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New-Found Site in Jungle May Be First Mayan City

November 14, 1989|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

A UCLA archeologist has identified what is apparently the earliest major center of Mayan civilization yet found, a discovery that extends the era of Mayan cities back four centuries into a period that was thought to be dominated by simple village life.

The extensive stone monuments and temples in the newly discovered city of Nakbe, in the dense tropical forest of northern Guatemala, show "that the advances which created the most sophisticated pre-Columbian society in the New World may have occurred much earlier than was previously assumed," said UCLA's Richard Hansen.

The discovery will shed new light on why the Maya "accomplished things no other tropical forest society accomplished in the New World," Hansen said.

The excavations at Nakbe, announced Monday by UCLA, are "of extraordinary importance to our understanding of the origin of Mayan civilization," said anthropologist David Friedel of Southern Methodist University.

The new findings follow on the heels of surprising reports this summer by anthropologist Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt University that the Mayan society--previously believed to be one of history's most peaceful civilizations--collapsed in the 9th Century AD as the result of internecine warfare.

These new discoveries from the beginning and end of Mayan civilization, Friedel added, are "revealing with breathtaking clarity not only their (the Maya's) vision of the world, but the breadth and complexity of their political organization."

The new find dates from a period when the Maya were transforming themselves from a centuries-old rural agrarian society to a more sophisticated and complex urban society. Researchers are particularly interested in the factors that led to this transformation because it sheds light on the more general question of how societies are formed.

Although they are not yet sure, the researchers believe that urbanization arose as a mechanism to counter the innate hostility of the environment, to promote trade, and to consolidate religious and political ideologies.

Nakbe lies in the isolated central department (state) of Peten in Guatemala, about 350 miles from Guatemala City. The site was first identified as a potential location of advanced Mayan civilization in 1930 by archeologists performing an aerial survey of the region. But no significant work occurred at the site until the UCLA team carried out its excavations from February through April of this year.

That delay arose primarily as a result of the site's isolation. Nakbe "is three days on foot from the nearest road," Hansen said. "We used 123 mules to transport our stuff in, then kept 14 mules hauling water and supplies for the three months we were there. They had to cross swamps and wade through muck up to their bellies. It's hard to appreciate the problem if you haven't been through it."

But he noted that the isolation probably protected the site from looting.

Their excavations revealed thousands of artifacts, tombs and temple structures, some ranging from 40 to 65 feet in height. Other buildings on the site, which have not yet been excavated, are estimated to be as tall as 150 feet, which would rival pyramids from the more modern Mayan city of Tikal.

The excavated buildings date from 600 to 400 BC, in the so-called middle Pre-Classic period. Previously, the most advanced structures from this period to be discovered were crude villages with low stone platforms measuring from three to six feet tall. Hansen has not yet dated the taller pyramids.

The researchers also dug up more than 65,000 potsherds, ceramics, human and animal figurines, seashells and obsidian and stone tools, which should reveal many details about everyday life in this first Mayan city.

They also found an artifact that may prove to be one of the most significant Mayan sculptures ever discovered, a 10-foot-high fragmented slab of intricately carved limestone erected by Pre-Classic Mayan rulers. It depicts two individuals in royal clothing facing each other. One has his hand extended, pointing to a deity between them. Hansen believes the stone slab commemorates an important historical event whose nature he plans to discuss in a forthcoming publication.

Hansen and his colleagues also found the remnants of an even earlier village below Nakbe, filled with soil and rubble.

"The construction appears to have preserved the village below," Hansen said in a telephone interview from his home in Rupert, Ida. "It's almost like finding a Mayan version of Pompeii," the Neapolitan city preserved intact when it was buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

The construction of Nakbe must have been an enormous task, Hansen said. "All of the building materials had to be hauled to the location, rock by rock and basket by basket, by hundreds of Mayan workers to construct the massive platforms and buildings."

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