Maya Beginnings Extend Back at Belize Site

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, April 30, 1994 | Go to article overview

Maya Beginnings Extend Back at Belize Site


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Evidence of the earliest known Maya, who cleared and farmed land bordering swamps as early as 4,500 years ago, has emerged from a site in northern Belize, researchers reported last week at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Anaheim, Calif.

Until now, the oldest Maya settlements dated to about 3,000 years ago. These sites have yielded extensive pottery remains and led many investigators to assume that any prior farmers of the Yucatan Peninsula also fashioned ceramic vessels.

"Our evidence suggests that the first agriculturists in this region did not use pottery," asserts excavation director Thomas R. Hester of the University of Texas at Austin. "Beginning around 2500 B.C., they introduced crops from Mexico or perhaps beyond and left behind distinctive stone tools."

Later Maya occupations of the same site, called Colha, have undergone excavation since 1979. But in 1993, Hester's team made the first systematic effort to document a preceramic presence at the tropical, forested location.

Early Colha farmers inhabited the area in two phases, Hester notes. Stone tools in deeper soil layers date from 2500 B.C. to 1700 B.C., based on radiocarbon age estimates of accompanying charcoal bits. Comparable dates come from an adjacent swamp, where pollen analysis documents forest clearance by 2500 B.C., asserts John G. Jones of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

Jones finds pollen evidence for the appearance of several cultivated crops soon thereafter, mainly corn and manioc, a starchy plant.

From about 1400 B.C. to 1000 B.C., Colha residents made foot-shaped stone tools that were chipped and sharpened on one side. Preliminary scanning electron microscope analysis of polish on these tools, directed by Dale Hudler of the University of Texas, suggests that inhabitants used them to cut away vegetation after controlled burning of trees and perhaps also to dig. …

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Maya Beginnings Extend Back at Belize Site
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