Archaeologists armed with jungle-piercing lasers have revealed the oldest and largest Maya monumental structure ever discovered – a giant artificial platform used around 3,000 years ago to understand astronomy and our place in the universe.
The previously unknown site of Aguada Fénix was discovered by archaeologists in the Mexican region of Tabasco, not far from the Usumacinta River, using an aerial survey equipped with LiDAR, a revolutionary laser scanning technology that’s able to pick up long-lost landscape features that have become obscured by centuries of forest growth.
Reported in the journal Nature today, the team’s LiDAR survey revealed that the monumental structure consists of an artificial 15-meter-high (~50 foot) platform measuring 1,413 meters (4,635 feet) north to south and just under 400 meters (1,312) east to west, surrounded by at least nine causeways extending from the platform. Judging by the structure's sharp corners and straight lines, the researchers say it’s clear this was crafted by humans rather than natural geological processes.
“In terms of its volume, it is the largest building the entire pre-hispanic history of the Maya area. Its volume – 3.8 million cubic meters – is larger than the great pyramid of Giza, Egypt at 2.6 million cubic meters,” Takeshi Inomata, lead author and professor at the University of Arizona's School of Anthropology, told IFLScience.
Radiocarbon dating of almost 70 samples from the area suggests the structure is around 3,000 years old, perhaps built between 1,000 BCE and 800 BCE, which makes it the oldest monumental structure found in the Maya area so far.
But why would ancient people have embarked on such an ambitious building project? Like other large plateaus in the Maya lowlands, it’s suspected it was used as an astronomical viewing platform, most likely to aid the observation of the sunrise at the summer and winter solstices along the horizon.
"We found a ritual deposit of jade axes and other precious objects in the center of the plateau," Professor Inomata continued. "The ritual possibly involved processions on the causeways, and the gathering of a large number of people in the rectangular plaza. It was a place of gathering for the community, which probably motivated people to build it."
The dating of the site has some big implications when it comes to what we know about how early Maya transitioned from mobile hunter-gatherers to a sedentary agriculture-led society. Given that Aguada Fénix dates to a time before the construction of most small villages in Maya lowlands, the researchers argue that it suggests Maya civilization developed after communal gatherings.
Archaeologists have previously thought that mass gatherings and colossal monuments, such as this, could only be made possible after the development of sedentary life in organized settlements. However, this discovery suggests it was the other way around. People from all around the area may have flocked to them for spiritual or astronomical festivals, like the ones observed at Aguada Fénix, long before the advent of permanent settlements.
Also importantly, Aguada Fénix doesn’t show any signs of strict social hierarchy or any clear indicators of social inequality, such as sculptures of high-status individuals. This suggests the construction of this monument was not ordered by a tyrannical elite, but the people.
"You may not necessarily need a well-organized government to carry out these kinds of huge projects," said Prof Inomata. "People can work together to achieve amazing results."