New find reveals: Roots of the Mayan society go way deeper

Giant masks of fang-toothed gods found in lowland Guatemala show sophisticated Mayan culture had spread across the region hundreds of years earlier than thought.

The pair of masks, dating from about 150 BC, were unearthed from the ancient city of Cival. Looters had extensively damaged the site before archaeologists could excavate it, but the thieves had not taken everything and missed some artifacts by mere inches.

Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli, of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, US, found the first mask when he reached into a crack in a looter's tunnel and felt an odd snake-like shape. Its twin was uncovered in April, with a face showing an L-shaped eye and a square mouth with a pair of snake's fangs.

The carved stucco masks are each five by three metres in size. The husks adorning the eyes suggest they represent the Mayan maize god, reports

The masks were found in a trench inside a large pyramid, and probably flanked a stairway leading to a temple chamber where kings acted out sacred rituals. The researchers expect to find two more like them as their dig progresses.

In the same complex of buildings, the scientists found caches of ritual artifacts including jars, shells, and jade tubes, pebbles and axes. The scientists think the artifacts probably were offerings to the gods, part of religious rituals associated with the sun and the agricultural cycle.

"What's also most remarkable about the offerings in the Cival plaza is that they are related to the main axis of the site, which is directed toward the rising sun," Estrada-Belli said. "And this shows that the plaza was for public rituals celebrating the recreation of cosmological order in the beginning of the cycle of maize, as well as the accession of Mayan rulers."

Additionally, they found an inscribed stone slab, or stela, that features an early carving of a Mayan king. Such slabs were quite common in later Mayan cities, but this particular stela is one of the earliest of its type found in what is now Guatemala.

Estrada-Belli used satellite imaging to study the site, and determined that its "ceremonial center," essentially the downtown area, was nearly twice the size previously thought. At its peak, Cival was likely home to 10,000 people.

Mayan civilization reached its "classic" era between 1,750 and 1,100 years ago, and then entered a period of slow decline.

The Mayan civilization ended abruptly when Spaniards arrived in the New World in the 16th century, though their descendants still live across Central America, inform

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