After sheltering jeweled royals for centuries, the oldest known tomb in Mesoamerica—ancient Central America and Mexico, roughly speaking—has been uncovered, archaeologists announced Tuesday.
Apparently caught between two cultures, the 2,700-year-old pyramid in Chiapa de Corzo (map), Mexico, may help settle a debate as to when and how the mysterious Zoque civilization arose, according to excavation leader Bruce Bachand.
At the time of the pyramid tomb's dedication, hundreds of artisans, vendors, and farmers would have known Chiapa de Corzo as a muggy town, redolent with wood smoke and incense.
Above them towered the three-story-tall pyramid, a "visually permanent and physically imposing reminder" of their past rulers and emerging cultural identity, said Bachand, an archaeologist at Brigham Young University, who co-led the project with Emiliano Gallaga of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History and Lynneth Lowe of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
The two rulers found with the pyramid-top tomb had been coated head-to-toe in sacred red pigment. At the center of the tomb, Bachand's team found a male in a pearl-beaded loincloth. To his side lay a companion, likely a female.
On their waists were jade beads shaped like howler monkeys, crocodiles, and gourds. Seashells inlaid with obsidian formed tiny masks for their mouths, which in turn held jade and pyrite ornaments.
Arrayed around the royal corpses were offerings to the gods: ceramic pots, ritual axes perhaps associated with fertility, iron-pyrite mirrors, and a red-painted stucco mask.
"These people were at the top of society, there is no doubt about it," said Bachand, whose work was partly funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
Slightly lower on society's ladder were two apparent human sacrifices, an adult and child, who looked as if they'd been tossed into the tomb. The adult was slumped against the side of the crypt, an arm craned awkwardly over his or her head, Bachand said.
Pyramid an Emblem of an Emerging Culture?
The pyramid tomb is a window into how and when unique cultures emerged from the Olmec, one of the oldest civilizations in the New World, Bachand said.
The Olmec began fanning out from their Gulf of Mexico homeland around 1200 B.C. and influenced many Mesoamerican civilizations to come—to what extent, though, is a longstanding debate among archaeologists. (See "Ancient City Found in Mexico; Shows Olmec Influence.")
The Chiapa de Corzo site, in what was a borderland between the Olmec and Maya civilizations, may eventually help settle the debate (interactive map of the Maya Empire).
"We are trying to distill from the archaeology how the Zoque emerged out of an Olmec ancestral base, and it seems like it happened right around the time this tomb appeared," Bachand said.
In the centuries prior to the construction of this tomb, archaeologists believe, Chiapa de Corzo was a large village along a major trade route, likely operated by the Olmec from their capital city, La Venta, on the Gulf Coast.
As Chiapa de Corzo gained wealth and power it began to assert its own identity, Bachand said. The newly discovered tomb, which includes Olmec and Zoque traits, suggests this transition was well underway by 700 B.C.
Some of the tomb's ceramic pots, for example, are identical to pots from La Venta.
On the other hand, the human remains lack the large jade earspools and breastplates commonly found on Olmec remains. What's more, the tomb's stone and clay walls and wooden ceiling represent a unique Zoque style that persisted at Chiapa de Corzo for centuries, Bachand said.
"We think that this is a parting moment" for the Zoque, Bachand said. "Yes, there are Olmec elements lingering around and being incorporated into their culture, but at the same time they are starting to move out and move on."
Prototype of Maya Architecture?
Emerging from the influence of the Olmec, the nascent Zoque culture at Chiapa de Corzo may have been influencing other cultures, in turn—not least the Maya Empire, Bachand suggested.
For one thing, the pyramid, with its long, terraced platform, presages the classic Maya "E group" layout, named after the Group E at the Uaxactún site in Guatemala. Aligned with the sunrise on solstices and equinoxes, E groups appear to have astrological significance.
"So this isn't just any old pyramid," Bachand said. "It appears to be one of the earliest E groups in all of Mesoamerica. That's why we are investigating it.
"And now that we've discovered this early tomb—well heck, no one has discovered a tomb this early in any pyramid, never mind an E group pyramid," he added.
The new findings, he said, suggest that the E group—so strongly associated with the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures—could actually be a Zoque invention. (Pictures: what the Maya Empire looked like.)
Theory "Perfectly Reasonable"
Bachand's conception of Chiapa de Corzo as an emerging capital sits well with Mesoamerican-civilization expert Robert Rosenswig.
"To have a powerful ruling dynasty established at Chiapa de Corzo beginning sometime around 700 B.C. sounds perfectly reasonable," said Rosenswig, an archaeologist at the University of Albany in New York State.
By then the Olmec had been around for 400 to 500 years and had established other centers that were building their own monumental architecture.
"Things were becoming considerably more complex, and it is fairly evident that these groups were all in contact with each other," he said.
Late-Breaking Discovery at Pyramid
In hopes of solidifying his theory, Bachand and his team are digging deeper into the pyramid, hoping to find evidence of more direct contact with the Olmec capital.
Just this past Saturday, they may have found just that—a bluish green jade ceremonial axe, perhaps of Olmec origin, at the base of the pyramid.
"It doesn't have any incised design or anything on it, but it is right on the axis of the building, and we think it is associated with something special," Bachand said.
In 2008 the team had found a pit full of similar axes—including one with an Olmec design on it—in the plaza next to the pyramid as well as a nearby pit where the axes were manufactured.
The discovery of another axe deep inside the tomb, Bachand added, "is definitely associated with an axe offering of Olmec inspiration."