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Monumental architecture at Aguada Fénix and the rise of Maya civilization


Archaeologists have traditionally thought that the development of Maya civilization was gradual, assuming that small villages began to emerge during the Middle Preclassic period (1000–350 bc; dates are calibrated throughout) along with the use of ceramics and the adoption of sedentism1. Recent finds of early ceremonial complexes are beginning to challenge this model. Here we describe an airborne lidar survey and excavations of the previously unknown site of Aguada Fénix (Tabasco, Mexico) with an artificial plateau, which measures 1,400 m in length and 10 to 15 m in height and has 9 causeways radiating out from it. We dated this construction to between 1000 and 800 bc using a Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates. To our knowledge, this is the oldest monumental construction ever found in the Maya area and the largest in the entire pre-Hispanic history of the region. Although the site exhibits some similarities to the earlier Olmec centre of San Lorenzo, the community of Aguada Fénix probably did not have marked social inequality comparable to that of San Lorenzo. Aguada Fénix and other ceremonial complexes of the same period suggest the importance of communal work in the initial development of Maya civilization.

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Fig. 1: Map of the Middle Usumacinta region.
Fig. 2: High-resolution lidar images of Aguada Fénix and La Carmelita.

Data availability

The results of field investigations and laboratory analyses are described more in detail in annual reports presented to the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. Those reports, as well as the 3D models for volume calculation, are available at the University of Arizona Campus Repository (

Code availability

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


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The permit for our research was granted by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. Funding was provided by the Alphawood Foundation, the National Science Foundation (BCS-1826909), the Agnese Nelms Haury Program of the University of Arizona and JSPS KAKENHI (26101003). We thank R. Liendo, K. Teranishi, F. Kupprat, V. Poston, A. Flores, F. Pinzón, M. Mollinedo, C. Alvarado, H. Zanotto, D. Ramírez, S. Mendoza and O. García for their dedicated work.

Author information




T.I. and D.T. designed the research. T.I., D.T., M.B.M.B., V.A.V.L. and M.G.H. conducted field investigations. T.I. planned the lidar survey, and J.C.F.-D. coordinated the acquisition and processing of high-resolution lidar data. T.I. analysed lidar data and made 3D bedrock models. H.N. analysed botanical remains, and T.O. conducted radiocarbon analysis. T.I. and T.O. carried out the Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates. T.B. conducted soil studies, and C.C. analysed starch grains. K.A. analysed obsidian artefacts. T.I. wrote the manuscript with input from others.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Takeshi Inomata.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Geographical and chronological contexts of the study.

a, Map of Mesoamerica, showing the locations of the sites mentioned in the text. Map topographic data from the NASA-JPL Shuttle Radar Topographic Mission ( b, Chronology of Mesoamerica, indicating the construction dates of the Aguada Fénix main plateau and other major buildings listed in Extended Data Fig. 9c. Each bar shows the period in which a large portion of the building was constructed. Minor renovations and additions occurred outside of the indicated ranges.

Extended Data Fig. 2 High-resolution lidar image of the north causeways of Aguada Fénix.

The causeways are connected to the main plateau by large ramps. The northwest causeway is the longest at the site, and connects multiple MFU complexes and rectangular complexes along the way.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Locations of excavations and auger tests at Aguada Fénix.

The footprint of the main plateau indicated in this figure was used for the calculations of plateau fill volumes. The locations of the section drawings shown in Extended Data Fig. 9 are also indicated.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Composite 3D photogrammetry image of operation NR3, showing the north and east profiles.

