Excavations at the ancient Maya lowlands site of Ceibal in Guatemala suggest that as the society moved from a heavy reliance on foraging to one of farming, the mobile communities and settled groups may have come together to collaborate on construction projects and participate in public ceremonies.
The findings challenge two common assumptions: that mobile and sedentary groups maintained separate communities, and that public buildings were constructed only after a society had fully put down roots.
“There has been the theory that sedentary and mobile groups coexisted in various parts of the world, but most people thought the sedentary and mobile communities were separate, even though they were in relatively close areas,” said Takeshi Inomata, professor of anthropology at University of Arizona.
“Our study presents the first relatively concrete evidence that mobile and sedentary people came together to build a ceremonial center.”
A public plaza uncovered at Ceibal dates to about 950 B.C., with surrounding ceremonial buildings growing to monumental sizes by about 800 B.C.
But evidence of permanent residential dwellings in the area during that time is scarce. Most people were still living a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle, moving from place to place throughout the rainforest, as they would continue to do for five or six more centuries.
The area’s few permanent residents could not have built the plaza alone, Inomata said. “The construction of ceremonial buildings is pretty substantial, so there had to be more people working on that construction.”
Ritual and Construction
Researchers theorize that groups with varying degrees of mobility came together to construct the buildings and to participate in public ceremonies over the next several hundred years. That process likely helped them bond socially and eventually make the transition to a fully sedentary society.
“This tells us something about the importance of ritual and construction. People tend to think that you have a developed society and then building comes. I think in many cases it’s the other way around,” said Inomata, lead author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“For those people living the traditional way of life, ceremony, ritual, and construction became major forces for them to adapt a new way of life and build a new society. The process of gathering for ritual and gathering for construction helped bring together different people who were doing different things, and eventually that contributed to the later development of Mayan civilization.”
The transition was gradual, with the Maya making the shift to a fully sedentary agrarian society, reliant on maize, by about 400 or 300 B.C., Inomata said.
“The most fascinating finding is that different peoples with diverse ways of life coexisted in apparent harmony for generations before establishing a more uniform society,” said Melissa Burham, a study co-author and a graduate student.
“Discovering an ancient ‘melting pot’ is definitely the unexpected highlight of this research.”
Inomata and colleagues have been working for 10 years at Ceibal, along with collaborators from the United States, Canada, Guatemala, and Japan. The Alphawood Foundation, the National Geographic Society Committee for Research, and Exploration, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology–Japan KAKENHI, and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science KAKENHI funds the work.