Ancient Maya civilization’s roots deepen

130426100319_130426hr-4_3_r536_c534Soaring pyramids, ceremonial platforms and ritual plazas, signatures of the ancient Maya, owe their origin to a broad cultural shift in Central America around 1,000 B.C., the ruins of Ceibal suggest.

A carved stone head excavated from the lowland Maya site of Ceibal, Guatemala (around 400 BCE). (Photo: Daniela Triadan; Takeshi Inomata; AAAS) Researcher: Ceibal’s ceremonial complex is earliest in Maya lowlands Ceibal is in modern-day Guatemala

The ancient Maya started building their storied cities amid a construction boom in Central America as early as 1000 B.C., archaeologists reported Thursday.

New radiocarbon date samples from the ruined plazas and pyramids of Ceibal, in modern-day Guatemala, point to an earlier spread in growth of ancient Maya city building than people had previously believed, suggests a team led by archaeologist Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona-Tucson.

“Ceibal’s ceremonial complex (is) the earliest in the Maya lowlands, predating other examples by roughly 200 years,” Inomata said. “This also means there was a drastic social change at the time” as the Maya switched from largely hunter-gatherer lives to farming.

Anthropologists study the origins of civilizations for clues to the ties that bind us together. The Maya offer an interesting example of a society that started building cities uninfluenced by the Old World’s Egyptian and Fertile Crescent civilizations.

More than 6 million Maya people still live in Central America. Accounts of their ancestors’ jungle-draped ruins have been objects of popular fascination since the 1840s, when U.S. explorer John Lloyd Stephens, “the father of American archaeology,” wrote best-selling accounts of these lost cities and crumbling pyramid temples. More recently, scholars have held a “heated debate,” Inomata says, over whether the ancient Maya cities sprang from the even older Olmec civilization of Mexico’s Gulf Coast or started their building habits on their own.

Instead, the famed pyramid-builders of Central America probably owe the beginnings of their city building more to broad cultural changes taking place there at the time, Inomata says. A ceremonial platform built at Ceibal around 1000 B.C. appears to precede the pyramid and plazas built in the Olmec city of La Venta around 800 B.C., his team reports in the journal Science.

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