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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
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 (https://repository.arizona.edu/handle/10150/635527).
The OxCal code used for Bayesian analysis is provided in the Supplementary Information.
Adams, R. E. W. The Origins of Maya Civilization (Univ. New Mexico Press, 1977).
Lohse, J. C. Archaic origins of the lowland Maya. Lat. Am. Antiq. 21, 312–352 (2010).
Inomata, T., Triadan, D., Aoyama, K., Castillo, V. & Yonenobu, H. Early ceremonial constructions at Ceibal, Guatemala, and the origins of lowland Maya civilization. Science 340, 467–471 (2013).
Inomata, T., Triadan, D., Pinzón, F. & Aoyama, K. Artificial plateau construction during the Preclassic period at the Maya site of Ceibal, Guatemala. PLoS ONE 14, e0221943 (2019).
Estrada-Belli, F. in Early New World Monumentality (eds Burger, R. L. & Rosenswig, R. M.) 198–230 (Univ. Press Florida, 2012).
Andrews, E. W. V, Bey, G. J. III & Gunn, C. M. in Pathways to Complexity: A View from the Maya Lowlands (eds Brown, M. K. & Bey, G. J. III) 49–86 (Univ. Press Florida, 2018).
Hansen, R. D. & Suyuc, L. E. Mirador (FARES Guatemala, 2016).
Gallareta Negrón, T. in Pathways to Complexity: A View from the Maya Lowlands (eds Brown, M. K. & Bey, G. J. III) 276–291 (Univ. Press Florida, 2018).
Reese-Taylor, K. in Maya E Groups: Calendars, Astronomy, and Urbanism in the Early Lowlands (eds Freidel, D. A. et al.) 480–513 (Univ. Press Florida, 2017).
Rands, R. L. in Origins of Maya Civilization (ed. Adams, R. E. W.) 159–180 (Univ. New Mexico Press, 1977).
Ochoa, L. in Antropología e Historia de los Mixe-Zoques y Mayas: Homenaje a Frans Blom (eds Ochoa, L. & Lee, T. A.) 147–174 (Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas, UNAM, 1983).
Coe, M. D. & Diehl, R. A. In the Land of the Olmec (Univ. Texas Press, 1980).
Cyphers, A. in The Origins of Maya States (eds Traxler, L. P. & Sharer, R. J.) 83–122 (Univ. Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2016).
Drucker, P., Heizer, R. F. & Squier, R. H. Excavations at La Venta, Tabasco, 1955 (Smithsonian Institution, 1959).
González Lauck, R. B. in The Place of Stone Monuments: Context, Use, and Meaning in Mesoamerica’s Preclassic Tradition (eds Guernsey, J. et al.) 177–205 (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010).
Clark, J. E. in The Origins of Maya States (eds Traxler, L. P. & Sharer, R. J.) 123–224 (Univ. Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2016).
Clark, J. E. & Hansen, R. D. in Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya, Volume 2: Data and Case Studies (eds Inomata, T. & Houston, S. D.) 1–45 (Westview Press, 2001).
Estrada-Belli, F. The First Maya Civilization: Ritual and Power before the Classic Period (Routledge, 2011).
Freidel, D. A., Chase, A. F., Dowd, A. S. & Murdock, J. Maya E Groups: Calendars, Astronomy, and Urbanism in the Early Lowlands (Univ. Press Florida, 2017).
Lowe, G. W. in The Origins of Maya Civilization (ed. Adams, R. E. W.) 197–248 (Univ. New Mexico Press, 1977).
Lowe, G. W. in The Olmec and their Neighbors (eds Coe, M. D. & Grove, D.) 231–256 (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1981).
Bachand, B. R. & Lowe, L. S. in Arqueología Reciente de Chiapas: Contribuciones del Encuentro Celebrado en el 60° Aniversario de la Fundación Arqueológica Nuevo Mundo (eds Lowe, L. S. & Pye, M. E.) 45–68 (Brigham Young Univ., 2012).
Inomata, T. & Triadan, D. Middle Preclassic Caches from Ceibal, Guatemala. Maya Archaeol. 3, 56–91 (2016).
