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While excavating one of southern Mexico's ancient cities last month, a Brigham Young University-led archaeology team discovered what they believe to be the oldest tomb ever found in a Mesoamerican pyramid. Also discovered was a vast trove of pre-Columbian bling and other artifacts associated with funeral rituals of the Indian civilizations that occupied Mexico and Central America centuries ago.
The 2,700-year-old tomb was found atop a mysterious structure hidden in a terraced mound and contained two adorned corpses of high-ranking members from Olmec society or its Zoque descendants, according to project director Bruce Bachand, an archaeologist with BYU's New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF).
"There were 4,000 to 5,000 ornaments, mostly jade, associated with these two people. They also wore pearls, iron pyrite and amber. Red pigment covered their bodies head to toe," he said in a phone interview from Mexico on Wednesday. Accompanying those bodies were the unadorned skeletons of two young people, one a toddler, likely thrown into the crypt as sacrificial offerings.
Since 1954, the NWAF has been studying Chiapa de Corzo, one of the most important archaeological sites in Mesoamerica because of its role in the Formative period in pre-Columbian civilizations, according to former foundation director John Clark, a BYU professor of anthropology. A likely trade center, it occupies a region bordering the Olmec heartland and Mayan territory in the highlands to the south and east.
The new discovery "shows nice evidence of trade coming in, the jade and green obsidian. It shows this place is well-connected," said Richard Paine, a University of Utah associate professor of anthropology not involved with the Chiapa project. "Given where it is I would say this a lot more confirming what people already thought, rather than fundamentally changing things. It is too early to tell."
A complex history» Clark and colleagues began investigating the new site in 2008 because it had yet to be explored, particularly the plaza around the promising feature known as Mound 11, according to their report on the earlier dig.
While much work remains to be done cataloguing and examining thousands of newly discovered artifacts and analyzing data, Bachand said the find could help piece together the complicated history of Chiapa de Corzo, believed to have been occupied by various cultures for 3,000 years.
"It began in 1200 B.C. gradually, but in 800 B.C. they started building big structures. We found one in the core of this pyramid," Bachand said. Based on pottery styles, the archaeologists have dated the tomb to 700 B.C. But even more intriguing, according to Bachand, is the presence of a clay structure inside the pyramid that is a century or two older. The tomb was found at the top of that.
Paine noted that later pre-Columbian cultures built pyramids over existing ones, but it is not known why.
"It might be because the locations are really important or they are trying to get the most bang for their buck," he said.
The researchers are wrapping up their field work with the onset of Central America's rainy season. Co-leading the project are Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta, director of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia-Chiapas, and Lynneth Lowe of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Who were the Olmec? » Bachand hopes the discovery sheds light on when and how the Zoque culture emerged from the Olmec, one of the earliest Mesoamerican civilizations. The Olmecs flourished in southern Mexico between 1500 and 400 B.C. and laid the foundations for later civilizations such as the Aztec, Zapotec and Maya.
They are known for the colossal stone heads and monumental sculpture they left behind and are believed to have initiated pre-Columbian traditions of human sacrifice, ball sport, writing and pyramid building. The extent to which the Olmec influenced the civilizations that followed remains the subject of scholarly debate, which the Chiapa discovery may help advance.
Paine noted the city sat at the edge of lowlands sloping north to the Gulf of Mexico and highlands then occupied by the Maya to the east and south. The contents of the tomb may show how trade not only crossed landscapes but elevation zones, bringing cultural influences with it.
"You see that the direction of influence runs up and down altitude," Paine said. "It makes sense to trade up and down altitude because that's where you find different products."
In the heyday of the Olmec, the Chiapa site centered on what would have been a busy plaza. Digging under the plaza in 2008, Bachand's team discovered a cache of stone axes and a corpse, likely a human offering.
Most of the axe heads were sculpted from local materials like quartzite and andesite, but three were made from imported jade and other precious stones, according to the NWAF's report on the dig. An Olmec deity was carved into one and few exhibited signs of any wear.
"They are produced only to be deposited, not to be used for cutting trees. It's just used for offering. This pit held over 100 axes," Bachand said. The axes were a clue that this place was extremely important to the Olmecs. With funding from BYU and the National Geographic Society, the team returned in January and began excavating the 33-foot high mound next to the plaza. It is the largest and tallest feature at the site, which now butts against modern-day homes and businesses.
Now a modern city in Mexico's southernmost state Chiapas, this archaeological site is one of the most significant in Mesoamerica, the cultural region stretching from central Mexico south to Nicaragua. Situated midway between the Gulf and Pacific coasts, it was occupied by various pre-Columbian cultures starting in 1200 B.C. For 50 years, scholars from LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University have been studying the area, believed by church members to be the scene of events depicted in the Book of Mormon.
Now a modern city in the Mexico's southernmost state Chiapas, this archaeological site is one of the most significant in Mesoamerica, the cultural region stretching from central Mexico south to Nicaragua. Situated midway between the Gulf and Pacific coasts, it was occupied by various pre-Columbian cultures starting in 1200 BC. For the past 50 years, LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University scholars have been studying this area, believed by some to be the scene of events depicted in the Book of Mormon.