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June 25, 2020


A University of Arizona discovery with funding from the National Science Foundation suggests that the Maya civilization developed more rapidly than archaeologists once thought and hints at less social inequity than in later periods.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

Monumental find.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

The known history of the highly advanced Maya civilization is being tweaked even as I speak.

(Sound effect: tech file sound) Tabasco, Mexico, near the northwestern border of Guatemala. Aguada Fénix (uh-gwah-duh fay-neeks): A Maya ceremonial center over 15 football fields long, 30 to 50 feet high with nine wide causeways is discovered by an international team led by professors at the University of Arizona. The largest and -- confirmed by carbon dating -- oldest Maya monument ever found.

(Sound effect: small plane) From the air, the researchers used high-res LIDAR -- light detection and ranging technology -- to reveal hidden archeological features. Something was missing, though. Compared to later Maya architecture, there were no vanity statues or giant carved heads of powerful rulers who ordered the work done.

It seems the early Maya worked collaboratively as a group. No elites or rigid administrative systems needed, thank you very much. (Sound effect: Maya village, digging, building) This communal approach, used when Maya society had less social inequality, has archaeologists rethinking how ancient civilizations constructed large buildings.

Wait -- without bosses or bureaucracy, what did these people have to complain about?

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