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Takeshi Inomata/University of Arizona

Excavations at Ceibal, an ancient Maya site in Guatemala, suggest that the origins of early Maya civilization are more complex than previously thought.

Research at early Mayan city points to complex cultural beginnings

by Julie Davis
Apr 25, 2013


Takeshi Inomata/University of Arizona

University of Arizona archaeologist Takeshi Inomata's team conducted seven years of excavations at Ceibal


Takeshi Inomata/University of Arizona

Work in Ceibal, Guatemala during the 2006 and 2007 field seasons was funded through a grant from the National Geographic Society

From the Maya’s calendar to their stone pyramids, to their advances in mathematics, the Maya are well known. But the origin of one of Mesoamerica’s great civilization has long been a mystery.

Archaeologists are divided over the role nearby cultures played in early Maya cultural development. But researchers reported Thursday in the journal Science that the relationship is much more complex that previously thought.

“It is a fascinating culture,” said Takeshi Inomata, lead researcher for the project. “It is also an important heritage for the today’s Maya people and for all the humanity.”

Two dominant theories for the Maya’s origins exist among researchers. Some think the Maya culture was born out of the older Olmec tradition. Others believe the Maya developed on their own. Arizona researchers believe the relationship is much more nuanced than that.

Inomata and his team focused on the ancient city of Ceibal, Guatemala. He selected the location because it was known to be an early Maya site. In the 1960s, Harvard University researchers conducted excavations at Ceibal.

Central to the teams’ research was a pyramid, built in a style archaeologists call an “E-group.” Pyramids in this style are common in Mesoamerica and consist of a square building to the west, a middle plaza and a long eastern mound. From above it appears to be shaped like an “E”.

The team dated the E-group pyramid at Ceibal to BCE 1000, making it the earliest known Mayan pyramid – earlier than pyramids built by the neighboring Olmec. The dating of the pyramid challenges the theory that the Maya’s pyramid style came from their older Olmec neighbors.

Inomata said that previous origin theories “categorized those ethnic groups or cultural groups too much. Basically this name, Olmec or Maya, those are sort of labels that we impose on those people.
It's very difficult to determine what kind of identity those people had."

John Clark, an archaeologist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, said, “This is great stuff. It doesn’t answer much. But it’s going point us in a new direction.”

Clark said archaeologists have more work ahead of them to better understand what this research means. “In terms of the early Olmec, their data doesn’t touch on that,” he said.

Because of the complexity of the E-group pyramid at Ceibal, Clark said, “It almost has to be earliest someplace else.”

Joel Palka, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said “We see [in the Maya] the development of one of the earliest settlements in the new world. They're getting into how urban cultures form.”

This research is about more than just the origin of one culture. Instead it is about social change in general said Inomata.

“The emergence of what we call civilization is a critical moment in the broad process of human history.”