Oldest And Largest Pre-Maya Sacred Site Discovered In Mexico

Oldest And Largest Pre-Maya Sacred Site Discovered In Mexico


The largest and oldest monumental pre-Maya structure has been identified in Mexico revealing an ancient culture that thrived without a centralized government or elite classes.

A team of archaeologists conducting airborne LIDAR surveys in Tabasco, Mexico, created a high resolution 3D map of Aguada Fénix,” thought of as being no more than a natural rise in the landscape, but they revealed a massive elevated ancient platform.

Measuring 4,635 feet (1,413 meters) north to south and 1,310 feet (399 meters) on its east to west axis, the ritual site is raised 32-50 feet (10-15 meters) above the surrounding area and the scans also plotted no less than nine sacred causeways extending from the structure. And perhaps equally, if not more provocative than the structure itself is that the archaeologists didn’t find a single jot of evidence of any social elites or central government controlling the construction project.

Aerial view of Aguada Fénix. Causeways and reservoirs in front and the Main Plateau in the back. (Takeshi Inomata / Nature)

Aerial view of Aguada Fénix. Causeways and reservoirs in front and the Main Plateau in the back. (Takeshi Inomata /  Nature)

Dating The Gargantuan Sacred Site

This incredible discovery is detailed a new science paper published in the journal Nature, by lead author Takeshi Inomata from the University of Arizona , who speaks with Ancient Origins later in this article. Professor Inomata's team of researchers radiocarbon dated 69 charcoal samples and determined that the earliest deposits at Aguada Fénix dated to around 750 BC and it was also discovered that people of this region began using ceramics by 1200 BC, which is almost two centuries earlier than ceramic use at comparative sites, like for example, “Ceibal, Tikal, Cahal, Pech, Cuello and other Maya communities,” according to the paper.

The ceramics found at Aguada Fénix resemble the Real ceramics from Ceibal and they are markedly different from those of the La Venta or the Grijalva River region, and while it is still unknown if the builders of Aguada Fénix spoke the Mayan language, the researchers say they appear to have had “closer cultural affinities with the Maya lowlands than with the Olmec area”.

Altar Olmec, La Venta region in Tabasco, Mexico. (James Gaither / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Altar Olmec, La Venta region in Tabasco, Mexico. (James Gaither / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

A Vast And Deeply Ancient Sacred Platform

Artificial plateaus, or platforms, are horizontally expansive monumental structures where agri-rituals were performed in accordance with the annual cycles of the Sun, Moon and stars, thus, they doubled as astronomical observatories for taking measurements from a fixed base. Aligned with the cardinal points of the compass, and generally associated with Earth and fertility deities, platforms contrast with vertically aligned structures like standing stones and pyramids which focus on the sky and its deities. Construction of this newly discovered ceremonial platform was conducted over a natural rise of bedrock in an ambitious project that began around 1000 BC and ceased soon after 800 BC, which the paper explains is before the initial construction of the ceremonial complex at Ceibal.

3D image of the site of Aguada Fénix based on LIDAR. (Takeshi Inomata / Nature )

3D image of the site of Aguada Fénix based on LIDAR. (Takeshi Inomata / Nature )

Auger tests were conducted in the main and west plateaus at Aguada Fénix which allowed the researchers to estimate construction volumes, which for the main plateau was “3,499,563–4,702,537 yards (3,200,000–4,300,000 meters)” requiring “10,000,000–13,000,000 person-days”. In conclusion the researchers say the various radiocarbon dating results lead them to estimate the structure had been built between 1000 and 800 BC, which makes it the “ oldest monumental structure found in the Maya area so far”.

All Change, As Historical Assumptions Collapse

These new discoveries have tipped everything on its head, as until today, archaeologists had incorrectly thought that the Maya civilization had emerged from small villages during the Middle Pre-classic period (1000–350 BC), but the discovery of Aguada Fénix directly challenges this now old school model. And what is perhaps most surprising is that the research at Aguada Fénix found “no clear indicators of marked social inequality, such as sculptures of high-status individuals” leading the archaeologists to conclude that ceremonial complexes such as Aguada Fénix, “suggest the importance of communal work in the initial development of the Maya civilization”.

The main ritual stage, or platform, at Aguada Fénix, is the largest construction in the pre-Hispanic Maya area and while the volume of the plateau at the Olmec site, San Lorenzo is larger, Aguada Fénix represents the largest construction effort during the Middle Pre-classic and Late–Terminal Pre-classic periods. And if the archaeologists interpretations are correct, the implication is that the Gulf Coast Olmec region was not the only center of rapid cultural development and that cultural and technological innovations, like architecture and building, didn’t always cone from the top, elites, downwards.

Olmec sites. (Madman2001 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Olmec sites. (Madman2001 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Inside Story With Professor Takeshi Inomata

Several big questions arise from this new study and perhaps the most pressing is what inspired a group of hunters to all of a sudden build one of the largest religious structures in the region’s history? Seeking answers, I contacted lead author Takeshi Inomata, who explained that between 1000-1200 BC most people in the Maya area relied heavily on hunting and fishing along with a small-scale maize cultivation, and that they did not use ceramics.

Around 1000 BC they started to use ceramics and began developing sedentary settlements and the professor thinks that as the people increased their maize agriculture they had to “negotiate new concepts of use or owner rights of lands and properties”. And it was at this moment that the large collaborative construction project gave a new group identity to an emerging agricultural community being “a monument for everybody” compared with later large Maya buildings used mainly by rulers and elites.

My second question to the scientist related to his not finding any evidence of social elites, and if this was the case, who then organized the workers and controlled selection and assembly of building materials, transportation of materials to the site, feeding and clothing the builders, and who said "put that stone there, and not there”?

Maya stela representing a 6th century king. (Simon Burchell / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Maya stela representing a 6 th century king. (Simon Burchell / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Dr. Takeshi said in an email to Ancient Origins that traditionally archaeologists thought that “communities developed social inequality, and then elite, rulers, or other powerful people organize large construction projects”. But contrary to this, all evidence gathered at Aguada Fénix shows that the large construction was done “in the absence of powerful elite”.

While leaders would have played central roles in planning and organizing such work, the main factor was people s voluntary participation in the construction which tells us "the potential of human collaboration which does not necessarily require a centralized government”. However, such a construction project possibly promoted the centralization of government and social hierarchy.

The report, ‘Monumental architecture at Aguada Fénix and the rise of Maya civilization’ by Takeshi Inomata et al. is published by Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2343-4

Top image: Ancient Pre-Maya culture altar. Source: Arthur Verea / Adobe Stock.

By Ashley Cowie


Takeshi Inomata, et al. 2020. Monumental architecture at Aguada Fénix and the rise of Maya civilization . Nature. [Online] Available at: DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2343-4

Next article