Human history is complicated and based on continual feedback from neighbors, foreign or no."

The team reports 54 radiocarbon date samples at Ceibal, largely taken from charcoal deposits at the site, and compares them to reanalyzed radiocarbon dates, taken from charcoal at La Venta, an Olmec ruin.

Numerous other Maya sites and related ones on the Pacific Coast show signs of growing from towns to ceremonial centers around 1000 B.C. in Central America, pointing to a broad flowering of urban activity at the time. Inomata speculates that corn began providing enough calories, even when grown in poor rainforest soil, to trigger a move to more settled existence then.

Archaeologist John Clark of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, suggests the results still point to a heavy influence by the Olmec, widely seen as the New World's earliest civilization, on the ancient Maya. He points to artifacts such as greenstone axes buried as offerings in the oldest plaza of Ceibal and an even older but less elaborate Olmec city nearby called San Lorenzo, which dates to as far back as 1400 B.C. 

"The data mean that Maya civilization is indeed older than has been recently claimed, and it also means they had more of a hand in the overall direction of Mesoamerican (New World) civilization at an earlier time," Clark says. "It does nothing, however, to bring the origins of Maya civilization back to the beginnings of Olmec civilization at San Lorenzo. There was no symmetry of contribution here. One was early and important, and the other was later and important in lesser ways."

Inomata and his colleagues suggest a "power vacuum" took place in Central America around 1000 B.C., when many people began moving into cities centered around plazas for religious rituals that marked a more organized society. For the Maya, whose ancient cities were widely abandoned around 850 A.D., the decision to start building appears to have been an ancient one, they conclude.

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