Historical story

Where do the Maya come from?

Much about the once great empire of the Maya Indians in Central America is still shrouded in mystery. The sudden demise of their culture is a mystery, but so is how their civilization began. New research shows that the latter is much more complex than previously thought.

The civilization of the Maya developed well before our era and reached its peak in the so-called "classical period", which lasted roughly from 250 to 900 AD. The Maya developed into the most advanced culture of "pre-Columbian America" ​​(the time before explorer Christopher Columbus arrived there in 1492). They were the only Native American culture that had a fully developed writing system. Furthermore, the many temples, pyramids and even entire cities in the jungles of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize refer to the greatness of the ancient people.

But little is known about where the Maya came from, by whom they were culturally influenced and how their earliest development took place. Many Mayan researchers believe that they were heavily influenced by the Olmec, a people who lived between about 1500 and 400 BC. lived along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico. The Olmecs are seen as the mother culture of the Maya.

Cultural innovations were made with the Olmecs. Building the pyramid-like temples and large square plazas. We now see them as typical of the Maya, but were built by almost all Central American Indian cultures. These researchers also believe that certain ideas about political centralization that the Maya continued to successfully develop later on, would have originated with the Olmecs.

Other researchers believe that the Maya saw the Olmecs mainly as rivals and had little cultural exchange with them. According to them, the Mayan culture developed quite isolated from other cultures.

Cultural breeding ground

But according to Takeshi Inomata and his wife Daniela Triadan, both anthropologists and employees of the American University of Arizona, one of these scenarios is not true and the other is not. The early history of Mayan culture is much more complex than that. They conclude that after in-depth archaeological research, the results of which this week in Science standing.

In Ceibal (Guatemala), an ancient Mayan city, they discovered remnants of a typical pyramid-like temple during excavations. It is the oldest Mayan temple to date and the building appears to be at least 200 years older than comparable structures found in the Olmec capital La Venta. The early development of significant ceremonial architecture in Ceibal shows that that city could not have been a passive recipient of ideas arising elsewhere, such as in La Venta. Ceibal and its Maya inhabitants themselves played a part in this innovation.

That does not mean that the Mayan culture is older than that of the Olmecs, because they also had other capitals before La Venta. But there was certainly no unilateral influence. The archaeologists rather suspect that between about 1150 and 800 BC there was an intensive exchange of all kinds of architectural, cultural and religious novelties between different groups in the area.

Years later, this cultural breeding ground, where the typical pyramid-shaped temple construction originated, spread over a much larger area. That would develop into the central part of the Maya empire, among other things. Cultural ideas that arose then would also form the basis for almost all other Central American Indian civilizations.