The mysterious origin of the ancient Mayan civilization is a little more complex than the prevailing theories, researchers say.
Anthropologists generally fall into two groups when considering the beginnings of the Mayans, arguing either that the civilization developed independently or that the Mayans were influenced largely by the older Olmec civilization. Research published today in the journal Science dates the early Mayan city of Ceibal as 200 years older than the major nearby Olmec center of La Venta, suggesting the beginnings aren’t clear cut, said Takeshi Inomata, the study’s lead author and an anthropology professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
“We should move away, a little bit, from of this way of thinking of the Maya or Olmec as a solid block of culture,” Inomata said in an interview. “In those early days, there was no clear overarching sense of cultural unity, there was many different smaller groups that were interacting in a more complex way.”
The Maya, who originated about 2600 B.C. in current-day Southeastern Mexico, grew to prominence and size during the next three millennia, building temple step-pyramids and developing highly accurate astronomical and calendar systems. Similarities between Ceibal and La Venta, including step pyramids and ceremonial rituals, have led some to say the Maya were heavily influenced by the Olmec.
Inomata, who has been digging at Ceibal for seven years, discovered evidence that the city’s pyramid plaza complex wasn’t designed that way from the outset. Instead, he said, the structure originated as a platform that was renovated over the years with additional slabs placed on top of older ones, creating its step-like appearance.
“What we are seeing is that at the beginning there is no such concept of a pyramid,” he said. “As they renovated them, they made it bigger and bigger and they eventually became pyramids.”
These platforms, where the Mayans may have sung or danced, or made religious offerings, were probably mimicked by the Olmec and other societies nearby, he said. Because Ceibal’s plaza and pyramid developed prior to La Venta’s, the Olmecs couldn’t have been the major source for the Maya in the region at the time, he said.
“Some of those elements were reincorporated by the Olmec center of La Venta,” Inomata said. “We are talking about how civilization developed and how society changed. That change didn’t come from major political power, but actually happened through the interaction among smaller groups.”
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