Oldest Maya Structure Discovered, Dates Back to 1,000 BC

foundation of massive complex discovered with terrain-searching laser technology

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A massive Maya complex has been discovered using terrain-searching laser technology, National Geographic reported. The structure is so large that it was hiding “in plain sight” and is believed to be 3,000 years old. Mayans often used astronomy to align their construction projects.

Mayan Pyramid with starry night sky in background
Chichén Itzá is well-known for its massive step pyramid called El Castillo that sits among Maya ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Photo by Iren Key / Shutterstock

According to National Geographic, the discovery of the Maya structure breaks records and supports a recent theory about Maya civilization. “An enormous 3,000-year-old earthen platform topped with a series of structures, including a 13-foot-high pyramid, has been identified as the oldest and largest monumental construction discovered in the Maya region,” the article said.

“It’s the latest discovery to support the emerging view that some of the earliest structures built in the Maya region were significantly larger than those built more than a millennium later during the Classic Maya period (AD 250-900), when the empire was at its peak.”

Mayans built observatories and temples that aligned with celestial bodies at specific times of the year. One of the most extravagant is El Caracol, which is now located in an archaeological zone in the western part of Belize.

An Oddly Shaped Observatory

One of the best-known and frequently visited historical areas of Maya culture is the ancient city of Chichén Itzá, which contains the historical observatory called El Caracol. At first, it may not seem like much to look at, but El Caracol hides many secrets.

“When we look at a plan view of the Caracol, we can see that the building itself is not very symmetrical,” said Dr. Edwin Barnhart, director of the Maya Exploration Center. “The platform it sits on is not square; it has one angle, one corner, kind of angled off. And the staircases that lead out of it—there are two of them—are not totally aligned with each other; one is slightly off the other.”

While it’s tempting to chalk this up to poor planning or lazy construction, Dr. Barnhart said it’s anything but. He said that the odd angle of the foundation of El Caracol points to the summer solstice sunrise and that one of the staircases points to zenith passage on the day that it occurs in Chichén Itzá. Zenith passage is the day that the sun appears directly overhead in the tropics. Then, there is the view from each window.

Looking Out the Windows of El Caracol

Dr. Barnhart added that the windows of El Caracol are used as astronomical tools. They’re set in very thick walls, which makes them deep and difficult to look straight through. For observing celestial objects in the sky, the windows aren’t as straightforward as circling a spot on a star chart to identify a star.

“You use the back edge of one side of the window and use the front edge of another to narrow your field of vision to look at just one degree of the horizon,” he said. “Looking at the few windows we still have left—most of the buildings collapsed—we can see that using that, looking at it at a diagonal, we can find solar stations, and other windows might be showing us star stations.”

Dr. Barnhart said that proving the theory about star stations and solar stations remains difficult, and not just because of the buildings that have collapsed. Every 72 years, the stars in the night sky move approximately one degree. Arguing that the windows showed certain stars raises questions of how long the buildings were in use and to what degree the stars would have shifted position in the sky.

Mysteries of ancient Maya civilization remain; however, we now have knowledge of the footprint of Maya ruins due to laser technology that helps scientists to find yet another piece of the puzzle by looking at the terrain of these massive structures.

Dr. Edwin Barnhart is director of the Maya Exploration Center. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and has over 20 years of experience in North, Central, and South America as an archaeologist, explorer, and instructor.