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Origins and spread of formal ceremonial complexes in the Olmec and Maya regions revealed by airborne lidar


City plans symbolizing cosmologies have long been recognized as a defining element of Mesoamerican civilizations. The origins of formal spatial configurations are thus the key to understanding early civilizations in the region. Assessment of this issue, however, has been hindered by the lack of systematic studies of site plans over broad areas. Here, we report the identification of 478 formal rectangular and square complexes, probably dating from 1,050 to 400 bc, through a lidar (laser imaging, detection and ranging) survey across the Olmec region and the western Maya lowlands. Our analysis of lidar data also revealed that the earlier Olmec centre of San Lorenzo had a central rectangular space, which possibly provided the spatial template for later sites. This format was probably formalized and spread after the decline of San Lorenzo through intensive interaction across various regions. These observations highlight the legacy of San Lorenzo and the critical role of inter-regional interaction.

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Fig. 1: Study area.
Fig. 2: Formative standardized complexes.
Fig. 3: MFG complexes on the same scale.
Fig. 4: Comparison of San Lorenzo and MFUs.
Fig. 5: Four-directional lines at ceremonial complexes.
Fig. 6: Orientations of standardized complexes.
Fig. 7: Sites dating to later periods.
Fig. 8: Fortified sites in the Maya area.

Data availability

The database of archaeological sites identified in this study is available at the University of Arizona Campus Repository (

Code availability

The Oxcal code used for Bayesian analysis is provided in Supplementary Information.


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The permit for our research was granted by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). We thank the personnel of the Centro INAH Tabasco, especially its director C. Giordano, J. L. Romero and J. Lagunes for their help and information on Pajonal and Kilómetro 15. Funding was provided by the Alphawood Foundation and the National Science Foundation (BCS-1826909) to T.I. and D.T. Thoughtful comments on earlier drafts were provided by B. Stark, D. Stuart, A. Cyphers, J. Clark, R. Rosenswig and A. Aveni. We also thank W. Stoner and T. Pugh for discussions on southern Veracruz and Nixtun-Ch’ich’. We are grateful to E. Martínez and S. Fallas of the CCGS for sharing their lidar data. W. Witschey and C. Brown kindly shared their Electronic Atlas of Ancient Maya Sites data. R. González kindly allowed us to redraw the map of La Venta. J. MacLellan and M. Burham compiled the INEGI lidar data, and L. Auld-Thomas provided instructions for the production of RRIM. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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Authors and Affiliations



T.I. conceptualized the research. J.F.-D. coordinated the NCALM lidar data acquisition and processing, and reprocessed the INEGI and G-LiHT lidar. T.I., M.G.M, F.P. and M.G.H. analysed lidar data for the identification of archaeological features. T.I. and T.B. identified wetland fields in lidar data. J.D.D., A.G.L. and L.G.C. provided information on the INEGI lidar. T.I., D.T., M.G.M, F.P., M.G.H. and A.F. conducted field investigations in the Middle Usumacinta region and M.L.H.J. and M.M.D. carried out surveys in southern Veracruz. A.S. analysed faunal remains. G.H. conducted radiocarbon analysis and T.I. and G.H. evaluated radiocarbon dates. T.I. conducted the Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates. T.I. wrote the manuscript with input from others.

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Correspondence to Takeshi Inomata.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Human Behaviour thanks Fiona Petchey, Robert Rosenswig and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 E Groups.

a, Types of E Groups. b, Locations of E Groups by type. Only complexes identified in the INEGI lidar are plotted.

Extended Data Fig. 2 MFCs and MFGs.

a, Locations of MFCs and MFGs. b, MFCs and an MFG (Peñites) shown in RRIM (DEM). All images are on the same scale.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Locations of MFUs and VCs.

The numbers indicate the locations of the sites shown in Extended Data Figs. 4 and 5.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Examples of MFUs.

See Extended Data Fig. 3 for their locations. The images are shown in RRIM (DEM) and hillshade (DSM). All images are on the same scale.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Oxcal output of the manual rejection model for the 2020 samples.

Outliers are excluded from the output. The grey areas indicate the probability distributions of unmodelled dates, whereas the black areas show the probability distributions of modelled dates. The bars under the probability distributions indicate the 95.4 % ranges.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Examples of VCs.

See Extended Data Fig. 3 for their locations. The images are shown in RRIM (DEM) and hillshade (DSM). All images are on the same scale.

Extended Data Fig. 7 El Marquesillo possibly exhibiting the VC pattern.

It is shown in the RRIM of the INEGI DEM.

Extended Data Fig. 8 San Lorenzo and La Duda.

The images are on the same scale, but the image of La Duda is rotated. See Extended Data Fig. 3 for their locations. a, Edge platforms and the central rectangular space of San Lorenzo. b, San Lorenzo. The 2 m-resolution DEM reprocessed from the INEGI lidar data is shown as a hillshade image. The areas of dense vegetation, which laser pulses did not penetrate well, are indicated in half-transparent green. Other areas have pastures or sparse vegetation. In clear areas, details of the surface topography are visible. To produce this DEM, we manually cleaned some vegetation returns only in the areas covered by dense vegetation. The DEM shows the rectangular shapes of edge platforms, which define the straight edges of the possible rectangular plaza in the middle. The buildings in the centre of the probable plaza represent a Classic Veracruz complex added during the Villa Alta phase. c, The MFU complex of La Duda. The 5 m-resolution INEGI DSM is shown as a hillshade image. Its northeastern part is damaged by modern road construction, and its eastern end is covered by dense vegetation. Its edge platforms (possibly 20 of them) separated by narrow alleys and the rectangular plaza with a wing on the viewer’s right are visible. Its configuration is similar to that of San Lorenzo. The main difference is the presence of an E Group.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Discussions 1–3, Figs. 1–9, Tables 1–7, Methods and Refs. 1–55.

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Supplementary Table 8

List of radiocarbon dates.

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Inomata, T., Fernandez-Diaz, J.C., Triadan, D. et al. Origins and spread of formal ceremonial complexes in the Olmec and Maya regions revealed by airborne lidar. Nat Hum Behav 5, 1487–1501 (2021).

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