What is the oldest building in Mexico

Oldest and largest Mayan monument discovered

The distinctive pyramid cities of the Maya culture such as Tikal in Guatemala can be found in every travel guide, but countless of their former monumental buildings, houses, traffic routes, drainage ditches, water basins, supply terraces are still hidden in the dense rainforest.

In order to make these overgrown structures visible, researchers have been scanning the border area between Mexico and Guatemala systematically for conspicuous soil structures from aircraft since 2017. Using this so-called lidar technology (light detection and ranging), they have been able to make new spectacular finds visible over the past few years and provide fascinating new insights into the Mayan culture.

Sensational find under lush vegetation

In the Mexican state of Tabasco, archaeologists have now used this method to discover what is probably the largest and oldest monumental complex of the Maya culture to date. In the journal "Nature", researchers working with Takeshi Inormata from the University of Arizona report on 21 larger and smaller ceremonial centers, all of which are spatially very similar.

The largest complex is Aguada Fénix with a rectangular plateau that is more than 1400 meters long and 400 meters wide. This artificially raised plateau runs in a north-south direction and towers above the surrounding flat land by 10 to 15 meters.

Even from the air, the plateaus, dams and reservoirs of Aguada Fénixi are difficult to see

Using the radiocarbon method, the oldest finds from Aguada Fénix were dated to around 3200 years. According to this, the construction of the large platform should be around the year 1000 BC. Started in Chr and continued in phases for about 200 years. According to Inomata, this would not only be the largest, but also the oldest Maya monument that has been identified so far.

Community free of hierarchies creates community work?

In contrast to the steep Mayan pyramids of the classical and late classical epochs, the monomental plateaus of Aguada Fénix offered space for a great many people. The authors conclude from this that the monumental complexes were built for and by a largely non-hierarchical community.

The fact that no sculptures of individuals with a high status have been found in Aguada Fénix so far suggests, according to the researchers, that the Maya lived in the early phase in a classless society without major social differences, in which collaborative work was a central one Took on importance.

It was only in later times that "there were powerful rulers and administrative systems that forced people to work. But this site is much older and we see no evidence of a powerful elite. This is more the result of collaborative work," said Takeshi scientists Inomata.

Historical classification

The first Maya were around 1500 BC. Started from the highlands in Guatemala to the north towards the Yucatán peninsula. The Mayan culture, which stretched from what is now southern Mexico to Honduras, reached its heyday between around 200 and 800 AD. The decline manifested itself with leaving their city-states in the 9th and 10th centuries.

What do the stone finds reveal about the structure of society? This mural from Chiapas is easier to decipher

According to Inomata, the ceremonial complex Aguada Fénix not only changes the image of the early Maya, but also represents a connection to the even older Olmec culture, which is considered to be the first advanced civilization in Central America.

The latest finds show that the Maya apparently lived in cities with monumental complexes earlier than assumed. So far, archaeologists have assumed that sedentariness was the prerequisite for joint religious celebrations, comments anthropologist Patricia McAnany from the University of North Carolina on the finds. "The new evidence suggests that it was the other way around". Anthropology concludes from this that there were religious celebrations in monumental complexes before village life developed.

Many questions remain

It remains to be seen whether these far-reaching social conclusions are actually valid based on the findings alone. Because, of course, many questions still remain unanswered.

For example, the central question of why the Maya made such an effort more than 3,000 years ago and raised an estimated 3.2 to 4.3 million cubic meters of earth for the main platform alone.

In Tikal, the Maya have taken their culture to extremes - but only a few privileged people had space above

What was the function of the central plateau? The monument was probably not used as a solar observatory. Because the assumption that the sunrise in the corners of the eastern platform can be observed from the western hill at the summer and winter solstice is not correct.

Although the complex is oriented to the east, it is not really precisely oriented, admits the archaeologist Inomata, who assumes that rituals related to the solar calendar were held on the plateau.

It is also completely unclear why the lavish complex of Aguada Fénix and all surrounding facilities after only a few years around 750 BC. Have already been given up again.

It is possible that climatic changes meant that people had to move on and that the lush vegetation overgrown the early traces of settlement.

  • The Mayan people shrouded in mystery

    Urban development in the jungle

    The Maya were the only ancient people who built huge cities in the tropical rainforest. At times up to 100,000 people lived here. Why the Maya gave up their houses in the 9th century is still a mystery today. Was it wars or natural disasters that drove them out? Impressive temples and palaces testify to the submerged high culture.

