Masks, Other Finds Suggest Early Maya Flourished

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 5, 2004
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 mask—5 meters (16.5 feet) wide and 3 meters (10 feet) tall—was 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 period—from 2,000 B.C. to A.D. 250—has 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 features—kings, complex iconography, elaborate palaces, and rituals—may 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.

Telling Time

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.

"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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