The monumental building is almost 1.4 kilometers long, 15 meters high and was built between 1,000 BC and 800 BC.
Archaeologists led by the University of Arizona, in the United States, have found what may be the largest and oldest Maya structure ever observed. The monument was named Aguada Fénix and is located in Tabasco, in southern Mexico, near the northwest border with Guatemala. The discovery was reported in a study published on Wednesday (03) in the journal Nature.
Until now, the Mayan site of Ceibal, built in 950 BC, was the oldest ceremonial center ever observed. Aguada Fénix, however, is much bigger and older: according to scientists, the monument is almost 1.4 kilometers (0.6 mi) long, ranging from 9 to 15 meters (29 to 49ft) in height and was built sometime between 1,000 BC and 800 BC.
The discovery was made thanks to the technology known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). The system uses lasers that, emitted from an airplane or drone, are able to “penetrate” the tree canopy in the analyzed region and reveal the three-dimensional shapes below the flora without damaging it. “This area is developed — it’s not the jungle; people live there,” said Takeshi Inomata, research leader and professor at the University of Arizona School of Anthropology, in a statement. “But this site was not known because it is so flat and huge. It just looks like a natural landscape.”
According to the researchers, the discovery changes the perception we have today about the populations that lived in Central America at that time. Archaeologists traditionally thought that the Maya civilization developed slowly: it was believed that small villages began to appear between 1000 BC and 350 BC, that is, large structures like Aguada Fénix should not exist.
In addition, the new monument looks like an old center of Olmec civilization, which existed in the same period in the San Lorenzo region, west of Tabasco. However, Aguada Fénix does not have stone sculptures related to the rulers or the elite, which suggests less social inequality and highlights the importance of community work in the Maya civilization.
“There has always been debate over whether Olmec civilization led to the development of the Maya civilization or if the Maya developed independently,” said Inomata. “So, our study focuses on a key area between the two.”
As the historians explain, the period in which Aguada Fénix was built was marked by a gap in power: it was built after the decline of San Lorenzo and before the rise of another Olmec center, La Venta. The fact that monumental buildings appeared earlier than previously thought indicates the organizational power these societies had.
“It’s not just hierarchical social organization with the elite that makes monuments like this possible,” said Inomata. “This kind of understanding gives us important implications about human capability, and the potential of human groups. You may not necessarily need a well-organized government to carry out these kinds of huge projects. People can work together to achieve amazing results.”