The oldest and largest Mayan monument discovered

The oldest and largest Mayan monument discovered
Aerial view of the Mayan site of Aguada Fenix. / REUTERS

An international group of archaeologists has found in the state of Tabasco (south of Mexico) the oldest and largest ceremonial structure built by the Maya known so far, a find that reveals the importance of community work from the first moments of this civilization.

As published on Wednesday by the journal ‘Nature’, the enclave (called Aguada Fénix) consists of an elevated platform between 10 and 15 meters, extending 1.4 kilometers from north to south, and from which nine wide roads arise.

The remains, the researchers claim, date from between 1,000 and 800 BC, which could predate the ceremonial center of Ceibal (Guatemala), considered to this day the oldest Mayan enclave for its construction of 950 BC.

Laser and radiocarbon dating
To reveal age, the team used laser light and distance detection system (Lidar) to distinguish three-dimensional shapes from archaeological remains, to which an in situ excavation and radiocarbon dating test of 69 samples were added.

“This area is developed, it is not the jungle; people live there, but this place was not known because it is very flat and huge. It just looks like a natural landscape. But with Lidar, it is discovered as a very well planned place,” says Arizona University professor Takeshi Inomata, one of the study’s lead authors.

The discovery, explains Inomata, marks a great change in the history of Mesoamerica and will have numerous implications.

Community work

Built among many people and without clear indicators of marked social inequality, such as sculptures of high-status individuals, the monument suggests that community work was more important than was believed in the initial development of the Mayan civilization.

“It has always been debated whether Olmeca civilization led to the development of the Mayan civilization or whether the Maya developed independently,” says Inomata.

The study, which focuses on a key area of the interaction between the two communities, notes that Aguada Fénix was built during a period of power vacuum, a stage in which new ideas could be exchanged, such as constructions or architectural styles in several regions of southern Mesoamerica.

Rethinking the social organization

According to the researchers, the fact that constructions like this were carried out earlier than thought when Mayan society had a lower degree of social inequality than it recorded in later stages, will cause the creative processes to be resighted.

“It’s not just the hierarchical social organization with the elite that makes monuments like this possible,” says Inomata.

“This kind of understanding offers important implications for human capacity and the potential of human groups. Well-organized government may not be necessary to carry out such large projects. People can work together to achieve amazing results,” he adds.

Archaeologists will continue research in the area and hope to collect more information about residential areas near Aguada Fénix in the future.