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NEW DISCOVERY: Origins of Maya civilization were more complex than first believed

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
April 26th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

New findings at a Mayan excavation site called Ceibal suggest that the origins of the Maya civilization were far more complex than first believed. The Maya, an ancient South American race best known for their complex calendar system that spurred apocalypse rumors last year have long been a subject for debate among archaeologists. Did the Maya develop independently - or were they largely inspired by an earlier culture known as the Olmec? New research suggests the answer is neither.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - "This major social change happened through interregional interactions," study researcher Takeshi Inomata, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona says. It doesn't appear that the Olmec inspired the Maya, Inomata says. The entire region went through a cultural shift around 1000 B.C., with all nearby cultures adopting similar architectural and ceremonial styles.

This conclusion comes from seven years of archaeological excavations at Ceibal, a site in central Guatemala that was occupied continuously for 2,000 years. The earliest buildings were buried under 23 to 60 feet of sediment and later construction.

A construction date of 1000 B.C. makes the Ceibal structures about 200 years older than those at La Venta, meaning the Olmec's construction practices couldn't have inspired the Mayans. It seems that the entire region underwent a shift around this time, with groups adopting each other's architecture and rituals.

"We are saying there was this connection with various groups, but we are saying it was probably not one directional influence," Inomata said.

The early phase of Maya culture occurs before the group developed written language and before any record of their elaborate calendar system, so little is known about their beliefs. The pyramid-and-plaza area was almost certainly a space for rituals.

The architecture layout is what's known as a "group-E assemblage," which appears all over the Maya world and worked as solar observatories. From the western building, a view could stand and look at the eastern platform or pyramid, which would have posts at each end and at the center. On the summer solstice, the sunrise would occur over the northernmost marker. On the spring and fall equinoxes, it would be right over the center marker. On the winter solstice, the sun would rise over the southernmost marker.

As to why the lowland Maya gave up their semi-settled life for permanent villages and cities is the possibility that the maize production became more efficient around 1000 B.C. If maize farming became more productive around 1000 B.C., however, it may have prompted the Maya to start staying put.

"At that point, it probably made sense to cut down many forest trees in the Maya lowlands and then commit more strongly to an agricultural way of life," Inomata said.

"This study is not just a study about this specific civilization," he said. "We also want to think about how human society changed and how human society develops."

In short, the Maya findings suggest a new civilization doesn't have to arise from the dust of a previous one, but can happen through the interaction of multiple groups trading ideas.

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