Ancient Maya Were Cultural Sponges

Rather than the Maya influencing the Olmec or vice versus, similarities between their cultures represent a general shift in ancient Mesoamerica

A tunnel excavation in Guatemala
A tunnel excavation in Guatemala Takeshi Inomata

Ancient Maya were mathematical, engineering and artistic experts, but anthropologists still aren’t sure exactly how they developed such a rich culture. Most adhere to one of two theories when discussing the Maya’s origins. One group assumes that the Maya developed on their own in the Central American jungles without the influence of other cultures. The second group believes that the Maya were indeed significantly influenced by other civilizations, specifically the older Olmecs, the first major civilization known in Mexico.

New research, published in the journal Science, tells a third story. This new study, which is based on several years of excavation work in Guatemala, found that ancient Maya benefited from a melting pot of contact with other peoples across Mesoamerica between 1,000 to 700 BCE. This wider world of cultural experience may have helped kickstart and shape Mayan culture.

A husband-and-wife duo led the research team that undertook excavations at Ceibal, a Mayan site in Guatemala. The site, they found, was built before La Venta, a major Olmec center, by around 200 years. This means that, since it did not exist yet, La Venta couldn’t have been a significant influence on Ceibal.

Still, the Olmecs were around at the time, and they could have come into contact with the Maya. The researchers think that both La Venta and Ceibal represent a general, complex shift in cultures around that time period. In other words, one site did not provide the model for the other, even though similarities such as pyramids and evidence of ritual practices unite them.

“Basically, there was a major social change happening from the southern Maya lowlands to possibly the coast of Chiapas and the southern Gulf Coast, and this site of Ceibal was a part of that broader social change,” the researchers say in a statement. “The emergence of a new form of society – with new architecture, with new rituals – became really the important basis for all later Mesoamerican civilizations.”

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