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Hundreds of Ancient Maya Sites lie Buried Underneath Mexico, Revealing a Mysterious Blueprint

By: April Carson

They're not visible from the surface, but they're certainly there. Hundreds of ancient ceremonial sites, many belonging to the Maya civilization, have been found hidden in plain sight beneath today's southern Mexico landscape.

The most recently discovered of these buildings, Aguada Fénix, is the biggest and oldest monument of the ancient Maya ever found, according to archaeologists. However, it's apparent that Aguada Fénix was not alone.

In a new study, an international team of researchers from the University of Arizona led by anthropologist Takeshi Inomata has discovered about 500 ceremonial sites that date back not just to the Maya, but also to another Mesoamerican culture who made their mark on the Earth far earlier, the Olmecs.

The sites discovered in the new study (478 in total) were all discovered the same way: with LIDAR, which uses lasers to comb the ground during an aerial survey, detecting three-dimensional archaeological buildings hidden beneath vegetation and other surface features.

In this scenario, the LIDAR data were already freely available thanks to Mexico's National Institute of Statistics and Geography, which covered a vast 85,000-square-kilometer area (about 33,000 square miles).

After comparing the data with others in Mexico's Archaeological Museum of Tabasco, they discovered hundreds of ceremonial sites throughout the Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz, most of which had been unknown.

The discoveries are considerably smaller than the enormous Aguada Fénix, which measures over 1,400 meters (almost 4,600 feet) in length at its peak. Even so, seeing them for the first time reveals a mysterious design influence that had not previously been recognized in Maya buildings.

A previously unknown layout in the ancient Olmec city of San Lorenzo - the oldest Olmec urban center, dating to around 1150 BCE - may be spotted as a recurring motif in later constructions built by the Maya, which copy San Lorenzo's central rectangular space and adopt its "spatial template."

San Lorenzo, according to Inomata, was "very unique and distinct" from what came later in terms of site arrangement.

"We've discovered that San Lorenzo is quite comparable to Aguada Fénix—it has a rectangular plaza flanked by edge platforms. This tells us that San Lorenzo was an important milestone in the Maya's development, since it contributed to the creation of some of these concepts later used by them."

If this is the case, the architecture at play here implies a vital link between these two distinct civilizations, which did overlap in time but reached their greatest heights in different eras of Mesoamerican history with the Olmecs flourishing during the Formative period (2000 BCE–250 CE), while the Maya grew in power (and structural ingenuity) during the Late Preclassic period (250 BCE–100 CE), and Classic period (100–900 CE).

The rectangular building design, known as the Middle Formative Usumacinta (MFU) pattern, and its related variations, indicate that interactions and influences between the Olmecs and the Maya were more complex and diverse than we previously thought.

The researchers write, "The presence of this previously unknown pattern implies that the development of standardized ceremonial centers in southern Mesoamerica was more complex than previously thought."

The team also conducted ground inspections on foot at 62 of the sites, which are thought to have been used as ritual spaces, where individuals met and watched processions, and are estimated to date from around 1,050–400 BCE.

The temples are oriented to face the rising sun on certain dates in Mesoamerican calendars, implying the spiritual rituals involved with cosmological ideas linked to the seasons' changes.

"People were gathering in these spaces to express cosmological ideas," Inomata explains. "They used this area as a meeting place that corresponded to the sacred calendar."

While we still don't know much about the significance, history, or evolution of these hundreds of ritual complexes – with future excavations likely to take years for archaeologists and anthropologists – it's apparent that the Olmecs and Maya may have collaborated more than we previously realized, literally building their civilizations and cities alongside one another.

"There has long been dispute as to whether Olmec civilization influenced the Maya development or if the Maya developed independently," Inomata said in 2016. "As a result, our research is limited to a critical zone between them."

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav







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