Digging Deep For Clues On The Origins Of The Maya Civilization
April 26, 2013

New Research Challenges Prevailing Theories On Maya Origins

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The origins of the Maya civilization remain something of a mystery to researchers, despite the fact it is well-known for elaborate temples, a sophisticated writing system, and mathematical and astronomical developments.

A new study led by the University of Arizona (UA) suggests the origins of the civilization are more complex than previously thought, challenging the two prevailing theories.

In the debate on the origins of the Maya, anthropologists typically fall into one of two competing camps. One side believes it developed almost entirely on its own in the jungles of what is modern day Guatemala, Belize and southern Mexico, while the other side believes it developed as the result of direct influences from the Olmec civilization, whose center was at La Venta.

UA husband-and-wife anthropologists Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan led an international team of archeologists whose findings suggest neither of those theories holds the full truth.

"We really focused on the beginning of this civilization and how this remarkable civilization developed," said Inomata, UA professor of anthropology.

The team focused their attentions on excavations at Ceibal, an ancient Maya site in Guatemala, using radiocarbon dating measurements taken from some of the ceremonial structures, like plazas and platforms to find Ceibal predates the growth of La Venta as a major center by at least 200 years. This strongly suggests La Venta could not have been the prevailing influence over early Mayan development.

The team is not suggesting the Maya are an older civilization than the Olmec — since the Olmec had another center prior to La Venta — nor do they think it proves the Maya civilization developed entirely independently either.

The team suggests, rather, the findings indicate both Ceibal and La Venta probably participated in a broader cultural shift taking place in the period between 1,150-800 BC.

"We're saying that the scenario of early Maya culture is really more complex than we thought," said UA anthropology graduate student Victor Castillo.

"We have this idea of the origin of Maya civilization as an indigenous development, and we have this other idea that it was an external influence that triggered the social complexity of Maya civilization. We're now thinking it's not actually black and white," Castillo said.

There are undeniable similarities between Ceibal and La Venta. These include evidence of ritual practices and the presence of similar architecture — specifically the pyramids that would become the hallmark of Mesoamerican civilization, but did not exist at the earlier Olmec center of San Lorenzo.

"The main complex at Ceibal is made up of a plaza area, a western platform or pyramid and an eastern mound," said Inomata. "This is generally known as an 'E-Group Assemblage,' and they can be found across southern Mesoamerica."

According to a recent statement by the  American Association for the Advancement of Science , "Many researchers have resisted using the term to refer to the structures at La Venta, since it was originally coined to describe Mayan architecture. But, Inomata and his team argue that the ceremonial constructions at La Venta should also be classified as such E-Group Assemblages."

"Possibly, their uses were very similar," Inomata continued. "Ritual was very important to these civilizations, and there is a series of ritual deposits in the plaza at Ceibal“¦ Such rituals often included greenstone axes, made from jade or other imported, precious stones, which were deposited [in the plaza] as a kind of offering."

Other Mesoamerican sites have also shown evidence of such ritualistic offerings, including two contemporaneous sites in Chiapas, Mexico. The E-Group Assemblages at Ceibal probably began as small, two meter tall structures. With continuous renovation, however, the ceremonial buildings grew taller, eventually becoming the pyramids.

The team does not believe, however, this is the case of simply one site mimicking the other. They suspect both Ceibal and La Venta were parts of a more geographically far-reaching culture shift that occurred around 1,000 BC — approximately the time when the Olmec center was transitioning from San Lorenzo to La Venta.

"Basically, there was a major social change happening from the southern Maya lowlands to possibly the coast of Chiapas and the southern Gulf Coast, and this site of Ceibal was a part of that broader social change," Inomata said. "The emergence of a new form of society — with new architecture, with new rituals — became really the important basis for all later Mesoamerican civilizations."

The findings of this study were published in a recent issue of the journal Science.