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Where did Maya come from? A new theory

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The archaeological site of Ceibal in Guatemala. Photo: Flickr
The archaeological site of Ceibal in Guatemala. Photo: Flickr

A new paper in Science magazine sheds surprising light on the origins of the Maya.

Little is known about the early preclassic era — before 1000 B.C. — of this ancient civilization. Experts tend to believe that either the Maya developed directly from the Olmec people, or that they sprang into existence on their own.

Neither are true, asserts Takeshi Inomata, professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and a National Geographic research grantee. At the archaeological site of Ceibal in Guatemala, Inomata has unearthed evidence for a more complex origin story.

Early ritual spaces

Correctly assuming that existing classic Maya architecture was built on earlier, but similar sites, Inomata and his team dug at Ceibal and found an abandoned ritual complex dating to around 1000 B.C.

Ritual architecture indicates a settled and complex society at a time when experts have held that Olmec reigned, with the Maya living in loosely associated nomadic groups in the jungles.

Archeologists dig at the ancient Mayan ruins of Caracol. Photo: Getty Images
Archeologists dig at the ancient Mayan ruins of Caracol. Photo: Getty Images

But Inomata’s work has revealed that the Olmec is not an older civilization. In fact, Ceibal pre-dates the Olmec archaelogical site of La Venta, along the Gulf coast, by as long as two centuries. And although some Olmec cities are indeed older than both La Venta and Ceibal, they likely did not interact with the Maya.

Not that the Maya necessarily developed independently. The influence flowed both ways, the professor asserts.

“It seems more likely that there was a broad history of interactions across these regions, and through these interactions, a new form of society developed,” says Inomata.

The two civilizations are easy to differentiate during the classic period, but the period between 1000 and 700 B.C. is more transitional. With La Venta and Ceibal freely trading ideas, technologies, cultural elements, and perhaps even population, it’s difficult to call one Olmec and the other Maya, and Inomata now avoids “fixed labels” to depict these societies.

Their work isn’t finished. Inomata and his team will spend the next three years analyzing the findings from Ceibal.

Read more: National Geographic

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