A carved stone head excavated from the lowland Maya site of Ceibal, Guatemala (around 400 BCE). (Photo: Daniela Triadan; Takeshi Inomata; AAAS)
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"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."
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.