Webster, D. & Kirker, J. Too many Maya, too few buildings: investigating construction potential at Copán, Honduras. J. Anthropol. Res. 51, 363–387 (1995).
Hodgson, J. G., Clark, J. G. & Gallaga Murrieta, E. Ojo de Agua monument 3: a new Olmec-style sculpture from Ojo de Agua, Chiapas, Mexico. Mexicon 32, 139–144 (2010).
Love, M. & Guernsey, J. in Early Mesoamerican Social Transformations: Archaic and Formative Lifeways in the Soconusco Region (ed. Lesure, R. G.) 170–188 (Univ. California Press, 2011).
Hirth, K., Cyphers, A., Cobean, R., De León, J. & Glascock, M. D. Early Olmec obsidian trade and economic organization at San Lorenzo. J. Archaeol. Sci. 40, 2784–2798 (2013).
Blake, M., Clark, J. E., Voorhies, B., Love, M. W. & Chisholm, B. S. Prehistoric subsistence in the Soconusco region. Curr. Anthropol. 33, 83–94 (1992).
Clark, J. E., Pye, M. E. & Gosser, D. C. in Archaeology, Art, and Ethnogenesis in Mesoamerican Prehistory: Papers in Honor of Gareth W. Lowe (eds Lowe, L. S. & Pye, M. E.) 23–42 (Brigham Young Univ., 2007).
Inomata, T. et al. Development of sedentary communities in the Maya lowlands: coexisting mobile groups and public ceremonies at Ceibal, Guatemala. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 4268–4273 (2015).
Rosenswig, R. M. in Early Mesoamerican Social Transformations: Archaic and Formative Lifeways in the Soconusco Region (ed. Lesure, R. G.) 242–271 (Univ. California Press, 2011).
Schmidt, K. Göbekli Tepe–the Stone Age sanctuaries: new results of ongoing excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs. Documenta Praehistorica 37, 239–255 (2010).
Solis, R. S., Haas, J. & Creamer, W. Dating Caral, a preceramic site in the Supe Valley on the central coast of Peru. Science 292, 723–726 (2001).
Saunders, J. W. et al. Watson Brake, a Middle Archaic mound complex in northeast Louisiana. Am. Antiq. 70, 631–668 (2005).
Stanish, C. The Evolution of Human Co-Operation: Ritual and Social Complexity in Stateless Societies (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2017).
Burger, R. L. & Rosenswig, R. M. Early New World Monumentality (eds Burger, R. L. & Rosenswig, R. M.) (Univ. Press Florida, 2012).
Piperno, D. R., Ranere, A. J., Holst, I., Iriarte, J. & Dickau, R. Starch grain and phytolith evidence for early ninth millennium B.P. maize from the Central Balsas River Valley, Mexico. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 5019–5024 (2009).
Chase, A. F. et al. Airborne LiDAR, archaeology, and the ancient Maya landscape at Caracol, Belize. J. Archaeol. Sci. 38, 387–398 (2011).
Chase, A. F., Chase, D. Z., Fisher, C. T., Leisz, S. J. & Weishampel, J. F. Geospatial revolution and remote sensing LiDAR in Mesoamerican archaeology. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 12916–12921 (2012).
Chase, A. F. et al. Ancient Maya regional settlement and inter-site analysis: the 2013 west-central Belize LiDAR survey. Adv. Archaeol. Pract. 6, 8671–8695 (2014).
Rosenswig, R. M., López-Torrijos, R., Antonelli, C. E. & Mendelsohn, R. R. Lidar mapping and surface survey of the Izapa state on the tropical piedmont of Chiapas, Mexico. J. Archaeol. Sci. 40, 1493–1507 (2013).
Rosenswig, R. M. & López-Torrijos, R. Lidar reveals the entire kingdom of Izapa during the first millennium BC. Antiquity 92, 1292–1309 (2018).
Hutson, S. R., Kidder, B., Lamb, C., Vallejo-Cáliz, D. & Welch, J. Small buildings and small budgets: making lidar work in northern Yucatan, Mexico. Adv. Archaeol. Pract. 4, 268–283 (2016).
Reese-Taylor, K. et al. Boots on the ground at Yaxnohcah: ground-truthing lidar in a complex tropical landscape. Adv. Archaeol. Pract. 4, 314–338 (2016).
