An airborne lidar survey recently revealed hundreds of long-lost Mayan and Olmec ceremonial sites in southern Mexico. The 32,800 square miles area was surveyed by the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Geografia, which released the data. When the University of Arizona archaeologist Takeshi Inomata and his colleagues surveyed the area that includes the Olmec heartland along Campeche Bay and the western Mayan lowlands north of the Guatemalan border, they identified the outlines of 478 ceremonial sites, most of them hidden beneath it was vegetation or simply too big to be seen from the ground.
“Until a few years ago, it was unthinkable to study such a large area,” says Inomata. “Publicly available lidar is changing archeology.”
Over the past few years, lidar surveys have uncovered tens of thousands of irrigation canals, dams and forts in the Mayan territory that now encompasses the borders of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Infrared rays can penetrate thick foliage to measure the height of the ground, which often reveals features such as long-abandoned canals or squares. The results showed that the Mayan civilization was more extensive and more densely populated than we previously thought.
Recent research into southern Mexico suggests that the Mayan civilization may have inherited some of their cultural ideas from the earlier Olmecs, dating from around 1500 BC.
The oldest known Mayan monument is also the largest; 3,000 years ago, people built a 1.4-kilometer-long earth platform in the heart of a ceremonial center called Aguada Fenix, near what is now Mexico’s border with Guatemala. And the 478 newly discovered sites that are in the surrounding region share the same basic features and layout as Aguada Fenix, only on a smaller scale. They are built around rectangular squares, lined with rows of earthen platforms on which large groups of people used to gather for rituals.
Inomata and his colleagues say the sites probably date back to the centuries between 1100 BC. BC (around the same time as Aguada Fenix) and 400 BC. Were erected. Its construction was likely the work of different groups of people who shared some common cultural ideas, such as the construction of a ceremonial center and the meaning of certain dates. In most places where the terrain allows, these platform-lined meeting rooms are oriented to point to the point on the horizon where the sun rises on certain days of the year.
“That means they represented cosmological ideas through these ceremonial rooms,” Inomata said. “In this room, people gathered according to this ceremonial calendar.” The dates vary, but they all appear to be associated with May 10th, the day the sun passes directly over them, the start of the rainy season and the Time marked for corn planting. Many of the 478 ceremonial sites show sunrise on dates that are exactly 40, 80 or 100 days before that date.
City maps based on calendars or cosmology were key features of several Mesoamerican civilizations, including both the Maya and the Olmec.
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