Archaeologists discover Maya 'melting pot'

March 23, 2015
Round structure uncovered at Ceibal, from about 500 B.C. Credit: Takeshi Inomata/University of Arizona

Archaeologists working in Guatemala have unearthed new information about the Maya civilization's transition from a mobile, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary way of life.

Led by University of Arizona archaeologists Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, the team's excavations of the ancient Maya lowlands site of Ceibal suggest that as the society transitioned from a heavy reliance on foraging to farming, mobile communities and settled groups co-existed and may have come together to collaborate on construction projects and participate in public ceremonies.

The findings, to be published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, challenge two common assumptions: that mobile and sedentary groups maintained separate communities, and that public buildings were constructed only after a society had fully put down roots.

"There has been the theory that sedentary and mobile groups co-exited in various parts of the world, but most people thought the sedentary and mobile communities were separate, even though they were in relatively close areas," said Inomata, a UA professor of anthropology and lead author of the PNAS study. "Our study presents the first relatively concrete evidence that mobile and sedentary people came together to build a ceremonial center."

Archaeologists excavate an early residential structure at Ceibal, from about 500 B.C. Credit: Takeshi Inomata/University of Arizona

A public plaza uncovered at Ceibal dates to about 950 B.C., with surrounding ceremonial buildings growing to monumental sizes by about 800 B.C. Yet, evidence of permanent residential dwellings in the area during that time is scarce. Most people were still living a traditional hunter-gatherer-like lifestyle, moving from place to place throughout the rainforest, as they would continue to do for five or six more centuries.

The area's few permanent residents could not have built the plaza alone, Inomata said.

"The construction of ceremonial buildings is pretty substantial, so there had to be more people working on that construction," he said.

Inomata and his colleagues theorize that groups with varying degrees of mobility came together to construct the buildings and to participate in public ceremonies over the next several hundred years. That process likely helped them to bond socially and eventually make the transition to a fully sedentary society.

Early elite residence at Ceibal, about 750 B.C. Credit: Takeshi Inomata/University of Arizona

"This tells us something about the importance of ritual and construction. People tend to think that you have a developed society and then building comes. I think in many cases it's the other way around," Inomata said.

"For those people living the traditional way of life, ceremony, ritual and construction became major forces for them to adapt a new way of life and build a new society. The process of gathering for ritual and gathering for construction helped bring together different people who were doing different things, and eventually that contributed to the later development of Mayan civilization."

The transition was gradual, with the Maya making the shift to a fully sedentary agrarian society, reliant on maize, by about 400 or 300 B.C., Inomata said.

"The most fascinating finding is that different peoples with diverse ways of life co-existed in apparent harmony for generations before establishing a more uniform society," said Melissa Burham, a study co-author and a graduate student in the UA School of Anthropology. "Discovering an ancient 'melting pot' is definitely the unexpected highlight of this research."

Explore further: Research sheds light on how Southeast Asia evolved from hunter gatherer to farming society

More information: Development of sedentary communities in the Maya lowlands: Coexisting mobile groups and public ceremonies at Ceibal, Guatemala, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1501212112

Related Stories

Genes shed light on pygmy history

February 4, 2014

Scientists on Tuesday said they could fill a blank in the history of Central Africa's pygmies, whose past is one of the most elusive of any community in the world.

Recommended for you

New species of pterosaur discovered in Patagonia

August 30, 2016

Scientists today announced the discovery of a new species of pterosaur from the Patagonia region of South America. The cranial remains were in an excellent state of preservation and belonged to a new species of pterosaur ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

jyro
5 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2015
" new information about the Maya civilization's transition from a mobile, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary way of life".

Clearly, Myan's discovered the internet.
VCRAGAIN
1 / 5 (1) Mar 31, 2015
It may be what the story is with the Gobekli-Tepe 'temples' or whatever they are in Turkey, they were not homes, but seem to have been community structures. yet maybe the peoples involved were still hunter-gatherers as well, since there is no evidence of housing in the area and these are 12000 yr old structures I believe - mankind was obviously very creative even if he was just hunting and gathering nuts and berries for food. We have so much history still to understand, and I am very glad we are now realizing they were just people much like us, not the savages we were always taught they were ! And the bigger picture may prove that the accepted theory of evolution is not quite what they think either - I am watching with great interest !

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.