The Mayan culture built city-states across Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize for centuries, but we’re only starting to appreciate how extensive Maya civilization was and how drastically Maya farmers and engineers reworked the Mesoamerican landscape. Over the past few years, lidar surveys have revealed an ancient landscape previously hidden beneath vegetation and features that are too large-scale to recognize from the ground. Aguada Fenix, a newly discovered monument site, is the latter.
“A horizontal construction on this scale is difficult to recognize from the ground level,” wrote University of Arizona archaeologist Takeshi Inomata and his colleagues. The earthen platform is 1.4 kilometers (0.87 miles) long and 10 to 15 meters (33 to 49 feet) tall, with raised earthen causeways connecting it to groups of smaller platforms nearby. Based on excavations at the site, it served as a ceremonial center for the Maya.
"This area is developed—it’s not the jungle, Inomata said. "People live there, but this site was not known because it is so flat and huge. It just looks like a natural landscape. But with lidar, it pops up as a very well-planned shape.” The team first noticed the platform in a set of low-resolution lidar images collected by the Mexican government, and they followed up with higher-resolution surveys and then excavations at the site.
That lidar survey found 21 other monumental platforms, clustered in groups around the region. But Aguada Fenix is by far the largest—in fact, it’s the largest single Maya structure archaeologists have ever found. It took between 3.2 million and 4.3 million cubic meters (113 million to 151 million cubic feet) of clay and soil to build up the platform. That’s a larger volume than the famous pyramids built centuries later during what’s known as the Maya Classic Period.
It’s also much older than any other Maya monument, old enough to suggest that the Maya started working together on huge construction projects much earlier than modern archaeologists had suspected. According to radiocarbon dates of charcoal fragments mixed in with the layers of dirt that make up the platform, people started building Aguada Fenix by around 1000 BCE (although Inomata and his colleagues can’t rule out the idea that construction started even earlier).
Neolithic Revolution in the New World
That came as a surprise, because most of the evidence up to this point seemed to say that around 1000 BCE, people in the Maya Lowlands were just beginning to settle in small villages, where they relied much more heavily on the maize their ancestors had domesticated thousands of years earlier. They also started using pottery. The whole process looked a lot like what archaeologists who study other parts of the world call the Neolithic Revolution—except that the Maya had been farming maize for millennia before they decided to settle down and make a whole lifestyle of it.
As far as we had determined, it took another few centuries, until around 350 BCE, for those early Maya villages to coalesce into the large city-states of the Classic Period. These were political, economic, and ceremonial centers that dominated the surrounding farmland and smaller communities, ruled by elite classes and boasting tall pyramids. Before that, nobody had gotten around to organizing enough labor and resources to start building monuments in the Maya Lowlands—or so we thought.
Aguada Fenix tells a different story. People had been living at the site for some time before construction started; Inomata and his colleagues found pottery, bones, and shells on the rise of bedrock beneath the earthen platform itself, dating to between 1250 and 1050 BCE. By around 1000 BCE, they had started the first phase of building.
“Clays and other soils of various color were placed in multiple layers, each layer forming checkerboard-like horizontal patterns,” the archaeologists wrote. The people of Aguada Fenix repeated that process at least once over the next 200 years to build the platform up to its final height. Construction had stopped by around 800 BCE, and by 750 BCE, the site seems to have been abandoned. There’s evidence that small groups of people returned a couple of times over the next few centuries, but nothing like the monument’s heyday.
All Together Now
In other words, the Maya at Aguada Fenix were able to organize big monument construction projects long before the pyramid-building of the Classic Period. They clearly had the labor force (at least 10 million person-days, Inomata and his colleagues estimate), the organization, and the resources to pull it off. But they may not have had the social and political hierarchy that would later build the pyramids.
Aguada Fenix is at the very western edge of the area known as the Maya Lowlands, but it’s also very close to the homeland of the Olmec people, who built very similar earthen platforms—and later, pyramids—in the centuries before the rise of Maya civilization. Based on radiocarbon dating, Aguada Fenix is around the same age as several large Olmec sites. But while Olmec sites often feature massive stone sculptures of rulers, Aguada Fenix does not.
That may mean that Olmec communities were much more hierarchical than Maya communities around 1000 to 800 BCE. If Inomata and his colleagues are right, it may also mean that the Maya organized their earliest and largest monument projects communally; they suggest that the huge construction may have been a way of dealing with the changes that came with settling down to village life.
“Under rapidly changing social conditions, many inhabitants of the region may have actively participated … to create new places of gathering without coercion from powerful elites,” they wrote.
Then again, Inomata and his colleagues didn’t find any traces of actual living spaces, like smaller platforms where people would have built their homes, at Aguada Fenix. This may mean the people who built the monument were actually living a more mobile lifestyle at the time. But they still came together to move millions of cubic meters of earth to build a huge platform.
This story originally appeared on Ars Technica.