The oldest and largest known monument built by the Mayan civilisation has been found in Mexico. Called Aguada Fénix, it is a huge raised platform 1.4 kilometres long.
Aguada Fénix was built around 1000 BC, centuries before the Maya began constructing their famous stepped pyramids. Its design suggests that early Mayan societies were fairly egalitarian and didn’t have a powerful ruling class.
The Mayan civilisation flourished in the Americas before European colonisation. The Maya built huge cities and had an advanced knowledge of astronomy, but their civilisation collapsed around 800 AD.
Daniela Triadan at the University of Arizona in Tucson and her colleagues have described for the first time how they conducted an airborne survey using lidar, a remote sensing method that uses lasers to create a 3D map of the surface below, to scan the ground in Tabasco state in south-east Mexico.
They found 21 sites for conducting Mayan ceremonies, all centred on rectangular earthen platforms running roughly north to south.
Aguada Fénix is the largest. The main rectangular platform is made of soil and is 1413 metres long, 399 metres wide and 10 to 15 metres high. It is surrounded by smaller constructions, including additional platforms, causeways and reservoirs.
From ground level, the artificial nature of Aguada Fénix isn’t obvious, says Triadan. “You think you’re just walking uphill on natural terrain.” But the lidar revealed its true scale. “We were like, holy cow,” she says.
Building Aguada Fénix was a huge task. The team estimates that between 3.2 and 4.3 million cubic metres of earth were used, requiring 10 to 13 million person-days of work. “It would have taken probably thousands of people,” says Triadan.
However, there is no evidence that people were coerced into doing the work. Triadan says Aguada Fénix may have been built by semi-nomadic people drawn from many kilometres around who collaborated and worked together. Other ancient monuments, including Göbekli Tepe in Turkey and Poverty Point in Louisiana, seem to have been built in the same way.
The flat and open design of Aguada Fénix seems to have been built with egalitarianism in mind. “The whole construction itself seems to be this communal open space,” says Triadan.
There is no sign of monuments made for members of a powerful ruling class, such as large statues, Triadan says. In contrast, later Mayan pyramids were built by a society that had acquired a powerful ruling class who stood at the top of the pyramid, meaning others had to look up to them.