Maya civilization’s roots may lie in ritual

Guatemalan finds point to ancient cultural interactions across a wide territory

Ancient Maya civilization was born of public rituals devised several thousand years ago as a result of mingling among groups spread across what’s now southern Mexico and Guatemala.

STANDING ON CEREMONY After excavating through layers of construction at an ancient Maya site in Guatemala, researchers found a ritual plaza from around 3,000 years ago. T. Inomata

That’s the provocative conclusion of a report, published April 25 in Science, describing the excavation of that region’s oldest known ceremonial structures. The excavations were at Ceibal, an early Maya settlement in Guatemala. These 3,000-year-old finds consist of remnants of a square platform and a long platform separated by a plaza, say archaeologist Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona in Tucson and his colleagues. Critically, the two structures run from east to west.

Renovations to the square platform transformed it into a 6- to 8-meter-high pyramid by around 2,700 years ago. A new version of the long platform was built behind the original at that time.  

That layout, joining a square or pyramid with a platform in an east-west alignment, formed the centerpiece of ritual areas in many later Maya cities. Ceremonial structures at Ceibal and nearby sites got the cultural ball rolling, the researchers suggest, in a Maya society that eventually featured writing, a complex calendar and massive temples.

Radiocarbon dating at Ceibal challenges previous proposals that Maya civilization arose either on its own or due to the direct influence of southern Mexico’s Olmec civilization, which dates from roughly 3,500 to 2,400 years ago. Some archaeologists contend that an Olmec settlement near Mexico’s Gulf Coast called La Venta crucially shaped ancient Maya practices.

But Ceibal’s ceremonial structures were built about 200 years before comparable ones at La Venta, Inomata’s team concludes. Similarly configured ritual buildings appeared at sites within 400 kilometers of Ceibal shortly after 3,000 years ago, the investigators say.

“Cultural interaction over a broad area was a key to development of Maya civilization,” Inomata says.

Ceibal and nearby sites have yielded jade, obsidian and other valuable stones that were used to make axes as offerings to gods and then buried in ceremonial plazas. Traders of these precious stones from various groups witnessed and even participated in others’ rituals, Inomata suspects.

In agreement with Inomata, archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli of Tulane University in New Orleans suspects that cultural exchange between the Maya and the Olmec began more than 3,000 years ago. Estrada-Belli directs excavations of Cival, a Maya site near Ceibal where another pyramid and platform separated by a plaza were built roughly 2,800 years ago.

Inomata’s findings at Ceibal challenge the popular view that public rituals and public spaces appeared only after early civilizations established economic systems and social classes. “Religion and public ritual might be the most important factors in the development of Maya civilization,” Estrada-Belli says.

Olmec investigators praise the new Ceibal report but say it can’t explain Maya civilization’s roots. Ceibal’s ceremonial structures may have preceded those at La Venta, but residents of an older Olmec settlement called San Lorenzo — which had a complex culture that archaeologists only poorly understand— might have erected such structures, remarks archaeologist John Clark of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. San Lorenzo’s heyday ended around 3,150 years ago.

Art and religion flourished at San Lorenzo while Maya to the east were just learning to make pottery, says Yale University archaeologist Michael Coe. Olmec people may not have invented Ceibal’s ritual setup, but they still forged a “mother culture” for the Maya and other ancient societies in that region, Coe holds.

Inomata’s team doesn’t yet know the length of Ceibal’s long platforms, so it’s unclear whether ritual structures there were arrayed like those at later Maya sites, says archaeologist Rebecca González Lauck of Centro INAH Tabasco, Mexico, who directs La Venta excavations. La Venta’s pyramid and platform stand near two massive stone sculptures unlike anything at Maya sites, she adds, indicating that Olmec ritual practices were different than those at Ceibal and other Maya sites. Only further excavations can illuminate cultural links between Olmec and Maya sites, González Lauck holds.

One thing is certain, she says: “There was contact between the Gulf Coast Olmec and the Maya lowlands, including Ceibal.”

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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