Hundreds of newly-discovered ancient ceremonial sites in Mexico reveal how the Mayans adopted a mysterious design trait from the older Olmec civilization more than 3,000 years ago, a study shows.
Researchers have revealed that there are 478 ceremonial complexes that can't be seen with the human eye in modern-day southern Mexico, but can be detected with lidar scanning technology.
The hundreds of ceremonial complexes are a combination of Maya and older Olmec sites, according to the study authors.
Originating around 2600 BC, the Maya civilization thrived in Central America for nearly 3,000 years, reaching its height between AD 250 to 900.
The Olmecs, meanwhile, were another Mesoamerican civilization who occupied the land earlier, from around 2,500 to 400 BC.
Interestingly, despite the difference between when the Maya and Olmec structures were built, they share a similar design trait – with a focus on rectangular plazas flanked by platforms along the edges.
Comparison of the San Lorenzo rectangular hallmark (top-left) and MFUs in other structures (with Aguada Fénix top-right
Study author Melina García (front) excavates the central part of Aguada Fenix, the largest and oldest Maya monument ever uncovered. A team of researchers reported on the discovery in 2020. The team has since uncovered nearly 500 smaller ceremonial complexes that are similar in shape and features to Aguada Fénix
Lidar (light detection and ranging) is a remote sensing technology for measuring distances.
It does this by emitting a laser at a target and analysing the light that is reflected back with sensors.
The tech was developed in the early 1960s and was first used in meteorology to measure clouds by the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Lidar uses ultraviolet, visible, or near infrared light to image objects and can be used with a wide range of targets, including non-metallic objects, rocks, rain, chemical compounds, aerosols, clouds and even single molecules.
A team of international researchers led by the University of Arizona reported last year that they had uncovered the largest and oldest Maya monument of the lot.
The site, called Aquada Fénix, is 4,600 feet long and up to 50 feet high, and was built between 800 BC and 1,000 BC.
Now, that same team has announced it's since uncovered smaller ceremonial complexes that are similar in shape and features to Aguada Fénix, to give a total of 478, scattered across the Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz.
The complexes were likely constructed between 1100 BC and 400 BC and were built by diverse groups nearly a millennium before the heyday of the Mayas between AD 250 and 950.
'Here, we report the identification of 478 formal rectangular and square complexes, probably dating from 1,050 to 400 BC, through a lidar survey across the Olmec region and the western Maya lowlands,' the research team say in their new paper.
'City plans symbolizing cosmologies have long been recognised as a defining element of Mesoamerican civilisations.
'The origins of formal spatial configurations are thus the key to understanding early civilisations in the region.'
The team used lidar data collected by Mexico's National Institute of Statistics and Geography, which covered a 32,800-square-mile area – about the same size as the whole of Ireland.
Aerial view of excavation efforts at one of the nearly 500 uncovered sites, La Carmelita, in Mexico
Aquada Fénix is a 3,000-year-old Mayan temple that once stood in Mexico. It's the ancient Maya civilisation's oldest and largest monument.
The temple site in Tabasco, Mexico, was discovered by international team archaeologists led by the University of Arizona during an expedition in 2017.
The site, called Aquada Fénix, is 4,600 feet long and up to 50 feet high, making it larger than the Mayan pyramids and palaces of later periods.
It was built between 800 BC and 1,000 BC, according to the team behind the discovery.
The team reported their findings in a paper published in Nature in 2020.
Publicly available lidar data allows researchers to study huge areas before they follow up with high-resolution lidar to study sites of interest in greater detail.
'It was unthinkable to study an area this large until a few years ago,'