Scientists have challenged the two prevailing theories on how the ancient Maya civilisation began, suggesting its origins are more complex than previously thought.
The Maya civilisation is well-known for its elaborate temples, sophisticated writing system, and mathematical and astronomical developments, yet the civilisation's origins remain something of a mystery.
Anthropologists typically fall into one of two competing camps with regard to the origins of Maya civilisation. The first camp believes that it developed almost entirely on its own in the jungles of what is now Guatemala and southern Mexico.
The second believes that the Maya civilisation developed as the result of direct influences from the older Olmec civilisation and its centre of La Venta.
It's likely that neither of those theories tells the full story, according to findings by a team of archaeologists led by University of Arizona husband-and-wife anthropologists Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan.
"We really focused on the beginning of this civilisation and how this remarkable civilisation developed," said Inomata, UA professor of anthropology and the study's lead author.
In their excavations at Ceibal, an ancient Maya site in Guatemala, researchers found that Ceibal actually predates the growth of La Venta as a major centre by as much as 200 years, suggesting that La Venta could not have been the prevailing influence over early Maya development.
That does not make the Maya civilisation older than the Olmec civilisation - since Olmec had another centre prior to La Venta - nor does it prove that the Maya civilisation developed entirely independently, researchers said.
What it does indicate, they said, is that both Ceibal and La Venta probably participated in a broader cultural shift taking place in the period between 1,150-800 BC.
"We're saying that the scenario of early Maya culture is really more complex than we thought," said UA anthropology graduate student Victor Castillo, who co-authored the paper with Inomata and Triadan.
"We have this idea of the origin of Maya civilisation as an indigenous development, and we have this other idea that it was an external influence that triggered the social complexity of Maya civilisation. We're now thinking it's not actually black and white," Castillo said.
There is no denying the striking similarities between Ceibal and La Venta, such as evidence of similar ritual practices and the presence of similar architecture - namely the pyramids that would come to be the hallmark of Mesoamerican civilisation but did not exist at the earlier Olmec centre of San Lorenzo.
Researchers suspect that both the Maya site of Ceibal and the Olmec site of La Venta were parts of a more geographically far-reaching cultural shift that occurred around 1,000 BC, about the time when the Olmec centre was transitioning from San Lorenzo to La Venta.