Ancient Mayan Empire

Ancient Maya discovery sheds new light on the origins of civilization
February 10, 2017 – 10:37 am
Tikal is home to one of the
Over 3, 000 years ago, in the warm, fertile lands that are now Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, the great Maya civilization arose — its vast pyramid temples appearing to come out of nowhere. But new evidence suggests a fascinating origin for this ancient, advanced culture.

Just as the Inca once dominated South America, the Maya dominated large parts of Central America and Mexico. But we know far less about Maya civilization. Now, after seven years of careful excavation at the famous Maya cultural center of Ceibal in Guatemala, University of Arizona anthropologists Daniela Triadan and Takeshi Inomata believe they have settled one of the greatest debates in their field: where the Maya came from. They published their work today in Science.

For almost half a century, anthropologists studying the origins of the Maya have been divided into two camps. Some believe that the Maya civilization developed in Guatemala and Belize, without any contact from other groups in the region. But others believed the Maya were an outgrowth of the advanced Olmec civilization on the Gulf Coast.

In 1300 BCE, the Olmec had erected an impressive city at what is now San Lorenzo, complete with massive ceremonial architecture featuring now-famous carvings of human heads. The question of the Olmec's influence hinged in part on decades-old evidence that the Olmec center of La Venta, also on the Gulf Coast (see map below), was the first highly-advanced city to have Maya-esque architecture, including pyramids.

Because La Venta had clearly been built after the Olmec city of San Lorenzo, probably starting in 800 BCE, it made sense that the Maya engineers had followed in the Olmec's footsteps. The idea was that the characteristic Maya city layout developed between the construction of San Lorenzo and La Venta. La Venta's location also made it seem that Maya culture came from the Olmec, then spread from the Gulf Coast southward into Guatemala and Belize.

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