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Discovery helps explain Mayan civilization's origins


The El Castillo (The Castle), a step pyramid at the Chichen Itza archaeological site that was built by the Mayan civilization in the Mexican state of Yucatan, on Dec. 2, 2010.


Cris Bouroncle

Maybe you associate the Maya civilization with the mysterious calendar system that gave rise to the strange and obviously false belief in last year's non-apocalypse.

But for scientists, the Maya still present a very real mystery, and now an article published Thursday in Science - a peer reviewed high-impact academic journal - helps explain the origins of the ancient civilization.

Archaeologists have long wondered how the Maya society, which over 3,000 years ago occupied land that's now Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, evolved and came into being.

Some have argued the society came from Mexico's Gulf Coast Olmec civilization. But it's difficult to know because, as Science points out: "The Maya continually renovated their imposing pyramids and plazas, burying the earliest architecture under thick layers of stone."

The new article, titled "Early Ceremonial Constructions at Ceibal, Guatemala, and the Origins of Lowland Maya Civilization," offers a new hypothesis.

Lead author Takeshi Inomata, archaeologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, asserts that lowland Maya culture evolved independently from the Olmecs, instead drawing influence from nearby areas.

"The origin of Maya civilization was more complex than previously thought," said Inomata, who since 2005 has studied the Maya cultural center of Ceibal in Guatemala.

"It's signaling to us that the Maya were not receiving this sophisticated stuff 500 years later from somebody else, but much of the innovation we're seeing out of the whole region may be coming out of Ceibal or a place like Ceibal," Walter Witschey, a anthropologist at Longwood University in Virginia, told LiveScience.

The study is also of interest to the non-academic world, as its findings have something to say about how societies change. "This study is not just a study about this specific civilization," Inomata said. "We also want to think about how human society changed and how human society develops."

LiveScience writer Stephanie Pappas put it nicely:

"What the Maya findings suggest is that a new civilization doesn't have to arise from the dust of a previous one, but can happen through the interaction of multiple groups trading ideas."