Archaeologist Lynneth Lowe and a worker clean the skull of an elite individual found in a tomb atop a three-story-tall pyramid in Chiapa de Corzo (map), Mexico.
The 2,700-year-old site is the oldest known pyramid tomb in Mesoamerica, which roughly encompasses modern-day Mexico and Central America, according to archaeologists who announced the discovery today.
The pyramid is a window into how and when the unique culture called the Zoque emerged from the Olmec, one of the oldest civilizations in the New World, said excavation leader Bruce Bachand.
The Olmec began fanning out from their Gulf of Mexico homeland around 1200 B.C. The culture influenced many Mesoamerican civilizations to come—although to what extent is a long-standing debate among archaeologists. (See "Ancient City Found in Mexico; Shows Olmec Influence.")
Mouthful of Jewels
Jade jewels were found inside the mouth of the Chiapa de Corzo pyramid tomb's main occupant, an elite individual thought to have been a middle-aged male. The mouth bone, along with the rest of the body, was coated in a sacred red pigment.
Large seashells inlaid with ground and polished disks of green and black obsidian (not pictured) covered the mouths of both elites found in the tomb, said Bachand, an archaeologist at Brigham Young University.
A second elite individual—likely a female—was found on a landing adjacent to the tomb. The skeleton was adorned with intricately crafted jewels of jade, amber, pyrite, and pearl.
A thick, square, iron pyrite mirror, inlaid with stucco plaques, was placed next to the female's right knee.
"These people were at the top of society, there is no doubt about it," said excavation leader 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.)
Archaeologist Lynneth Lowe and two workers unearth a skeleton from the 2,700-year-old tomb.
In addition to the two elites, archaeologists found two apparent human sacrifices—an adult and a child—who looked as if they'd been tossed into the tomb.
The adult was found slumped against the side of the crypt, an arm craned awkwardly over his or her head, Bachand said.
The tomb was found in a temple atop a two-story tall pyramid, the tallest structure in Chiapa de Corzo (map).
Chiapa de Corzo was the capital of the Zoque, a culture that occupied land between the Olmec and Maya territories and also wielded cultural influence throughout Mesoamerica, Bachand said.
"There's no question" about its influence, Bachand said, but "we are trying to distill from the archaeology how the Zoque emerged out of an Olmec ancestral base," he said.
"It seems like it happened right around the time this tomb appeared."
An aerial view shows an excavator standing on the ledge where the tomb was discovered.
With its long, terraced platform, the pyramid that housed the tomb presages the classic Maya "E group" layout, named after Group E at the Uaxactún site in Guatemala, Bachand said. Aligned with the sunrise on solstices and equinoxes, E groups appear to have astrological significance.
"So this isn't just any old pyramid," he said. "It appears to be one of the earliest E groups in all of Mesoamerica. That's why we are investigating it."