The biggest and oldest Maya site ever discovered reveals its secrets

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Using Lidar technology, researchers have uncovered a new Mayan structure, the oldest and largest discovery to date. This teaches us more about the evolution of this civilization and its social organization.

Laser remote sensing still has a bright future ahead of it. Also known by the short name of Lidar (acronym for laser detection and ranging), it has been used for more than 50 years in fields as vast as art, seismology, the automobile or even archeology. In 2017, it uncovered the Mayan site of Aguada Fénix, in Mexico, the largest and the oldest ever discovered. Led by researchers Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, researchers at the University of Arizona, the team behind the discovery has since carried out significant excavation and dating, revealing that this important site cult would have been built almost three millennia ago, between 1000 and 800 BCE.

“[The region where the site is located] is developed,” says Takeshi Inomata. It is not the jungle; people live here, but this site remained unknown as it is flat and extensive. It just looks like a natural landscape. But, with the Lidar, it appears as a well studied form. The importance of this structure in the history of the Mayan civilization is not the least, he explains. It indeed offers new keys to understanding the appearance and development of the Mayan civilization, a subject still widely debated today, and its social organization in its beginnings. A new study published in the journal Nature reports their latest findings.

An egalitarian society

Aguada Fénix has several similarities with the Olmec city of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, considered by some to be the oldest urban center ever discovered in America. Nevertheless, certain differences inform the researchers about how the social organization of the two sites differed.

While gigantic stone heads (an example of which is now visible in the gardens of the Musée du quai Branly) adorned San Lorenzo, the absence of sculptures depicting leaders or members of the elite at Aguada Fénix seems to suggest a a more egalitarian society, at least at the beginnings of Mayan civilization.

“There has always been a debate as to whether the Olmec civilization had led to the development of the Mayan civilization, or whether the Mayans had developed independently,” specifies Inomata. Our study therefore focuses on a key area in between. ”

The erection period of Aguada Fénix is ​​characterized by a transition of power from the declining city of San Lorenzo to the future city of La Venta, and a real cultural mix during which new styles, notably architectural, emerge in different regions Mesoamerican women.

“The later periods were marked by powerful leaders and administrative systems ordering people to do the job,” says Inomata. This type of understanding has important implications for human potential, and that of humans acting in groups. You don’t necessarily need a well-organized government to carry out large projects. People can work together to achieve incredible results. ”

Inomata and her team plan to continue their exploration of the site in order to learn more about the lives of the people who frequented it. “We have a lot of information regarding the ceremonial construction,” he comments. But we want to see how people lived during this period and what changes have taken place in their lifestyles. “

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