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Daniela Triadan – New Perspectives on the Origins of Maya Civilization: Archaeological Investigations at Ceibal, Guatemala

Note: This post refers to an event that took place on Jan 20, 2014.

Structure A-3 in the South Plaza of Ceibal, Guatemala

The question of how and when the Maya came to be has always been one of the most fundamental in Maya research. Who were the ancient Maya? When did they start to establish a society that we would today characterize as prehispanic Maya? What kinds of processes and developments were involved that led to the formation of a sophisticated, complex civilization that flourished in the jungles and highlands of Mesoamerica? Did Maya civilization develop independently or was it influenced by developments in the Mexican Gulf Coast, the Olmec culture?

Since archaeologists from Harvard University explored it in the 1960s, the site of Ceibal in the southwestern Petén region of Guatemala has been important in the study of Maya origins. That research has shown that Ceibal was one of the earliest inhabited sites in the Maya lowlands. Its occupation started around 1000 BC at the beginning of the Middle Preclassic. Questions remained about how extensive this early settlement was and how it was organized. How did this city begin? Was it a planned community or did it grow slowly and haphazardly?  Did people experiment with a newly sedentary lifestyle and learned by trial and error? Or did they already have some notion of what a community should look like? These questions are important to evaluate how the mobile hunters and horticulturalists that inhabited the lowlands changed to a sedentary lifestyle that laid the foundation for later Maya civilization. They are crucial to a better understanding of how Maya society developed and whether some of these developments were influenced by contacts with neighboring regions such as the highlands of Chiapas or the Gulf Coast. Looking into these questions may also contribute to our understanding of how early Maya society was organized and how and when social stratification and a more complex political organization developed.

Our research at Ceibal is providing new insights into the formation of one of the earliest sedentary communities in the Maya lowlands. These data add to our knowledge of when and how Maya civilization developed.