for National Geographic News
Watch the National Geographic TV Special Dawn of the Maya Wednesday, May 12, at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.
At the Mayan city of Cival, Guatemalan archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli was walking in a tunnel left by looters when, by sheer chance, he made a major discovery: a massive face mask of a sun god carved on the wall of the main temple pyramid.
The mask5 meters (16.5 feet) wide and 3 meters (10 feet) tallwas stunning. But what made it truly remarkable was its age, dating back to around 200 to 150 B.C., a millennium before what is considered the height of Maya civilization.
The early years of Maya civilization, the so-called pre-classic periodfrom 2,000 B.C. to A.D. 250has often been dismissed as primitive, an era lost in myth before the Maya's true rise to greatness.
But new discoveries, like the mask Estrada-Belli found, reveal a society that flourished in the deep jungles of Guatemala long before the time of Jesus Christ. Its featureskings, complex iconography, elaborate palaces, and ritualsmay have been just as dazzling as those of the classic Maya.
"We're pushing the beginning of Maya civilization far back into the pre-classic period," said Estrada-Belli, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, whose work is funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. "Everything is looking much more ancient," he said.
The new discoveries are described in a National Geographic TV special, Dawn of the Maya, which airs Wednesday, May 12, at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.
Spanning more than two millennia, the world of the Maya evokes images of ancient pyramids soaring over the jungle, giant carved stones covered with hieroglyphics, and a sudden mysterious demise.
With awe-inspiring cities like Tikal and Chichén Itzá, the Classic Maya period, from A.D. 250 to 900, rivaled Egypt and Rome in its splendor and intellectual achievement.
Until now, scant attention had been focused on the pre-classic period. However, the new research suggests this is when the elaborate Mayan rituals and ceremonial temples arose, and when their calendar, writing, and kingship emerged.
The sculpture found by Estrada-Belli in Cival has a complex iconography. It has an anthropomorphic face. Its nose and forehead are human, but two pinnacles on top of its eyebrow identifies the deity as a sun god.
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