Scientists using light detection and ranging, or lidar, have revealed monumental architecture dating back to the ancient Mayan civilization in a site at Aguada Fénix, Mexico. These recent discoveries are challenging many traditional archaeological beliefs as well as raising debates on Mayan relationships with the Olmec civilization.
Traditionally, archaeologists thought that Mayan civilization's origins were marked by emerging small villages in 1000 B.C. to 350 B.C. during the Middle Preclassic period. Recent discoveries of ceremonial complexes are beginning to challenge that tradition as the clay and earth constructions date back from 1000 B.C. to 800 B.C.
Moreover, the airborne remote-sensing technique using lidar is changing archaeological research in forest regions. Much of the Mayan city of Tikal and other lost ruins have been uncovered by laser pulses gathering data on the contours of jungle- and vegetation-covered land.' Another vast network uncovered by lidar is the ancient cities of the Khmer Empire in Southeast Asia.
Going back a few thousand years, the Mayans were not using ceramics and were hunter-gatherers, thus maintaining a mobile lifestyle. Around 1200-1000 BC, social change in their civilization occurred when they practiced sedentism, settling in one place, and began using ceramics. It was not believed that they developed large pyramids with ceremonial centers much later, until now.
The large horizontal buildings are described as artificial plateaus in the study, measuring larger than 650 square feet. The lidar research done in Tabasco revealed that Aguada Fenix has the largest and oldest ceremonial center.
The Middle Usumacinta Archaeological Project was working on bridging the Mayans to the Olmenec society, who also had artificial plateaus, but had stone-head sculptures instead of pyramids. Archaeologists have debated that perhaps the Mayan lowlanders inherited Olmenec legacy in the region or received direct influence.
Another traditional belief is that civilizations could only accomplish building projects as large as these with the leadership of a king and a ruling class, explained Takeshi Inomata from the University of Arizona in Tuscon. However, there are no remnants of a royal class in the Mayan site.
In Aguada Fénix, a plateau was uncovered measuring at about 4,600 feet in length and 32 feet to 49 feet in height with 9 causeways leading outward. This suggests the importance of communal work.
'The public spaces at Aguada Fénix are huge, and there is nothing to indicate that access was limited to a privileged few,' said Andrew Scherer, and archeologist who was not part of the study. Inomata also suspects that the nine causeways were filled with processions of participants.
The team also discovered a limestone animal sculpture at the site which was most likely a coatimundi or a white-lipped peccary, which they nicknamed Choco. This animal depiction contrasts the sculptures at a later date which celebrated governors, high-ranking Mayans, and supernatural beings.
Inomata explains that 'Though there were probably some [Aguada Fénix] leaders who played central roles in planning and organizing such work, the main factor was people's voluntary participation, which does not necessarily require a centralized government.' Most likely gatherings occurred on special occasions related to astronomical events and other important dates.