Archaeologists Discover the Largest, Oldest Maya Monument Yet

The Mayan culture built city-states across Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize for centuries, but we’re only starting to appreciate how extensive Maya civilization was and how drastically Maya farmers and engineers reworked the Mesoamerican landscape. Over the past few years, lidar surveys have revealed an ancient landscape previously hidden beneath vegetation and features that are too large-scale to recognize from the ground. Aguada Fenix, a newly discovered monument site, is the latter.

“A horizontal construction on this scale is difficult to recognize from the ground level,” wrote University of Arizona archaeologist Takeshi Inomata and his colleagues. The earthen platform is 1.4 kilometers (0.87 miles) long and 10 to 15 meters (33 to 49 feet) tall, with raised earthen causeways connecting it to groups of smaller platforms nearby. Based on excavations at the site, it served as a ceremonial center for the Maya.

“This area is developed—it’s not the jungle, Inomata said. “People live there, but this site was not known 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.” The team first noticed the platform in a set of low-resolution lidar images collected by the Mexican government, and they followed up with higher-resolution surveys and then excavations at the site.

That lidar survey found 21 other monumental platforms, clustered in groups around the region. But Aguada Fenix is by far the largest—in fact, it’s the largest single Maya structure archaeologists have ever found. It took between 3.2 million and 4.3 million cubic meters (113 million to 151 million cubic feet) of clay and soil to build up the platform. That’s a larger volume than the famous pyramids built centuries later during what’s known as the Maya Classic Period.

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Courtesy of Takeshi Inomata

It’s also much older than any other Maya monument, old enough to suggest that the Maya started working together on huge construction projects much earlier than modern archaeologists had suspected. According to radiocarbon dates of charcoal fragments mixed in with the layers of dirt that make up the platform, people started building Aguada Fenix by around 1000 BCE (although Inomata and his colleagues can’t rule out the idea that construction started even earlier).

Neolithic Revolution in the New World

That came as a surprise, because most of the evidence up to this point seemed to say that around 1000 BCE, people in the Maya Lowlands were just beginning to settle in small villages, where they relied much more heavily on the maize their ancestors had domesticated thousands of years earlier. They also started using pottery. The whole process looked a lot like what archaeologists who study other parts of the world call the Neolithic Revolution—except that the Maya had been farming maize for millennia before they decided to settle down and make a whole lifestyle of it.

As far as we had determined, it took another few centuries, until around 350 BCE, for those early Maya villages to coalesce into the large city-states of the Classic Period. These were political, economic, and ceremonial centers that dominated the surrounding farmland and smaller communities, ruled by elite classes and boasting tall pyramids. Before that, nobody had gotten around to organizing enough labor and resources to start building monuments in the Maya Lowlands—or so we thought.

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