The discovery challenges the theory that early Mayans lived only in small villages as they began to transition from hunting and gathering to growing maize and using pottery.
(CN) — At first, researchers thought an unassuming stretch of elevated cattle ranching land in rural Southern Mexico was just a naturally occurring plateau. Then they took a closer look.
Lurking just beneath the surface were the ruins of a massive, 3,000-year-old monument from the ancient Mayan civilization, the largest and oldest of its kind ever discovered by modern researchers and a structure that by some measurements dwarfs the famous pyramids and palaces the Mayans would build during later eras.
An international team of researchers led by the University of Arizona announced the discovery in a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
“People live in this area, but nobody knew about this site,” University of Arizona archeologist Takeshi Inomata, the study’s lead author, said in an interview. “Horizontally, it’s so huge that if you walk on the site, it just looks like a plot of natural landscape.”
Researchers say the finding could dramatically transform the way archeologists understand the timeline of the Mayan civilization.
Previously, it was believed that the Mayans developed their civilization slowly between the years 1,000 and 350 B.C. during a period known as the Middle Preclassic, with people living only in small villages as they began to transition from hunting and gathering to growing maize and using pottery.
But the newly discovered monument, dubbed Aguada Fénix by the researchers, challenges that consensus.
The structure, which the researchers say was likely used as a ceremonial center, was built during the same time period but is nearly 4,600 feet long, 30 to 50 feet high and features nine different street-like causeways that were connected to the overall structure by a series of ramps.
“Our theory was that you first get social organization, the central elite, the governmental organization, that makes this kind of big construction possible,” Inomata said. “But this kind of finding tells you, that’s not the case.”
“This huge construction can happen very early, before the social organization,” he said. “Then, in a sense, this kind of construction project promotes the social change.”
Inomata described an almost Utopian-sounding time period of the monument’s construction, during which the Mayan society was more communal and had less social inequality. Aguada Fénix was likely built by voluntary workers, he said, rather than with forced labor.
The way Inomata tells it, it was like a group of friends building a sort of wild, bohemian party house.
“They were very excited to do it, I would imagine, because this kind of gathering involves lots of exciting parties and feasts,” he said. “And also, you meet your mate and have sex, and then you exchange objects with people coming from different places.”
More broadly though, the researchers believe the monument was a vital community center used for a variety of purposes.
“It is a religious space too, they did rituals, but you cannot separate religion and the rest,” Inomata said. “Like a carnival, it’s a religious thing, it’s a big party too.”
The researchers discovered and dated the monument using a combination of readings from high-tech light detection and ranging lasers shot from airplanes and radiocarbon dating of samples from the site. Fieldwork on the site started in 2017 and the research stretched into this year.
Inomata said the team plans to conduct follow-up research at and around the site next year, though the coronavirus pandemic could wind up delaying those plans.