Hundreds of ancient ceremonial sites found in southern Mexico

Researchers have uncovered 478 ceremonial sites that were probably built by the Olmec and the Maya thousands of years ago

Humans



25 October 2021

By Krista Charles

A lidar-based image of one of the sites

A lidar-based image of an ancient ceremonial site in Mexico

Takeshi Inomata

Hundreds of ancient Mesoamerican ceremonial sites built over a period of about 600 years have been uncovered. This comes after the discovery of the first such site – Aguada Fénix – was announced in 2020

Takeshi Inomata at the University of Arizona and his colleagues used a form of remote sensing called lidar, which uses airborne lasers to form a 3D picture of the surface of the ground. They used this to discover 478 sites in an area covering 84,516 square kilometres in southern Mexico, some of which was covered by dense jungle.

The sites were made up of rectangular complexes, which the Maya and Olmec probably used for ceremonial gatherings. “People just come and go… sort of like a pilgrimage centre,” says Inomata.

They consisted of a central open plaza, where people might have gathered, with a series of low earthen mounds along the edges where there might have been built structures. And they were probably constructed between 1050 and 400 BC by two ancient civilisations – the Olmec, which was the earliest known civilisation in the region, and the Maya, which may have learned from the Olmec and whose culture collapsed around AD 800.

“Nobody knew about those rectangular ceremonial sites until we found Aguada Fénix, so all these new findings are a revelation about this early period,” says Inomata. “That really made us rethink about the origin of Mesoamerican civilisation. Many of those complexes were built by people without too much hierarchical organisation.”

The sites were all relatively flat with a few small pyramids compared with later constructions in the region such as Chichen-Itza that typically contain large pyramids.

“We don’t know exactly what they might have looked like in life, but one could argue that they were small cities,” says Elizabeth Graham at University College London, who wasn’t involved with the study. “When I first started work in the 70s it was still a time where everyone thought cities developed in the Classic period around 200 AD. Now, steadily the period in which I guess you could say urbanism developed has been pushed back and pushed back.”

Journal reference: Nature Human Behaviour, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-021-01218-1

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