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Late Maya culture gets an island lift.

Late Maya Culture Gets an Island Lift

Archaeologists excavating a site on a coral island off the coast of Belize have uncovered evidence of shared cultural influences and widespread trading networks among Maya settlements more than two centuries after the collapse of the "golden era" of Maya civilization.

Their work supports recent contentions that, after the demise of Classic Maya society around A.D. 900, social structure and economic practices in the lowlands of Yucatan and Belize were far more organized than scientists traditionally thought (SN: 9/10/88, p.165).

"The way I see it, the 12th and 13th centuries were a time when many communities were actively trading and establishing an economic base up and down the coast of central America," says Elizabeth Graham of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. She and David M. Pendergast report on their work at the Marco Gonzalez site--named after an island boy who led them to the remains in 1984--in the newly released spring JOURNAL OF FIELD ARCHAEOLOGY.

The 16-acre site sits on the southern tip of Ambergris Cay, one of numerous coral islands near Yucatan and Belize. In May and June 1986, the researchers identified 49 structures at Marco Gonzalez, all consisting of low platforms that once supported perishable construction materials. The platforms are made of compacted, dead coral mixed with sea-shells.

Pottery and other artifacts excavated around the structures indicate the Maya occupied the site from as early as 100 B.C. up to the beginnings of contact with Spanish explorers around A.D. 1544.

Most striking, the researchers say, is evidence of a cultural link between Marco Gonzalez and Lamanai, a large Maya site in Belize that flourished after Classic-era cities vanished. Pendergast has directed work at Lamanai since 1974 (SN: 10/5/85, p.214). Large amounts of ceramics unearthed at the island site share the same design motifs, forms and colors as a well-documented pottery tradition at Lamanai extending from A.D. 1150 to 1300, he says.

Marco Gonzalez pottery, including incense holders, bowls and jars, is smaller than its Lamanai counterparts and some of its designs are less complex. Potters at the cay settlement apparently used the general patterns set down at Lamanai but freely executed their own variations, the investigators say.

Evidence of extensive trading emerged at the site. The researchers found many items unobtainable on the cay, such as gray obsidian, jade, chert, granite and mainland limestone. Furthermore, they found a large number of vessels used in rituals at Lamanai, which may have been brought to the cay for redistribution through a trade network.

Excavations also uncovered 11 human burials. Two burials lie just below a structure probably dating to the early 16th century, say the scientists. The burials are less elaborate than those of the Classic Maya, but they do contain objects--such as stingray spines--that suggest the interred individuals held an elevated social status.

Fieldwork will resume next year, and the researchers hope to address several questions at that time. For example, they do not know whether the range of ritual objects used at Lamanai is present at Marco Gonzalez. If so, the inland city may have exerted considerable political influence over the cay community, Pendergast says. Marco Gonzalez may turn out to have served as Lamanai's main trading port, he adds.

"The cays remain largely unexplored by archaeologists, so Marco Gonzalez may be an atypical site," Pendergast remarks. "But it still tells us that the substantial activity at Lamanai after the Classic period ended didn't occur in a vacuum."
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Author:Bower, B.
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 8, 1989
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