The giant building that the Maya once built in southern Mexico near the border with Guatemala is impressive simply because of its dimensions. More material was moved here than when the great pyramid of Giza was built, more than four million cubic meters of earth were heaped up. Until the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, there was no major structure in Central America.
But that’s not all: the Aguada Fénix complex, discovered in 2017, is not only the largest, but also the oldest monumental building of the Maya at around 3000 years ago, as an international team of archaeologists recently reported in Nature. It is also special in its design: Unlike many famous Mayan buildings, the platform, which is probably used for ceremonies, is not made of stone, but of clay and earth. According to the researchers’ calculations, between ten and 13 million man-days were needed for this.
Two mighty ramps lead from the north and south to the side of the monumental plateau. The huge, artificially filled plateau is up to 15 meters high. In the middle it is extended to the west and east by smaller plateaus so that the building lies like a big, thick cross in the landscape – the main axis alone is 1413 meters long and 399 meters wide.
The researchers led by Takeshi Inomata from the University of Arizona in Tucson discovered the facility on the western border of the Maya lowlands when they evaluated lidar data from the border region with Guatemala. With this technology, an aircraft or drone flies over the area under investigation, sends out laser pulses in a targeted manner, and evaluates the signals reflected from the surface of the landscape. This creates a kind of topographic map of the surface.
Lidar technology can detect structures that are covered by vegetation, such as hidden systems in tropical forests. A few years ago, researchers made the once enormous dimensions of the ancient temple complex Angkor Wat in Cambodia visible. Various systems from the Maya or the neighboring Olmecs have also been discovered with this technology under the green jungle roof.
In the current case of Aguada Fénix, however, the enormous plateau was in the agricultural region of Tabasco in southern Mexico, which borders the Usumacinta River, practically right in front of the eyes of the residents. „But since the platform has such a large horizontal extension, it simply looks like a natural landscape when you walk on it,“ says Inomata. In the immediate vicinity of the platform, there were other, mostly smaller, buildings from the Maya culture.
The age of the facility was also surprising. Inomata and his colleagues dated charcoal remains and other Mayan organic remains that they discovered during selective excavations on the main plateau of Aguada Fénix using the radiocarbon method to an age of 3000 years.
Some of the ramps were built around 200 years later, and the facility was apparently slowly being expanded. This makes the complex older than most Mayan villages. Apparently the Maya also had a common ritual or religious acts before people settled in permanent dwellings.
On the platform itself, the archaeologists found two contiguous structures that were apparently built for astronomical purposes, a small, pyramid-shaped mound of earth and in front of it a small earth plateau running in a north-south direction. This construction was used again and again in other plants in the region. The Maya thus determined the times of the summer and winter solstice.
If the sun rose from the pyramid exactly over the northeast corner of the small plateau, it was the longest day of the year. If the sun rose over the southeast corner, it was the shortest day of the year – and the days would get longer now.
The system shows how important for the Mayans, who ruled large parts of Central America for more than 2000 years, were their astronomical observations and the tremendous effort they put into doing so.
The joint observations may have created an identity for the whole of society. Most likely, numerous people gathered on the large plateau for ritual acts, the researchers said. In the middle of the plateau, archaeologists found symbolic artifacts such as jade axes, which Maya typically deposited during ceremonies.
Another detail is exciting for the researchers. They did not discover any of the stone sculptures typical of later Mayan or Olmec layouts, which often represented important people. The early Mayan culture was apparently not hierarchical, write the archaeologists. Instead, the largest monumental architecture known to date was built and used jointly.
Unlike the Olmecs and later Maya societies, the early Maya did not yet have powerful elites – and were still able to organize a huge project like Aguada Fénix.