Ancient Ceremonial Construction Hints at Origin of Maya Civilization

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By IBTimes Staff Reporter | April 27, 2013 8:28 PM EST

The discovery of the oldest ancient Maya ceremonial constructions ever hints that the origin of Maya civilization is more complex than previously thought, according to scientists.

After seven years of excavations, archaeologists unearthed a ceremonial compound (that possibly served as a solar observatory for rituals) at the ancient Maya site of Ceibal, reported LiveScience. The discovery is 200 years older than similar sites unearthed in the region. The finding challenges two prevailing theories on how the ancient civilization began.

One theory is that the Maya civilization developed on its own in the jungles of what is now Guatemala and southern Mexico. The other theory is that the Maya civilization was influenced from the older Olmec civilization and its center of La Venta.

The excavations at Ciebal predates the growth of La Venta as a major center by as much as 200 years. This suggests that La Venta could not have influenced the early Mayan civilization. However, it could not be concluded that the Maya civilization is older than the Olmec civilization as it had another center prior to La Venta.

It also does not prove that the Maya civilization developed entirely on its own. "We're saying that the scenario of early Maya culture is really more complex than we thought," University of Arizona anthropology graduate student Victor Castillo, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

Researchers admit that there are similarities between Ceibal and La Venta - such as their ritual practices and architecture like the pyramids - that later became the hallmark of Mesoamerican civilization but did not exist at the earlier Olmec center of San Lorenzo. Researchers, though, believe that it is not the case of one civilization influencing the other.

Instead, they suggest that the Maya site of Ceibal and the Olmec site of La Venta were part of a broader cultural shift that occurred between 1,150-800 B.C.

"Basically, there was a major social change happening from the southern Maya lowlands to possibly the coast of Chiapas and the southern Gulf Coast, and this site of Ceibal was a part of that broader social change,"  said UA anthropologist Takeshi Inomata. "The emergence of a new form of society - with new architecture, with new rituals - became really the important basis for all later Mesoamerican civilizations."

The details of the study, "Early Ceremonial Constructions at Ceibal, Guatemala, and the Origins of Lowland Maya Civilization," are published in the journal Science.

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