Archaeologists Map Nearly 500 Mesoamerican Sites, See Distinct Design Patterns

A lidar image of the San Lorenzo (left) and Aguada Fénix (right) sites shows striking similarities, with a long rectangular platform and 20 edge platforms.

A lidar image of the San Lorenzo (left) and Aguada Fénix (right) sites shows striking similarities, with a long rectangular platform and 20 edge platforms.
Picture: Frenandez-Diaz & Inomata

Archaeologists have created 3D maps of more than 30,000 square miles of pre-colonial settlements in what is now Mexico, revealing never-before-seen details of how the sites were designed and their apparent links to the ancient calendar Mesoamerican.

The 478 sites included in the new research were inhabited from around 1400 BCE to 1000 AD, and the way they were constructed appears to be linked to cosmologies important to the communities that lived there. Settlements that line up with nearby mountain peaks or the arc of the Sun in the sky suggest that there may have been symbolic importance for the orientation of the architecture.

The team categorized the sites into five distinct types of architectural layout, which they believed could correspond to different time periods and indicate more equal societies. All of the sites had either rectangular or square features, which archaeologists believe may have been inspired by the famous Olmec site of San Lorenzo, which had a central rectangular space that was likely used as a public plaza. The team’s investigation and analysis was published today in Nature Human Behavior.

“The main point of this study is the discovery of almost 500 standardized complexes over a large area, many of which have rectangular shapes,” wrote lead author Takeshi Inomata, archaeologist at the University of Arizona, in a report. -mail to Gizmodo. “Until three years ago, we had no idea of ​​the presence of such complexes. They really force us to rethink what was going on during that time.

The team used an aerial sweep technology called lidar to map the structures hidden on these sites. With lidar, archaeologists can get precise measurements of the change in ground elevation, even through dense tree cover, with lasers that penetrate the surface and then bounce back to a detector. Lidar is “revolutionary for archeology,” wrote Robert Rosenswig, archaeologist at the University of Albany-SUNY who did not work on the recent article. News and Opinions Article for nature

“The study foreshadows the future of archeology as lidar reveals ancient architecture on an unprecedented scale that will reach remote and heavily vegetated regions around the world,” Rosenswig added.

In 2020, Inomata and his colleagues reported their discovery of the monumental site Aguada Fénix using lidar imagery. Today, they examined 2,000 years of architecture in the region using aerial lidar surveys.

The bumps on the ground represent the Buenavista site, which may have aligned with sunrise on some days.

A lidar-based illustration of the Buenavista site, which appears to be aligned with sunrise on certain days of the year.
Picture: Inomata

The people who designed these settlements are generally referred to as the Olmecs and Mayans, although there are better and more specific names for the communities that fall under these labels, such as the Chontal speaking residents of eastern Tabasco and the Zoke-speaking people of western Tabasco and Veracruz. The maps of the Olmec sites are particularly useful; the center of San Lorenzo is the oldest capital in the region (it’s the home of those colossal heads you may know), and as such archaeologists believe it may have established the standard for setting up a colony.

But San Lorenzo was already well known; part of the value of this new research highlights the structures of small towns. “Although this part of Mexico is quite open and populated, most of these sites were not previously known,” Inomata added. “They were literally hiding in plain sight. “

Together, the nearly 500 sites give archaeologists an idea of ​​the organization of communities in the region. Inomata said the impacts of the research are twofold. First, archaeologists now have a better idea of ​​how monumental construction projects have developed in the area over time. Second, based on the site’s layouts, it appears that communities did not have a very stratified social hierarchy.

“Traditionally, archaeologists believed that large constructions were carried out by hierarchical societies with elites and rulers,” said Inomata. “But we now see that these large standardized spaces could be built by people without pronounced inequality. This determination is in part based on the lack of large permanent residences at many sites.

The next steps for the archaeological team are to visit the sites in person, in order to verify that the patterns represented from the air are indeed the reality on the ground. This is an extremely important step, as evidenced by a situation in 2016, in which a teenager believed he had found a lost city in satellite imagery, but archaeologists disagree, saying it was likely a fallow cornfield.

So far, only about 20% of the sites surveyed by the team have been surveyed in the field. While these ground surveys rThe results are promising, more data needs to be collected for researchers to know the extent of architectural similarities and differences in the region.

Correction: A previous version of this article described lidar as “air radar technology”, which is incorrect because lidar does not use radio waves.


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Billie M. Secrist

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