Masks, Other Finds Suggest Early Maya Flourished

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"It's almost as if someone made this yesterday," Estrada-Belli says in the film. "It's incredible to imagine that we're touching this and we're looking at this just as people did over 2,000 years ago."

Only a week ago, Estrada-Belli found a second mask. He believes two pairs of the masks once flanked the stairway of the temple, which rises 33 meters (108 feet) above a central plaza. It may have provided the backdrop for elaborate rituals in which the king impersonated the gods of creation.

The pre-classic complex is like a sundial. "It had an important astronomical function," Estrada-Belli said. "It's no coincidence that the central axis of the main building and the plaza is oriented to sunrise at the equinox."

In June 2002 his team found an inscribed stone slab, known as a stela, dating to 300 B.C., inside the complex. It may be the earliest such carving ever found in the Maya lowlands.

In the plaza, the team also found a cross-shaped depression containing five smashed jars, an offering for water. Under the center jar were 120 pieces of jade, most of them polished. There were also five jade axes with their blades pointing upward, most likely part of a ritual associated with the Maya agricultural cycle and the maize god.

"We believe these offerings reflect the beginning of formal dynasties and the beginning of Maya state society, much earlier than anyone previously thought," Estrada-Belli said.

Using satellite technology, he has determined that Cival was twice as big as initially believed, and may have housed at least 10,000 people. It had an institution of kingship, and may have been the capital of a pre-classic kingdom or state.

"The size of Cival shows that the pre-classic period was an era of fully developed civilization, and it was not dominated by a single, major city, but rather a network of cities," Estrada-Belli said. "This changes our idea of the pre-classic period."

Myth of Creation

At the ancient city of San Bartolo, another team of archaeologists has found a mural over 2,000 years old that depicts in great detail the Maya myth of creation.

"In terms of pre-classic Maya, this is basically a Sistine Chapel," said Karl Taube, a Maya iconography expert at the University of California at Riverside.

The Maya version of creation centers around the maize god, who descended to the underworld where the lords of death killed him. Years later, his sons defeated the lords of death and resurrected the maize god. His return to the surface of the Earth marks the first day of the Maya world.

The early mural, depicting a version of these events, suggests that the Maya myth of creation originated in the pre-classic era.

Meanwhile, Richard Hansen, another National Geographic Society grantee and archaeologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, is excavating the sprawling, pre-classic city of El Mirador, which contains the massive pyramid of Danta and is estimated to have housed approximately 100,000 people.

Hansen aims to find the kings from the dawn of Maya time. He is focusing on a small pyramid at El Mirador, which bears a magnificent engraving of a large jaguar paw. Hansen thinks it could be the burial place of the so-called "Jaguar King," one of 19 early Maya kings previously unknown to archaeologists.

"The person who constructed this building was not a simple chief living in a grass hut," Hansen said. "This was a king on the order of Ramses and Cheops."

By A.D. 250, the Maya pre-classic era came to an end. Hansen suspects that in constructing their great buildings, the early Maya exhausted the environment on which their farming depended, contributing to their downfall.

Estrada-Belli has found remnants of a defensive wall around Cival, indicating that the city had been under threat. He believes that the pre-classic cities belonged to strategic geopolitical alliances vying for power, just like the classic Maya cities of Tikal and Calakmul did centuries later.

Estrada-Belli said: "Cival was probably abandoned after a violent attack, probably by a larger power such as Tikal."

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