Loughlin, M. L., Pool, C. A., Fernandez-Diaz, J. C. & Shrestha, R. L. Mapping the Tres Zapotes Polity: the effectiveness of lidar in tropical alluvial settings. Adv. Archaeol. Pract. 4, 301–313 (2016).
Magnoni, A. et al. Detection thresholds of archaeological features in airborne lidar data from central Yucatán. Adv. Archaeol. Pract. 4, 232–248 (2016).
Inomata, T. et al. Archaeological application of airborne LiDAR to examine social changes in the Ceibal region of the Maya lowlands. PLoS ONE 13, e0191619 (2018).
Canuto, M. A. et al. Ancient lowland Maya complexity as revealed by airborne laser scanning of northern Guatemala. Science 361, eaau0137 (2018).
Beach, T. et al. Ancient Maya wetland fields revealed under tropical forest canopy from laser scanning and multiproxy evidence. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 116, 21469–21477 (2019).
Evans, D. H. et al. Uncovering archaeological landscapes at Angkor using lidar. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 12595–12600 (2013).
Evans, D. Airborne laser scanning as a method for exploring long-term socio-ecological dynamics in Cambodia. J. Archaeol. Sci. 74, 164–175 (2016).
Fernandez-Diaz, J. C. et al. Capability assessment and performance metrics for the Titan multispectral mapping lidar. Remote Sens. 8, 936 (2016).
Fernandez-Diaz, J. C., Carter, W. E., Shrestha, R. L. & Glennie, C. L. Now you see it … now you don’t: understanding airborne mapping LiDAR collection and data product generation for archaeological research in Mesoamerica. Remote Sens. 6, 9951–10001 (2014).
Hutson, S. R. Adapting LiDAR data for regional variation in the tropics: a case study from the Northern Maya lowlands. J. Archaeol. Sci. 4, 252–263 (2015).
Prufer, K. M., Thompson, A. E. & Kennett, D. J. Evaluating airborne LiDAR for detecting settlements and modified landscapes in disturbed tropical environments at Uxbenká, Belize. J. Archaeol. Sci. 57, 1–13 (2015).
Inomata, T. et al. Archaeological application of airborne LiDAR with object-based vegetation classification and visualization techniques at the lowland Maya site of Ceibal, Guatemala. Remote Sens. 9, 563 (2017).
Venter, M. L., Shields, C. R. & Ordóñez, M. D. C. Mapping Matacanela: the complementary work of LiDAR and topographical survey in southern Veracruz, Mexico. Anc. Mesoam. 29, 81–92 (2018).
Bennett, R., Welham, K. & Ford, A. A comparison of visualization techniques for models created from airborne laser scanned data. Archaeol. Prospect. 19, 41–48 (2012).
Challis, K., Forlin, P. & Kincey, M. A generic toolkit for the visualization of archaeological features on airborne LiDAR elevation data. Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 279–289 (2011).
Devereux, B. J., Amable, G. S. & Crow, P. Visualisation of LiDAR terrain models for archaeological feature detection. Antiquity 82, 470 (2008).
Harmon, J. M., Leone, M. P., Prince, S. D. & Snyder, M. Lidar for archaeological landscape analysis: a case study of two eighteenth-century Maryland plantation sites. Am. Antiq. 71, 649–670 (2006).
Millard, K., Burke, C., Stiff, D. & Redden, A. Detection of a low-relief 18th-century British siege trench using LiDAR vegetation penetration capabilities at Fort Beauséjour–Fort Cumberland National Historic Site, Canada. Geoarchaeology 24, 576–588 (2009).
Štular, B., Kokalj, Ž., Oštir, K. & Nuninger, L. Visualization of lidar-derived relief models for detection of archaeological features. J. Archaeol. Sci. 39, 3354–3360 (2012).
Chiba, T., Kaneta, S. & Suzuki, Y. Red relief image map: new visualization method for three dimensional data. Int. Arch. Photogramm. Remote Sens. Spat. Inf. Sci 37, 1071–1076 (2008).
Chiba, T. & Suzuki, Y. Visualization of airborne laser mapping data: production and development of red relief image map. Adv. Survey Technol. (in Japanese) 96, 32–42 (2008).
