Nearly 500 Uncovered Maya And Olmec Ceremonial Sites Reveal Surprisingly Similar Blueprints

A 3D image of Aguada Fénix, generated using Lidar. Image credit: Takeshi Inomata

Archaeologists in southern Mexico have discovered 478 ancient ceremonial complexes constructed by a number of different pre-Columbian civilizations. Presenting their findings in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, researchers suggest the newly-discovered sites may help to illuminate the mysterious relationship between the Olmecs and the Maya, thereby providing some clues as to how the latter rose to prominence.

Last year, the same team of researchers excavated the largest and oldest Maya structure ever found, called Aguada Fénix. Thought to have been constructed between 1000 and 800 BCE, the site was also notable for its particular layout, consisting of a central plateau flanked by 20 smaller platforms.

This spatial arrangement is significant as the number 20 is known to have held cosmological importance for the Maya, and several other sites have been found to adhere to this layout. However, the researchers wanted to know if this cultural tradition was unique to this iconic civilization or was shared with other ancient cultures.

To find out, they analyzed publicly available data generated using lidar technology, which uses lasers to detect hidden three-dimensional structures. Across an area measuring 84,500 square kilometers (32,625 square miles), they were able to identify almost 500 ancient complexes, dated to between 1050 and 400 BCE.

Intriguingly, many of these structures mirrored the spatial arrangement of Aguada Fénix, yet were built by cultures that pre-date the Maya. For example, the same design was found at the ancient Olmec site of San Lorenzo, which is believed to have thrived between 1400 and 1150 BCE.

This suggests that San Lorenzo may have served as a template for later structures, including Aguada Fénix, and that the Maya may therefore have inherited their temple design from the older Olmec civilization. Though such a conclusion is at this stage only tentative, these discoveries may help to solve a long-standing riddle as to whether the Maya emerged from the Olmecs or developed independently.

Several sites shared the same layout, including San Lorenzo (top left) and Aguada Fenix (top right). Image: Inomata et al., Nature Human Behaviour, 2021

"People always thought San Lorenzo was very unique and different from what came later in terms of site arrangement," explained lead author Takeshi Inomata from the University of Arizona. "But now we show that San Lorenzo is very similar to Aguada Fénix—it has a rectangular plaza flanked by edge platforms.

“This tells us that San Lorenzo is very important for the beginning of some of these ideas that were later used by the Maya."

According the archaeologists, the complexes probably served as ritual gathering sites, and several were built in alignment with the sunrise on certain important dates. "This means that they were representing cosmological ideas through these ceremonial spaces," explained Inomata, implying that the construction of these sites was guided by a ritual calendar.

More work is needed in order to tease out the full story of how and why these complexes were erected, but their discovery has already transformed our understanding of Maya-Olmec relations, suggesting that these two ancient cultures had more to do with one another than previously thought.

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