Archaeologist Discover the Largest Mayan Structure...Ever

Daisy Hernandez
Photo credit: Takeshi Inomata

From Popular Mechanics

The largest Mayan structure to date has been discovered at a new site in Tabasco, Mexico. A new paper in Nature, the researchers describe how they used lidar surveys, excavations, and radiocarbon dating of charcoal samples to find and age the site which has been named Aguada Fénix.

“To our knowledge, this is the oldest monumental construction ever found in the Maya area and the largest in the entire pre-Hispanic history of the region,” the researchers say.

This 3,000-year-old discovery—and additional previous findings—challenge the notion that Mayan civilization began gradually with small villages and eventually evolving into larger sites and ceremonial complexes. For example, a formal ceremonial complex and plateau dating back to 950 B.C. was previously discovered in Ceibal, Guatemala, that “suggests that substantial ceremonial centers developed in the Maya lowlands earlier than was previously thought.” The Ceibal structure was believed to display the oldest Mayan architecture before Aguada Fénix was found.

The Aguada Fénix site features a man-made plateau which measures 4,593-feet long and is between 33- and 49-feet tall. There are also nine causeways stemming out from the plateau resembling roadways or paths. The plateau is made up of a mix of stone, clay, and dirt, and is larger than even the biggest Mayan pyramid, including the La Danta pyramid site in El Petén, Guatemala.

Takeshi Inomata, lead paper author, archaeologist, and professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona (UA), says that although Aguada Fénix is a developed site, it wasn't discovered until recently because “it is so flat and huge. It just looks like a natural landscape. But with lidar, it pops up as a very well-planned shape.”

Aguada Fénix also stokes another fire: did the Mayans develop their civilization on their own, or, did their development stem from the Olmec, the first major Mexican civilization?

Aguada Fénix resembles San Lorenzo, an Olmec site in Veracruz, Mexico, with the exception of busts and other sculptures—such as throne—made to represent the ruling elite. Because Aguada Fénix does not include structures of this sort, Inomata and colleagues believe this could mean that there was a smaller disparity in social inequality in this Mayan civilization than in the Olmec group.

The researchers also believe that Aguada Fénix “highlights the importance of communal work in the earliest days of the Maya.” The group will continue to work at Aguada Fénix in the hopes of finding out how the Olmec and Mayans interacted with these sites and how these civilizations handled these massive construction projects among other things.

“It's not just hierarchical social organization with the elite that makes monuments like this possible,” says Inomata. “This kind of understanding gives us important implications about human capability, and the potential of human groups. You may not necessarily need a well-organized government to carry out these kinds of huge projects. People can work together to achieve amazing results.”

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