Inomata, T., Triadan, D. & Aoyama, K. After 40 years: revisiting Ceibal to investigate the origins of lowland Maya civilization. Anc. Mesoam. 28, 187–201 (2017).
Sabloff, J. A. Excavations at Seibal, Department of Peten, Guatemala: Ceramics (Harvard Univ., 1975).
Inomata, T. et al. High-precision radiocarbon dating of political collapse and dynastic origins at the Maya site of Ceibal, Guatemala. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 1293–1298 (2017).
Inomata, T. The emergence of standardized spatial plans in southern Mesoamerica: chronology and interregional interactions viewed from Ceibal, Guatemala. Anc. Mesoam. 28, 329–355 (2017).
Cyphers, A. & Murtha, T. in Mesoamerican Plazas: Arenas of Community and Power (eds Tsukamoto, K. & Inomata, T.) 71-89 (Univ. Arizona Press, 2014).
Erasmus, C. J. Monument building: some field experiments. Southwest. J. Anthropol. 21, 277–301 (1965).
Abrams, E. M. How the Maya Built their World: Energetics and Ancient Architecture (Univ. Texas Press, 1994).
Ortmann, A. L. & Kidder, T. R. Building mound A at Poverty Point, Louisiana: monumental public architecture, ritual practice, and implications for hunter-gatherer complexity. Geoarchaeology 28, 66–86 (2013).
Beach, T. et al. Stability and instability on Maya lowlands tropical hillslope soils. Geomorphology 305, 185–208 (2018).
Bronk Ramsey, C. Radiocarbon calibration and analysis of stratigraphy: the OxCal program. Radiocarbon 37, 425–430 (1995).
Bronk Ramsey, C. Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates. Radiocarbon 51, 337–360 (2009).
Bronk Ramsey, C. OxCal 4.3. http://c14.arch.ox.ac.uk/ (2019).
Reimer, P. J. et al. IntCal13 and Marine13 radiocarbon age calibration curves 0–50,000 years cal bp. Radiocarbon 55, 1869–1887 (2013).
Kennett, D. J. et al. Correlating the ancient Maya and modern European calendars with high-precision AMS 14C dating. Sci. Rep. 3, 1597 (2013).
Hogg, A. G. et al. SHCal13 Southern Hemisphere calibration, 0–50,000 years cal BP. Radiocarbon 55, 1889–1903 (2013).
Inomata, T., Ortiz, R., Arroyo, B. & Robinson, E. J. Chronological revisions of Preclassic Kaminaljuyú, Guatemala: implications for social processes in the southern Maya area. Lat. Am. Antiq. 25, 377–408 (2014).
Buck, C. E., Kenworthy, J. B., Litton, C. D. & Smith, A. F. M. Combining archaeological and radiocarbon information: a Bayesian approach to calibration. Antiquity 65, 808–821 (1991).
Buck, C. E., Cavanagh, W. G. & Litton, C. D. Bayesian Approach to Interpreting Archaeological Data (Wiley, 1996).
Bayliss, A. Rolling out revolution: using radiocarbon dating in archaeology. Radiocarbon 51, 123–147 (2009).
Bayliss, A. Quality in Bayesian chronological models in archaeology. World Archaeol. 47, 677–700 (2015).
Bronk Ramsey, C. Dealing with outliers and offsets in radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon 51, 1023–1045 (2009).
Coe, W. R. (ed). Tikal Report No. 14: Excavations in the Great Plaza, North Terrace and North Acropolis of Tikal (Univ. Museum, Univ. Pennsylvania, 1990).
Millon, R. The beginnings of Teotihuacan. Am. Antiq. 26, 1–10 (1960).
Marquina, I. Proyecto Cholula (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1970).
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended data figures and tables
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 (https://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/srtm/). 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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. c–e, 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.
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).
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.
About this article
Cite this article
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). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2343-4
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2021)
Wetland Farming and the Early Anthropocene: Globally Upscaling from the Maya Lowlands with LiDAR and Multiproxy Verification
Annals of the American Association of Geographers (2021)
Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (2021)
Ancient Mesoamerica (2021)
Quaternary Science Reviews (2021)