Lost Monument of Early Maya Civilisation Discovered in Mexico

Aerial view of Aguada Fénix. Causeways and reservoirs are at front, while the main platform is toward the back. (Image: Takeshi Inomata)
Aerial view of Aguada Fénix. Causeways and reservoirs are at front, while the main platform is toward the back. (Image: Takeshi Inomata)

The surprising discovery of a 2,800-year-old monumental structure in Tabasco, Mexico, is shaking our conceptions of Maya civilisation and its emergence as a cultural force.

Using a technology called lidar, in which lasers are used to map hidden surface features from above, archaeologists discovered a previously unknown monumental structure at the Aguada Fénix site in Mexico. This artificial platform — presumably used for naked-eye astronomy — is now the earliest and largest ceremonial structure belonging to the Maya civilisation. Details of this remarkable discovery were published today in Nature.

The platform and its supporting structures, including reservoirs, causeways, and a pyramid-like mound, were found in the Maya lowlands and radiocarbon dated to between 3,000 and 2,800 years ago. It’s conventionally believed that the development of Maya civilisation was a slow and gradual process, with small villages emerging between 2,000 and 1,650 years ago. That such a large and sophisticated ceremonial complex appeared so long ago comes as a big surprise, and its early presence is challenging traditional notions of when Maya civilisation began to emerge.

Indeed, there’s much to learn about the Maya, as much of their legacy remains hidden beneath a huge blanket of trees. Two years ago, for example, a comprehensive aerial survey uncovered 61,480 distinct ancient Maya structures in the lush rainforests of Guatemala. Lidar has led to similar discoveries at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, in which the jungle-penetrating laser uncovered a hidden early capital of the Khmer Empire.

Writing in an accompanying Nature News and Views article, Patricia McAnany, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina who wasn’t involved in the new study, said lidar has become a “game changer” for archaeologists, in which data collected during a single plane flight can offer more information than decades of traditional, on-the-ground archaeological surveys.

“As a veteran of pre-lidar survey techniques and an archaeologist who works in the humid tropics that are associated with ancient Maya civilizations, I have spent thousands of hours of fieldwork walking behind a local machete-wielding man who would cut straight lines through the forest,” wrote McAnany. “This process creates a grid within which we archaeologists proceed on foot to locate any structures present. Then, after more machete-cutting to reveal the corners, shape and height of ancient constructions, the structures could finally be mapped.”

Lidar, on the other hand, allows archaeologists to generate high-resolution 3D maps of the surface, allowing for the quick identification of artificial structures, which can then be ground-proofed and studied for further analysis.

3D image of the site of Aguada Fénix based on lidar.

In this case, the newly identified Maya monumental structure was discovered from lidar surveys conducted by the National Centre for Airborne Laser Mapping and the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía. In total, these two surveys resulted in the discovery of 21 distinct ceremonial centres at the Aguada Fénix site. The new paper was led by University of Arizona archaeologist Takeshi Inomata.

The most dramatic feature at the site is the enormous artificial platform, or main plateau, which measures 1,413 meters long (1,412.75 m) and 399 meters wide (398.98 m). The structure was made from earth and clay and rests some 10 to 15 meters above the surrounding ground level. A total of nine causeways extend out from the platform. Two notable structures were built atop the main plateau: the western mound, a pyramid-like structure measuring over 15 meters tall (15.24 m), and the eastern platform, a secondary elevated structure measuring 400 meters wide (399.29 m). Another large construction, called the west plateau, was found a mile from the main plateau.

“This site was not known before our research, probably because a horizontal construction on this scale is difficult to recognise from the ground level,” wrote the authors in the study. “To our knowledge, this is the oldest monumental construction ever found in the Maya area and the largest in the entire pre-Hispanic history of the region.”

Left: 3D map created with lidar data. Right: Illustration showing the monumental structure and how it was likely used. (Image: Nature News & Views)

Maya civilisation, as this discovery suggests, grew and developed more quickly than previously assumed. The new research also teases our conceptions of how and why large communities form in the first place, with anthropologists speculating as to which came first: stationary life in fixed dwellings or periodic mass gatherings. The new paper suggests the latter, as McAnany explained:

Human ancestors might first have come together to mark the change of seasons observable in the movement of the Sun or other celestial bodies across the sky or along the horizon. [The configuration at Aguada Fénix contains] a low mound or pyramid on the western side of an architectural complex with an elongated platform on the eastern side. Looking from the western structure aids the viewer to witness sunrise during the winter and summer solstices, which are visible along the northern and southern corners, respectively, of the eastern platform (which is elongated from north to south). Brilliantly simple in design, this type of construction was built, over and over again, up and down the Usumacinta region and throughout the Maya lowlands to the east.

These ritual gatherings likely provided an opportunity to make new contacts, meet with community leaders, and throw lavish feasts. Prehistoric Britons, for example, travelled to monumental lithic sites like Stonehenge to watch the stars and participate in what can only be described as pork fests.

Fascinatingly, no signs of social inequality were identified at the Aguada Fénix site, such as sculptures of high-ranking individuals. The Olmec civilisation, an early mesoamerican group that slightly predated the Maya, are famous for their colossal head statues, for example. As the authors point out in their study, the discovery at Aguada Fénix points to “the importance of communal work in the initial development of Maya civilisation.”

Looking ahead, the team would like to learn more about the early Maya and the reasons for this structure, including why it was abandoned only a few hundred years after it was built.