The mystery story of the Maya slowly reveals new twists

Don't tell Indiana Jones, but most archaeologists pack spades, not bullwhips, and big discoveries usually come after lots of digging, not looting. Maya discoveries in Mexico that are rewriting the history of this classic civilization, for example, are coming from years of careful digging, not looted idols.

The classic Maya were part of a Central American civilization best known for stepped pyramids, beautiful carvings and murals and the widespread abandonment of cities around 900 A.D. in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador, leaving the Maya only the northern lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula. The conventional wisdom of this upheaval is that many Maya moved north at the time of this collapse, also colonizing the hilly "Puuc" region of the Yucatan for a short while, until those new cities collapsed as well.

But that story of the Maya is wrong, suggests archaeologist George Bey of Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., who is co-leading an investigation of the abandoned city of Kiuic with Mexican archaeologist Tomas Gallareta of Mexico's National Institute of Archaeology and History. "Our work indicates that instead the Puuc region was occupied for almost 2,000 years before the collapse in the south," says Bey, by e-mail.

Over the last five years, Bey and his colleagues have started unearthing Maya cities in the Puuc region dating back to more than 800 B.C. "It is both the number of sites we are finding as well as that some of them produced large-scale monumental architecture — pyramids and an acropolis — while others have ball courts." At Kiuic, Bey's team has found a large platform that held at least two large ceremonial structures with ceramics. The cities dated back more than a millennium earlier than anyone had thought Maya cities existed in the region.

"This is interesting stuff. The northern lowlands usually get the short end of the stick because all the well-known classic sites are in the southern lowlands," says Maya archaeologist Lisa Lucero of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose own research is in Belize. "There is no doubt that many people went north after the collapse, but, there is a fuller, longer story to the northern lowlands."

The buildings, ceramics and trade items, such as Guatemalan obsidian and Olmec jade, found at Kiuic indicate these early cities of the Puuc were tied to Maya centers further south. Archaeologists had known that people lived in the region for a long time, he adds, but the complexity — large cities with hundreds of thousands of people living nearby — was unknown until recently. In 1980, only one site, Komchen, was known in the Puuc, and now there are hundreds, says Bey. "Part of the problem was that people didn't think it existed, so we were not, until recently, looking for it."

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