The locations of radiocarbon samples are projected to the nearest profiles. The image shows that a substantial part of the plateau fills was placed during the period between 1000 and 800 bc. The fills between floors 10 and 11b consist of clays and other soils of multiple colours in checkerboard-like patterns.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Construction fills with clays and other soils of multiple colours found in operation NR3 (a 4 × 4-m excavation, viewed from the south).

a, Upper layer directly under floor 10. b, Middle layer. c, Lower layer. Blocks of soils in different colours are separated by dividers made of black clay and other soils. d, North profile. This sequence shows that blocks of soils in different colours were placed in multiple layers above floor 11a in one construction event. They were covered by floor 10 at the end of the sequence.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Megalithic structure found in operation NR8.

a, Composite 3D photogrammetry image of the structure and the excavation. b, Back wall viewed from the interior (from the southwest). c, Back wall viewed from the exterior (from the east) (2-m-wide trench). There was a deposit of broken ceramics placed at the end of the Late Classic period. d, Back terrace retaining wall, viewed from the east (2-m-wide trench).

Extended Data Fig. 7 Radiocarbon dates from Aguada Fénix and La Carmelita.

Radiocarbon dates for the Middle Preclassic period and key boundary dates are shown, excluding outliers. Black areas indicate the probability distributions of modelled dates obtained with model 1, and grey areas show those of unmodelled calibrated dates. Dates in blue represent boundary dates. The entire OxCal results of model 1 are provided in Supplementary Table 1 and Supplementary Data.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Locations of excavations at La Carmelita.

The northern part of the site, including the northern portion of the eastern platform of the E group, was damaged by a modern development project. The construction was halted by the Mexican government after initial destruction.

Extended Data Fig. 9 Calculation of the volume of the main plateau at Aguada Fénix.

a, Section drawings of the plateau, showing the current ground surface and the estimated positions of bedrock. Vertical dimensions are exaggerated. The locations of the section lines are shown in Extended Data Fig. 3. Red lines indicate the depths of bedrock reached by excavations and auger tests. When excavations and auger tests are not on the section lines, their elevations may not correspond exactly with the positions of the current ground surface and bedrock shown here. b, Estimated construction volumes of the main plateau and the west plateau of Aguada Fénix, and estimates of labour investment. c, Comparison of the Aguada Fénix plateaus with other major buildings4,5,7,13,24,87,88,89 in Mesoamerica. The construction volume of the main plateau of Aguada Fénix is larger than that of the La Danta complex (the largest construction in the Maya lowlands previously known) and that of the Pyramid of the Sun of Teotihuacan, the largest city in Preclassic-to-Classic Mesoamerica. The Great Pyramid of Cholula is larger, but it was expanded over more than 1,000 years.

Extended Data Fig. 10 Early Middle Preclassic caches found at Aguada Fénix.

a, b, Cache NR3 (found in operation NR5B), which was placed on the east–west axis of the E-group plaza. It contained six axes and a perforator (all made of greenstone), as well as three small pieces of greenstone. The pointed end of the perforator is broken. The contents and location of this cache closely resemble those found at San Isidro, Chiapa de Corzo, Ceibal and Cival. Similar caches of greenstone axes were also found at La Venta, although not in the E-group plaza. These deposits, along with the similarities in site layout, show that these Middle Preclassic centres shared spatial and ritual concepts. ce, Cache AF1, found in operation AF1D. It contained a limestone sculpture—possibly representing a white-lipped peccary—that we named ‘Choco’. The naturalistic image of an animal contrasts with Olmec art, which depicts supernatural beings and high-status individuals.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This combined PDF file contains Supplementary Table 2 (Depths of the layers found in excavations and auger tests), Supplementary Table 3 (Frequency of obsidian artifacts by sources), Supplementary Table 4 (Frequency of identified starch grains on grinding stones found in Middle Preclassic contexts), Supplementary Data (Oxcal output of Model 1) and Supplementary Method (Oxcal code for the analysis of radiocarbon dates).

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Table

Radiocarbon dates and the results of the Bayesian models. The table shows the lab number, provenience, material, uncalibrated radiocarbon date, calibrated radiocarbon date, Bayesian-modelled date and other information for each radiocarbon sample examined in this study.

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Inomata, T., Triadan, D., Vázquez López, V.A. et al. Monumental architecture at Aguada Fénix and the rise of Maya civilization. Nature 582, 530–533 (2020).

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