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Oldest known Maya burials found in Belize.

Archaeologists excavating an ancient village in Belize have uncovered the earliest known human burials from the Maya culture. The new finds consist of five individuals, lying side by side in shallow graves, who may have belonged to the same family at the time of their deaths, around 3,000 years ago.

"We regard this as a family burial plot," asserts Norman Hammond, an archaeologist at Boston University who directed the excavation. "No clues to the causes of death have been found so far, but these people probably all died at around the same time."

Hammond and his co-workers made their discovery in March at Cuello, a Maya site in Belize. The burials appeared in sediment layers that date to the earliest phase of occupation at Cuello, from 1200 B.C. to 900 B.C. More precise dates should emerge in the next few months, following radiocarbon dating of bone samples at the University of Oxford in England.

A report on the burials and other new discoveries at Cuello will appear in ANTIQuITY either later this year or in early 1994.

In nine seasons of intermittent field work at Cuello, beginning in 1975, investigators have found 180 burial sites, the largest number from any Maya site. Nearly all the burials date to before A.D. 250, when urban growth and social change ushered in the Classic period of Maya civilization.

One skeleton found this year, that of a middle-aged man, displays severe swelling on the leg bones and on one forearm. This type of bone thickening and distortion usually results from any of several related bacterial diseases, including syphilis, Hammond notes. Another individual buried at Cuello, previously dated to nearly 1100 B.C., shows similar bone swelling. Whether or not Spanish explorers spread syphilis throughout New World populations in the 16th century A.D., as some researchers argue, syphilis-like conditions afflicted the Maya long before Columbus entered the scene, the Boston archaeologist contends.

Another grave discovered at Cuello this year contained a young woman approximately 15 years old holding a l-year-old baby in her right arm. The child's head rested against the woman's cheek; the youngster's fingers curled under the woman's chin.

All the skeletons except for that of the baby were placed in the same posture, with the knees drawn up to the stomach. In addition, all had their heads oriented to the north, the direction of the heavens in Maya cosmology.

Few associated artifacts, or "grave goods," accompanied these early Cuello burials. Excavation yielded a couple of pottery bowls inverted over two skeletons and a jade bead.

The number of grave goods increases dramatically among Cuello burials that date to between 900 B.C. and 600 B.C., including three unearthed this year, Hammond says. At that time, upper and lower segments of society developed, he maintains. A woman's skeleton found in March, which dates to at least 650 B.C., includes an elaborate necklace made of a tapering, narrow mollusk shell. And a child's burial from the same period, excavated in 1992, features strings of beads that marked royal or noble rank 1,400 years later among the Classic Maya.

Cuello survived into the Classic period, growing from a small village into a town of perhaps 3,000 people, but it failed to evolve into a major urban center, Hammond says.

"The paradox is that Cuello and the few other sites that are nearly as old were probably the least successful Preclassic Maya settlements," he holds. "Other very early Maya sites probably lie underneath structures erected during one or more building phases at major sites of the Classic period."

Cuello's distinctive pottery styles appear even among its oldest remains, Hammond adds. This suggests that the Maya may have first occupied the lowlands of Central America as early as the 16th century B.C., in his view,

For now, evidence from Cuello "shows for the first time the early origins and rapidly developing complexity of the society that evolved into Classic Maya civilization," Hammond contends.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 2, 1993
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