  • The Mayan people shrouded in mystery

    Sunken splendor

    When the Spaniards came across the magnificent buildings overgrown by lianas in the 16th century, they were amazed. However, they did not trust the ancestors of the Indians to have such buildings. Instead, it was believed that Egyptian remains or even the legendary Atlantis had been discovered. It was not until 1784 that researchers tried to uncover the secret, including Alexander von Humboldt.

  • The Mayan people shrouded in mystery

    Peaceful stargazers?

    Even in the 21st century, many people believed in the prophecy of the Mayan calendar: the world would end in 2012 - it didn't. Because of their advanced astronomy, the Maya have long been thought of as peaceful stargazers. When their writing was finally deciphered around 40 years ago, it became clear that the Maya also regularly waged wars with neighboring cities.

  • The Mayan people shrouded in mystery

    God kings and queens

    Maya society was strictly hierarchical. At the head stood the God-King: through him, the people believed, the gods spoke. Magnificent temples were built for him. When a dynasty lacked a male heir to the throne, a queen took over power. The warlike Wakchanjalam, which had many monuments erected, was legendary.

  • The Mayan people shrouded in mystery

    Sacrificial rituals

    There were no slaves among the Maya, instead prisoners of war were used for labor such as building temples or palaces. At the inauguration, they were sometimes offered to the gods as human sacrifices - as shown here on a drinking vessel. That was rare, however: incense, tobacco and blood sacrifices were more popular. Here women pierced their tongues, men their limbs.

  • The Mayan people shrouded in mystery

    A god of death for every kind of death

    This representation of the god of death comes from the grave of a wealthy dignitary. There was a god for each type of death. However, the Maya did not take these gods that seriously. Often they were depicted as dancing skeleton figures, as is still the case today in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. The Maya believed in rebirth - in the form of corn plants or even as a corn god.

  • The Mayan people shrouded in mystery

    Corn over everything

    The Maya had around 8000 gods, the corn god was one of the most important, shown here on a plate. Not only was corn a staple food, the Maya even believed that corn was the source of all life. In their mythology, Hunab Ku, the creator of the cosmos, formed people from corn mass. He was the lord of all gods - and the only one who was never portrayed as a figure.

  • The Mayan people shrouded in mystery

    Cocoa for the nobility

    Cocoa was also popular, but the plant is much more demanding. The luxury drink was considered sacred and was reserved for the king and the nobility. And of course there was also a cocoa goddess who protected the rare consumer product. Here she adorns the lid of an incense burner that is decorated all around with cocoa beans. Frankincense was regularly used in rituals.

  • The Mayan people shrouded in mystery

    Widespread trade

    At the height of Mayan culture between the 2nd and 9th centuries there were no beasts of burden; only the Spaniards brought horses and donkeys to the New World. So the Maya had to carry harvest and goods on their backs, as this clay figure of a trader shows. Why the artist gave the sculpture the head of a coati is just one of the many puzzles that remain unsolved to this day.

  • The Mayan people shrouded in mystery

    Precision work without metal tools

    This little jade mask probably adorned a belt buckle. The Maya artistically worked the hard rock with water and sand, because metal was unknown. The lips were stained red with coral. Researchers believe that members of the nobility in particular created numerous works of art; many of the sculptures and artifacts found bear their signatures.

  • The Mayan people shrouded in mystery

    Mute testimony

    This limestone sculpture, almost three meters long and one meter wide, adorned the facade of a building many centuries ago. Who was the man in the mask of the jaguar god? The ruler of the underworld, a king or a warrior? The answer remains uncertain, the stones can only bear a silent testimony to the sunken culture.

  • The Mayan people shrouded in mystery

    Gods will not be forgotten

    Although the high civilization of the Maya perished, around six million Maya still live in the area of ​​their ancestors. Many traditions have been forgotten, suppressed by the Spaniards who brought a foreign culture with them. But the Maya still pay homage to the gods of their ancestors today: Christ has merged with the corn god and the rain god is asked for a good harvest.

  • The Mayan people shrouded in mystery

    Finally decrypted

    There are many theories about the Maya people - and just as many puzzles. North American and European researchers led the excavations until the 1960s. Scientists from Mexico and Guatemala are now in the lead - in search of their own history.

    Author: Suzanne Cords