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Mayan Temples

Pre-Maya hunters and farmers may have collaborated in building temples


The prevailing theory among archaeologists holds that prehistoric people settled down as they began to grow crops and manage livestock and then built progressively more advanced civilizations with permanent homes and large religious and burial structures, including pyramids. Other people continued hunting and gathering, but according to the prevailing view they lived apart from the permanent settlements and did not do permanent construction projects.

How people with radically different economies and ways of life interacted has been the subject of much speculation.

Pre-ceramic people may have helped early or pre-Mayan people build a ceremonial center beginning around 950 BC. The great Maya civilizations went on to do advanced architecture and art, like this ceramic bowl.

Pre-ceramic people may have helped early or pre-Mayan people build a ceremonial center beginning around 950 BC. The great Maya civilizations went on to do advanced architecture and art, like this ceramic bowl. (Photo by Yelkrokoyade/Wikimedia Commons)

A recent study presents new evidence that some settled people and some mobile hunter-gatherers, specifically in what is now Guatemala, may have lived in the same community of Ceibal part of the time and built a shared ceremonial center there. As centuries passed contact between the two types of people encouraged more foragers to become sedentary and begin farming. Eventually, great Maya civilizations arose.

A January 2015 archaeological paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PDF link) based on research at Ceibal in the Maya lowlands states:

A uniquely rich dataset obtained from the Maya site of Ceibal (or Seibal) suggests the possibility that groups with different levels of mobility gathered and collaborated for constructions and public ceremonies, which contrasts with the common assumption that sedentary and mobile groups maintained separate communities.

Map of the Maya area with inset of Pasiòn region

Map of the Maya area with inset of Pasiòn region (PNAS map)

The wanderers and the sedentary people worked together on the ceremonial center beginning around 950 BC and eventually built monumental structures by 800 BC. The construction came even though there were few sedentary people. The authors of the new study believe most people in the area then were hunter-gatherers, who traditionally have not been theorized as builders. But in this case the more mobile foragers must have helped settlers build the ceremonial center because there weren’t enough people living sedentary lives to do such big construction jobs without help. The researchers know there were few settled people because archaeological digs and scientific dating reveal few permanent dwellings in the area.

“This tells us something about the importance of ritual and construction. People tend to think that you have a developed society and then building comes. I think in many cases it's the other way around,” one of the lead researchers, Takeshi Inomata , told

Artwork from Ceibal

Artwork from Ceibal (Bob King photo/Wikimedia Commons)

After people in the area of Ceibal began to live in permanent settlements, some researchers believe the population exploded. One researcher estimated that around 800 to 700 BC, sedentism in Ceibal began to grow more common. From 701 to 450 BC, as more people became sedentary the population of Ceibal grew seven times greater than in 700. And from 350 to 1 BC, the researcher estimated the population grew 40 times greater than in 700.

But new research, led by archaeologists Inomata and Daniela Triadan, both with the University of Arizona, shows the population prior to 700 must have been much larger than previously believed.

… the magnitude of construction [in Ceibal] is significant enough to indicate that a population substantially larger than the one currently documented in the archaeological data contributed to public construction projects during the [period of 1000 to 700 BC]. If such an undetected population existed, a substantial part of it was most likely made up of highly mobile groups.

By mobile groups the authors mean hunter-gatherers and foragers. The mobile groups’ contact with sedentary people fostered the transition from hunting-gathering to farming and civilization, the researchers think. By 300 BC at the latest, the Mayan civilization hallmarks of agriculture, especially cultivation of maize, and living in cities were in place.


In their article in PNAS the researchers pointed to other places where people with less-advanced economies did construction:

Studies of early monuments, such as Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, Watson Brake in Louisiana, and Caral and earlier mounds in the Andes, show that large constructions involving significant collective labor could be built by pre-ceramic people who were still foragers or were at the early stage of farming adaptation.

Featured image: The archaeological ruins of Ceibal, Guatemala. Credit: Maria Teresa Weinmann / Dreamstime

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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