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Maya beginnings extend back at Belize site.

Evidence of the earliest known Maya, who cleared and farmed land bordering swamps as early as 4,500 years ago, has emerged from a site in northern Belize, researchers reported last week at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Anaheim, Calif.

Until now, the oldest Maya settlements dated to about 3,000 years ago. These sites have yielded extensive pottery remains and led many investigators to assume that any prior farmers of the Yucatan Peninsula also fashioned ceramic vessels.

"Our evidence suggests that the first agriculturists in this region did not use pottery," asserts excavation director Thomas R. Hester of the University of Texas at Austin. "Beginning around 2500 B.C., they introduced crops from Mexico or perhaps beyond and left behind distinctive stone tools."

Later Maya occupations of the same site, called Colha, have undergone excavation since 1979. But in 1993, Hester's team made the first systematic effort to document a preceramic presence at the tropical, forested location.

Early Colha farmers inhabited the area in two phases, Hester notes. Stone tools in deeper soil layers date from 2500 B.C. to 1700 B.C., based on radiocarbon age estimates of accompanying charcoal bits. Comparable dates come from an adjacent swamp, where pollen analysis documents forest clearance by 2500 B.C., asserts John G. Jones of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

Jones finds pollen evidence for the appearance of several cultivated crops soon thereafter, mainly corn and manioc, a starchy plant.

From about 1400 B.C. to 1000 B.C., Colha residents made foot-shaped stone tools that were chipped and sharpened on one side. Preliminary scanning electron microscope analysis of polish on these tools, directed by Dale Hudler of the University of Texas, suggests that inhabitants used them to cut away vegetation after controlled burning of trees and perhaps also to dig.

An example of the same tool, known as a constricted uniface, also emerged last year at Pulltrouser Swamp, a Maya site 20 miles northwest of Colha. Mary Pohl of Florida State University in Tallahassee, who reported on the find at the Anaheim meeting, cites a preliminary radiocarbon date of 1300 B.C. to 1000 B.C. for the artifact. A sharpened stone point at Pulltrouser Swamp dates to between 2500 B.C. and 2000 B.C., she adds.

A graduate student chanced upon the first constricted uniface at Colha in 1987. Its unusual design led Hester's team to suspect that Colha might have harbored an extremely early maya population.

Several other sites in Belize have yielded constricted unifaces, but archaeologists have been unsure of their ages and origins.

Techniques used to manufacture constricted unifaces show gradual refinement and modification in stone tools of Colha residents living after 1000 B.C., holds Harry J. Shafer of Texas A&M University in College Station, a member of Hester's scientific team.

Continuity in stone tool design and manufacture suggests that preceramic Maya inhabited Colha, according to Shafer, rather than non-Maya folks who migrated to the area and later left or were incorporated into Maya villages.

"None of us had any reason to suppose that Colha would produce a preceramic Maya occupation," remarks Norman Hammond of Boston University, who directs excavations at Cuello, a Maya site that dates to about 1000 B.C. (SN: 10/2/93, p.212). "This is a bit of archaeological serendipity."

The earliest Central American farmers probably settled at the edges of swamp-land that they cleared and cultivated, Hammond says.

Excavations of preceramic Colha so far have focused on quarry and field areas, Shafer notes. Some pottery may show up in early residential structures, he remarks.
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Title Annotation:Colha site
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 30, 1994
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