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article imageSite reveals how mobile and sedentary groups of Mayans coexisted

By Karen Graham     Mar 25, 2015 in Science
The ancient Mayan archaeological site at El Ceibal in Guatemala has given archaeologists new evidence that strikes down the assumption that mobile and sedentary groups maintained separate communities.
An archaeological team, working in El Ceibal, or Seibal, an ancient lowlands archaeological site in the northernmost part of Guatemala has unearthed new evidence that challenges previous assumptions about the ancient Mayan civilization. One: that foragers, or hunter-gatherers and stationary, or settled groups remained in separate communities. And two: That the construction of public buildings only occurred after a group had constructed homes, making a community.
The team, led by University of Arizona archaeologists Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, documented that a formal, ceremonial complex had been constructed about 950 B.C. at the start of the Middle Preclassic period. It was around this time that ceramics came into use. The team was able to determine the transition of the Mayans from a reliance on foraging to farming.
Archaeologists excavate an early residential structure at Ceibal  from about 500 B.C.
Archaeologists excavate an early residential structure at Ceibal, from about 500 B.C.
Takeshi Inomata/University of Arizona
The evidence suggests that at the El Ceibal site, the transition was dramatic. Inomata suggests that the transition from a heavy reliance on hunter-gatherers to a stationary farming community took place. He says there is no doubt that mobile and stationary communities existed at the same time, and while evidence suggests that in many regions, the two communities remained separate, such was not the case at El Ceibal.
"Our study presents the first relatively concrete evidence that mobile and sedentary people came together to build a ceremonial center," said Inomata. Besides the public plaza, built around 950 BC, there are magnificent and very large ceremonial buildings surrounding the plaza, built in 800 BC. Of particular interest to the team was that there were very few permanent residential structures around the plaza.
It is thought that during this period, most people were hunter-gatherers, moving through the rainforest in search of food and other resources. It was only centuries later that all these people finally settled down. It is surmised by the archaeology team that based on the few residential structures present, there weren't enough people living at the site to have built all the public buildings. “The construction of ceremonial buildings is pretty substantial, so there had to be more people working on that construction,” Inomata said.
This is an early elite residence at Ceibal  about 750 B.C.
This is an early elite residence at Ceibal, about 750 B.C.
Takeshi Inomata/University of Arizona
The team argues that mobile groups came together over the centuries to help in large construction projects, coming back to El Ceibal to participate in public ceremonies in the plaza. Through social bonding, the transition to a settled life was made easier. Calling the site an ancient "melting pot," the team says their findings reveal that diverse groups of people with different ways of life did coexist together, and gives us further clues as to how societies evolved.
The findings of the University of Arizona archaeological team will be published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The title of the article: Development of sedentary communities in the Maya lowlands: Coexisting mobile groups and public ceremonies at Ceibal, Guatemala
More about mayan civilization, coexistence, Guatemala, collaboration on building projects, Transition
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