By Mike Toner
Archaeologists have been discovering ruins of ancient civilizations in the jungles of Mexico and Central America for 200 years, filling libraries with investigations of the Olmec, Maya, and other pre-Hispanic cultures. The Maya’s massive stone monuments, calendars, script, agriculture, and astronomical observations have made them one of the most thoroughly studied ancient civilizations in the Americas. So, it came as a bit of a shock last year when University of Arizona archaeologists Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan reported the discovery of the oldest—and largest—monumental structure ever found in the Maya lowlands. And it wasn’t hidden away in some remote jungle. It was languishing in plain sight on a partly forested cattle ranch in the state of Tabasco in southeast Mexico.
Sometimes, it seems, things are just too big to be noticed. Inomata and Triadan’s discovery, named Aguada Fénix, is that big. The centerpiece of the 3,000-year-old site is a thirty-foot high earthen ceremonial platform that rises, quite unceremoniously, from the lowlands along Mexico’s border with Guatemala. The man-made mesa is nearly a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. “The scale is so large, it looks like a natural feature,” said Inomata. “Even when you’re standing there and looking right at it, you can’t see its rectangular shape. You can’t tell that it is a human construction. Its form is only clear from the air.”
A terrace and a structure made of large stone blocks were found in the western portion of Aguada Fénix’s main plateau. | Credit: Takeshi Inomata
Daniela Triadan (center) and her colleagues uncover a cache of eleven ceramic vessels that date to roughly 800 B.C. | Credit Takeshi Inomata
Airborne LiDAR surveys by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography and the Houston-based National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, which used laser pulses to map surface features, revealed the massive rectangular platform that is surrounded by an even larger complex of ancient structures. So far, Inomata and Triadan have identified the outline of scores of buildings and at least nine causeways—one of them more than four miles long—that radiate outwards from the central platform. Wider-ranging LiDAR surveys show what appear to be additional ceremonial centers scattered across the Usumacinta Basin in southern Mexico and northern Guatemala, an area that straddles portions of the Maya lowlands and the region inhabited by the Olmec, an older civilization thought by some archaeologists to be the Cultura Madre, or Mother Culture, of later Mesoamerican people.
This is an article excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.