The platform stands
between 33 and 50 feet tall and measures almost a mile long
Built over the course
of 200 years, Aguada Fénix was abandoned just 50
years after its completion. (Takeshi Inomata et al.)
Among the most well-known examples of Maya
architecture are the Mesoamerican civilization's towering
pyramids. But centuries prior to these iconic temples' construction,
members of the Maya culture built a largeralbeit flatterceremonial
space. Now, aerial
imaging has revealed this long-forgotten platform in Tabasco,
Mexico: Built between 1,000 and 800 B.C., the structure measures
more than 4,500 feet long and stands an estimated 33 to 50 feet
tall, reports Will Dunham for Reuters.
According to a team of archaeologists led by the
of Arizona's Takeshi Inomata, the platform is made up of a
checkerboard of clay and earth from several different sources,
suggesting that multiple communities worked together to build
the mound. The area, called Aguada Fénix, is free of any
sign that local royalty oversaw the project. Per Science
News' Bruce Bower, the archaeologists theorize that while
local leaders may have directed construction, the workaimed
at creating a shared destinationwas largely voluntary.
"We think this was a ceremonial center," Inomata
tells Tim Vernimmen of National
Geographic. "[It's] a place of gathering, possibly involving
processions and other rituals we can only imagine."
The researchers found the platform and at least
nine raised roads leading to it with the help of LiDAR,
which sends thousands of laser pulses toward the ground each second.
By measuring how long it takes for light to bounce back to the
transmitter, the technology creates a topographical map of the
Archaeologist and co-author
Melina Garcia excavates part of the Aguada Fénix
site. (Takeshi Inomata)
LiDAR is often employed in dense jungles. But Aguada
Fénix was hidden in plain sight under Tabasco's semi-forested
"This area is developedit's not the jungle; people live
there, but this site was not known because it is so flat and huge,"
Inomata tells Kiona Smith at Ars
Technica. "It just looks like a natural landscape. But with
LiDAR, it pops up as a very well-planned shape."
The platform is about nine-tenths of a mile long,
a quarter-mile wide and roughly 3,000 years old, making it the
"oldest monumental construction ever found in the Maya area and
the largest in the entire pre-Hispanic history of the region,"
write Inomata and his colleagues in the journal Nature.
The size of the structure and nearby evidence of corn cultivation
indicate that the people responsible for building Aguada Fénix
were starting to transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to
a stationary community.
"The sheer size is astonishing," says Jon Lohse,
an archaeologist at Terracon
Consultants Inc. who wasn't involved in the study, to National
Lohse disagrees that the structure is suggestive
of a community settling in one place.
"Monumental constructions by pre-sedentary people
are not uncommon globally," he adds.
Aerial view of Aguada
Fénix main plateau and ramps connected to causeways
Aguada Fénix was built over the course of
200 years, with construction completed by 800 B.C. But the platform
was abandoned just 50 years later, according to Ars Technica.
While small groups may have used the ceremonial site in the centuries
afterward, these gatherings were a far cry from the crowds that
would have convened during the platform's prime.
"It is probable that many people from surrounding
areas gathered for special occasions, possibly tied to calendrical
cycles," Inomata tells Reuters. "The rituals probably involved
processions along the causeways and within the rectangular plaza.
The people also deposited symbolic objects such as jade axes in
the center of the plateau."
The team's discovery disputes the theory that Maya
society developed from small villages into increasingly larger
urban centers. The site lacks a city center but could have been
built by 5,000 people in about six years, reports National
While a nearby civilization, the Olmec, created
similar structures prior to the Maya, these platforms usually
included large stone sculptures of rulers. Surveys of the Aguada
Fénix platform revealed pottery, bones and shells, but
no sign of the kind of statues that would hint at a ruling class.
"The public spaces at Aguada Fénix are huge,"
says Brown University archaeologist Andrew Scherer, who wasn't
involved in the study, to Science News. "And there is nothing
to indicate that access was limited to a privileged few."
Theresa Machemer is a freelance writer based
in Washington DC. Her work has also appeared in National Geographic
and SciShow. Website: tkmach.com