Archaeologists learn more about the origins of Maya culture
at a jungle site 20 miles from the famous ruins at Tikal
By David F. Salisbury
Published: June 9, 2004
Two monumental fang-toothed masks, elaborate jade ritual objects and a stone monolith engraved with the portrait of a king found in the 2,500-year-old ruins of a neglected archaeological site deep in the Guatemalan jungle are shedding new light on the early development of the Maya civilization.
These discoveries were made by Francisco Estrada-Belli, assistant professor of archeology at Vanderbilt, at a site called Cival in the Petén region of northern Guatemala, about 20 miles east of the well-known ruins of Tikal and were announced by the National Geographic Society, which funds his research. Cival is one of a collection of sites of varying ages that are located in the vicinity of the famous site of Holmul.
Archaeologists generally divide the Maya civilization into three main time periods: Preclassic from about 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250; Classic from A.D. 250 to A.D. 900; and Postclassic from A.D. 900 to A.D. 1521. During the Preclassic period, the Maya are characterized as having an unsophisticated farming culture organized into tribes and headed by chieftains. The classic period is dated from the advent of Maya writing and is characterized by the development of priest-kings who presided over city-states with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. During this time the total Maya population may have topped one million. Internecine warfare among the city states finally led to the civilization's collapse. Although certain power centers like Chichén Itzá survived the collapse, Maya cities were in general decline when the Spanish arrived and ultimately brought the native civilization to a violent end.
The discoveries at Cival indicate that the Maya had developed the sophisticated culture and many of the features, including priest-kings and city-states, attributed to the Classic period at least 500 years earlier than previously thought. "We are witnessing the development of dynastic rituals at an unexpectedly early date," says Estrada-Belli.
One of the most convincing pieces of evidence is the discovery of a stone monolith, or stela, at Cival bearing the portrait of a king. Such stelae are fairly common during the Classic period, but Estrada-Belli's team has dated the pillar to at least 300 B.C., making it the first monolith of the type that has been discovered in the Preclassic.
The development of priest-kings was important because they used their god-like powers to build major metropolises, control the large populations that inhabited them and commission large construction projects, including pyramids and large stone temple complexes. So the evidence for the early development of the priest-king system goes hand in hand with Estrada-Belli's determination that Cival was much larger than previously thought.
Cival is located deep in the tropical rainforest, making it difficult to get to and to study. When Harvard archaeologist Ian Graham first mapped the site in the 1980s, the jungle concealed all but a few of the largest stone buildings and pyramids, so he categorized it as a minor site.
Estrada-Belli, however, was able to get a more accurate survey of the site using satellite imagery. The aerial images revealed that the ruins sprawl over an area of four square miles and gave the archaeologists exact coordinates for individual structures that they have been able to locate using GPS navigation technology. These techniques have allowed them to determine that the city originally had five pyramids and three large plazas and to estimate that at its height in 150 B.C. the city supported a population of about 10,000.
Satellite navigation also allowed the archaeologists to determine that the city's central, ceremonial complex had an important astronomical orientation. The central axis of the main plaza points directly at the location on the eastern horizon where the sun rises at the equinox. Lines drawn from the western pyramid to two of the other buildings also line up with sunrise at winter and summer solstice.
The city was abandoned in mysterious circumstances shortly after A.D. 100 and never reoccupied. That means the older structures and artifacts are much easier for the archaeologists to find and study. Because the Maya had a habit of putting new buildings directly on top of older structures, Preclassic remains are few and far between at sites like Homul and Tikal that were occupied during the Classic period.
The El Mirador site, also in Guatemala, is a Preclassic site similar to Cival but even bigger. El Mirador boasts of a pyramid that rivals in size those in Egypt and once held an estimated population of 100,000. Excavations there have also found evidence of a highly developed culture.
"In the past El Mirador has been largely dismissed as an anomaly," says Francisco-Belli. "But, when combined with what we have found at Cival, it seems clear that an entire network of city-states existed at this time and they were probably competing with each other in the same way that the city-states did during the Classic and Postclassic periods." In fact, the label of "preclassic" may turn out to be a misnomer for the period of 500 B.C. to 200 A.D., he adds.
Cival has yielded other indications of a sophisticated hierarchy and complex religious practices comparable to those practiced during the Classic Maya period, Estrada-Belli reports. At the foot of one of the pyramids, the archaeologists found a depression in the shape of a cross that contained five smashed jars, one in each arm and one in the center. Under the central jar, they found 120 pieces of jade: Most were polished round pebbles, but five were jade axes, which may date back to 500 B.C.
Because the Maya believed that their kings embodied the maize god on Earth, the archaeologists consider this one of the earliest examples of public rituals associated with accession of power in the Maya world.
"These appear to be part of a solar ritual associated with the Maya agricultural cycle," says Estrada-Belli. "The jars are an offering of water. The green and blue jade symbolize maize, or corn. The upright jade axes symbolize sprouting maize plants. This is a cosmic offering. The cruciform is the shape of the Maya cosmos."
Most recently, Estrada-Belli and his students have discovered a pair of monumental stucco masks of Maya deities that they think originally flanked a staircase on one of the pyramids. The masks are giant 15- by 9-foot faces and are in a remarkable state of preservation. "It's almost as if someone made this yesterday," he says.
The masks' eyes are L-shaped, their eyes are adorned with corn husks, suggesting the Maya maize deity; the ears are marked with four dots and the squared-off mouth has snake's fangs in its center. Ceramics associated with the masks date them to about 150 B.C. Because the pyramid has a second level, according to Estrada-Belli, there is room for a second pair of masks that he hopes to also unearth.
In addition to their striking appearance, the giant masks have important archaeological significance. Not only do they have a number of features common in Maya sculpture, but they have other features that are also found on jade sculptures carved by the Olmecs, who lived from about 1300 B.C. to 400 B.C. in the Eastern Lowlands of Mexico. The Olmecs also made cruciform offerings similar to those found at Cival.
The traditional view is that the Olmecs developed a number of sophisticated cultural practices, including mathematics, astronomy, writing, irrigated agriculture and kingship, which the Maya borrowed from them. These practices are thought to have spread first to the Maya who lived in the temperate highlands region of Guatemala and then filtered down to the lowland Maya.
But Cival casts new doubt on this theory. "It looks as if these cultural practices were being developed in parallel in lowland cities like Cival at the same time as they were in the highlands and coastal regions," says Estrada-Belli. "It is also looking more likely that the cultural exchange between the Maya and Olmec was a two-way street: It didn't just go one way."
The team also found what may be an important clue to the final fate of Cival. They have found a defensive wall that was constructed hastily. According to Estrada-Belli the six-foot-high wall appears to have been "a desperate attempt to close off the inner core of the site." This suggests that Cival met the same fate as many other Maya city-states: conquest by a more powerful neighbor.
The archaeological field work at Cival was funded by Vanderbilt University, National Geographic Society, Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., Ahau Foundation, ARB Co., Interco Tire Co. and Trialmaster Co.